Gearing up for school

Let's face it. New Year's Eve is not the start of a new year. The year begins the day after Labor Day. This is a certain truth if you have children at home. For we adults, summer means a two-week vacation at the shore or the lake, some gin-and-tonic fortified barbecues and, in general, a slightly relaxed routine. The end of summer is...well... just the end of summer. Not so for children.

For kids, the end of summer is an annual train wreck. It is more than the loss of freedom and no more staying up late and sleeping-in. It is more than the passing of beach-time and the blockbusters at the movieplex. It means the slump-shouldered march off to the educational salt mines and all the uncertainties that holds.

Someone once said that one of the greatest gifts God gives us is our ability to forget. Specifically, to forget all the setbacks, hurts, failures, rejections and smashed dreams we have accumulated in childhood. The scars may still be there, but like seasoned warriors, we can't remember where and by whom they were inflicted. For children, the classroom, lunchroom, playground and school bus are hothouses for all these wounds and their memories are fresh!

There are, of course, those fortunate few, for whom school is one long victory lap. They get the marks, make the teams and later get the top prom dates. But even among these apparent winners, there are deep disappointments. They get wait-listed at one of the Ivies. They didn't make the all-state basketball team. It may be difficult for us lesser mortals to sympathize with them, but their hurt is real.

Wise parents are the ones who are continually redrawing the maps of their children. They quietly and objectively observe their children, noting their current interests, tastes, strengths and weaknesses. They know their friends and how they spend down-time. They have an eye out for what is happening in school. They don't wait for a dinner time breakdown and a tearful "My teacher hates me...and so do all the other kids!" moment.

The end of summer for parents is more than a trip to Wal-Mart with the kids for school supplies. It is a time for a conscious plan to wean children from the relaxed habits of summertime and settling them in the required routines of life in classrooms. It means becoming a "school coach" and giving serious prep talks about "getting a good start." It means grooving them into the study habits they need. It means special monitoring of their study time...no surfing the Web....no long chats on the phone....no putting off assignments until the last panicky moment.

It, also, means making sure they are making the right friends, friends who share your family's values. A friend and occasional Pilot columnist told us how at 15 her older brother confronted her and told her he didn't like the crowd she was hanging out with and she ought to change her friends. She did and she believes that was an important turning point in her life.

School is the main event in kids' lives. It is their work. School is their all-consuming reality. However, few children or teens see school in its larger context. Few see it for what it is: our society's method of preparing children for adult life and responsibilities. By necessity, this process of changing children into functioning adults involves pain. Since schools inflict pain, but doesn't explain pain, this is where we parents come in.

Parents need to help their children understand and constructively use the academic and social slings and arrows they receive at school. One of the current cliches circulating around is, "Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Some more gentle form of that thought needs to be understood by students. Students should understand and internalize that doing their homework carefully is not just pleasing to their teacher, but it is building an important habit. They need to see that by resisting the temptation to repeat a juicy bit of gossip or to try marijuana at a weekend party, they are directly working on constructing the people they will become. They are quite simply forging their characters...or not.

Few schools seriously attend to character formation these days. However, all could follow the example set by the former headmaster of Roxbury Latin, Father F. Washington "Tony" Jarvis. The very first hour of the first day of school, all new students (7th graders and 9th graders) were told to report to the school auditorium. After these nervous newbies were settled into their seats, the headmaster took to the stage and in a most serious tone said, "I am now going to tell you the most important thing you need to know about this school. We...all of us...teachers, administrators, janitors and kitchen help...care more about what kind of character you develop during your years with us than anything else. Academics, sports, which college you eventually attend. All that is important, but secondary. It is character first." With that, he left the stage to let the brief message sink in. Few students forgot it.

But then there is the eternal problem of pain. How does one deal with a best friend who turns her back on you? How do you handle having worked at a sport all summer and then are cut from the team and, thus, also cut off from your friends? Today, many young people have no defense mechanism against life's bruising. Youth suicides are up and the nation is facing an epidemic of serious depression among children.

Christian families have a crucial advantage in dealing with the problem of pain. In our own youth, Catholic parents regularly repeated "Offer it up for the souls in Purgatory." Our guess is that most kids, if they heard the phrase "souls in purgatory" would think it is the name of a rock band or a new Xbox game.

On the other hand, what greater gift can we give to our children then helping them see that by joining their suffering with those of Christ, they are sharing in his redemptive mission for the world? In this way, life in school is more than a series of meaningless crucifixations, but a road to fulfilling unity with Christ.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.

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