Skool Daze

Crying at School

I was 19 years old the first time I cried at school.

Okay, actually, that was the third time.

The first time I cried at school was because I spilled grape juice on my white corduroys. Nobody was home at my house to bring me new pants, so I had to go back to class and the other kids laughed at me.

The second time I cried at school was when I lost the Arbor Day poster contest to my classmate, Tracy. I was jealous. I thought my poem about a tree was better than her picture of a tree. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.* When I did not win, I told my friends at recess to play 3-square instead of 4-square, so Tracy could not play. Which was a total dick move. (Tracy, I’m so sorry. Seriously. I don’t know where you are living right now, but if you are ever up for a game of 4-square, please give me a call.) Tracy told the teacher, who pulled me aside and pretty much told me I was being a dick, and when we went back to the classroom, I put my head down and cried until the bell rang to go home.

If we are being technical, I also cried in the bathroom during junior high dances because Steve was dancing with Allison and not with me. But everybody cried about that, plus, it was after school, so I do not think it should count.

But the other first time I cried at school, the one I remember most vividly, was not an occasion when I was clumsy or jilted or mean. It was because someone was mean to me.

I had prepared a presentation about the poet, Elizabeth Bishop, who was not only a luminary writer, but someone who fought during her lifetime to be recognized in the literary canon, which was snooty, and patriarchal, and totally biased against the contributions of women. I gave my presentation with all the exuberance of a college sophomore. I was naïve and excited and proud that I had quoted so many of Bishop’s poems in my presentation, which I thought made me seem smart. I argued that Elizabeth Bishop had paved the way for all poets to unite beneath the banner of POETRY and that even though it was sad she did not reap the gains during her lifetime, I did not think there was any longer a need for a protected space for women’s poets. WE HAD ARRIVED. It was about at this point in my presentation that my professor, an avid women’s poetry guru, interrupted me. “Had I learned NOTHING in her class?” “Had I not been listening to the way women’s voices are SILENCED?” She announced she could not hear one more word from me, and if I did not have something better to say then I should sit down.

In the days that followed, I thought of many better things to say:

–“As a matter of fact, I do have more to say, but I don’t want to hear one more word from you. Good day, madam. I said, good day.” At which point, I flipped my cape over my shoulder, and strode boldly out of the room. (In this version of the daydream, I am wearing a cape, but not a weird cape, more like a sort of poetry ninja/superhero.)

–“If you are so concerned about how women’s voices have been silenced over the years, why are you silencing mine? Please sit down, professor. I am not yet finished.”

–In one version of the daydream, I simply return to my desk, gather my things, and walk to the door. At which point, I turn and say to the rest of the class, “Are you going to sit there or join me in the fight?” One by one, my classmates gather their belongings and exit the room, leaving my professor with her shame. She calls later and begs me to return, begs all of us to return, but we refuse. Instead, Mary Oliver—who was an actual guest professor at my college that term and who, because I was too busy suffering from poetry abuse down the hall, I did not even learn about until much later in life—Mary Oliver agrees to teach me and my classmates about women and poetry.

Instead, in the real version of events, I shook my head, quietly indicated that No, of course I did not have anything else to say, and sat down. As the next terrified presenter took her place at the podium, I began to weep quietly. And though there were 14 other young adults in that classroom, no one said anything to me. No one even looked my way. No one wanted to ruin a chance of an A. Only Dana, who sat in front of me, a usually flamboyant and playful fellow, who had sung “Beauty School Dropout” in a recent school production of Grease, reached over and took my hand. He awkwardly held it for the remaining 45 minutes of that godforsaken class. Afterwards, he said we should go see the dean and file a formal complaint. There was no excuse for the way I had been treated.

But I was cowardly and afraid and thought I had done something wrong by floating an idea with which my professor had disagreed.

I did not fight for myself.

And I did not allow someone else to fight for me.

Instead, I attended that horrible class for the remainder of the semester, accepted my B-, and never took another poetry class again.


When I talked to my kids about going back to school this week, I did not harp on the homework or the spelling tests, or how they should eat their vegetables at lunch. I just told them to be like Dana.

Whenever you see someone left out of four square, go to her.

If you see someone sad about posters or slow dancing or a presentation or pants, comfort her.

When you see someone crying at school, reach out your hand.

And, if that person needs help that is bigger than you, find it. If someone does not know how to stand up for herself, help find her voice. Tell a teacher, tell a grownup. Find Mary Oliver. Don’t let anyone be schooled at school.

Be a Dana.

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*What does it feel like to be a tree?

Swaying your branches and shading me.

Does it hurt when you get stung by a bee?

. . .

The poem languished on for about ten stanzas, but my poster paper was really only big enough for about eight, so the final lines had to be squashed in at the bottom, letters smaller and smaller, like the opening credits to a terrible Star Wars prequel.

Skool Daze

The Worst First Day

The girls and I attended a concert the night before school started.

We anticipated there might be some problems.


Before we left, we laid out clothes, turned down beds, and loaded school supplies into knapsacks.

We packed the first day’s lunches and slid them into the fridge.

We agreed to go easy on one another in the morning.

And we headed off.

I felt good about the next 24 hours.


I must have been nuts.

At 7:30 the following morning, no one would get out of bed. My tween begged for more rest, rolled over, and went back to sleep. When our kindergartener finally awoke, she yawned and asked for French toast. When I brought buttered toast instead, she said she hated me, and then refused to put on pants. During her wardrobe malfunction, the dog ate the toast. The child cried.

When we finally dragged the eldest out of bed, there was another school supply meltdown, roughly the fourteenth of the week.

The first time we shopped for school supplies, we could not find a plain green, wide-ruled, non-perforated spiral notebook. So we bought a college-ruled one instead.

The second time we shopped, we still could not find a plain green, wide-ruled, non-perforated spiral notebook. So we bought a green-patterned notebook instead. Just to be safe.

The third time, we learned we had been using the wrong school supply list. We had inadvertently purchased materials required at an identically named elementary school somewhere in Vermont. We had not needed four reams of notebook paper after all. Only one. We did not need red marking pens. Or index cards. Or a pocket thesaurus. Or even a plain green, wide-ruled, non-perforated spiral notebook.

We needed a blue one.

The store was all out of those.

We found a black notebook to add to our previous attempts, and I thought we had a Band-Aid fix. We even joked about how seriously everyone takes school supplies, and how we knew the teacher would be happy if everyone just did the best that they could.

But when confronted with fatigue, first-day jitters, and the weight of these myriad sub-par notebooks, the child crumbled to the floor. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a brief but spirited argument about potato chips.

It was at this precise moment that I remembered my own recent goals regarding ease and wonder, and extending a mellow summertime vibe into the otherwise stressful school year. I began to laugh.

This did not help things.

Both kids were late–LATE!–for the first day of school.

In the 10 1/2 years that I have been in possession of children, we have been late to movies, restaurants, play dates, a hockey game, a cross-country meet, a wedding, the circus, airports, bus stops, every soccer practice that we have ever attended, and church. And, of course, we have been late to school. But never, never on the very first day.

We had to return to the house when the now pants-clad kindergartener realized she had forgotten her backpack. And then we went back again to retrieve her shoes.

There was no parking at either school.

We snapped no photos in front of any Welcome Back! sign.

We delivered no inspirational remarks about the promise of a new year, and said nothing about our hopes and dreams for them.

I forgot to hug my fifth grader, and the kindergartner pushed me away.

We had anticipated that there might be some problems that morning.

We were right.



One of the only things we are any good at in this family is the bounce back. In an attempt to blot out the horror that was the beginning of our day, after school, we tried again. We set out tomorrow’s clothes, packed lunches, and turned down the beds. But instead of getting in them, we drove to the beach where we took a family back-to-school photo.  In the golden wash of the setting sun, we splashed in the salty surf, breathed in the cool air, and told the kids that tomorrow is another day, full of promise and opportunity, ease and wonder, another chance for their dreams to come true.




Skool Daze

Summer Back to School

I have always loved school supplies. Notebooks right-angled and full of possibility. The gritty smell of freshly sharpened pencils. Rainbow boxes encasing crayons with all their points.

But this year, the provisions are giving me heart palpitations. I know what is coming. Gone are the lazy summer mornings. Instead, our days will begin with hurried toast, scrambles for homework and ponytail holders, and the incessant packing of those damn lunches.


I know we can’t summer all year long. That would be like eating ice cream cones every single day. Eventually, even that cool, perfect sweetness would get tiresome. We would miss apples, broccoli, and vigor.

But there should be a way to learn from summer, to take heed of its knowledge, to pocket a little of its wonder to sprinkle on ourselves all school year long.

Here’s how we intend to summer this fall:

Slow down. There is no need to triple stack my kids’ days. They do not need to tear from school to piano to basketball practice, or awaken to a Saturday piled with three different sports. We love summer because of its pace. It allows us to possess both ease and curiosity in equal measure. We are going to get more out of this school year by scheduling less.

Go outside. My grandmother raised ten kids in Northeastern Ohio, and she made them all play outside for at least 20 minutes every day – in rain, snow, or sunshine. Even the baby. We love summer because the weather is nice. But fresh air and physical activity are even more important. Gather sticks. Kick a ball.

Eat fruits and veggies. This summer, my five-year-old and I baked a peach pie from scratch — filling, crust, all of it. My ten-year-old made homemade apple cider for the neighbors. We baked kale and tossed salads with greens straight out of our garden. But for some reason, food during the school year takes a more industrial bent. Chicken is nuggeted. Veggies are chipped. Sandwiches come de-crusted, pre-jellied, and out of a bag. I loathe packing lunches. But I am in charge of what goes in there. Good food=good little humans.

Skip school. The kids and I already have a San Francisco trip on the books for October. We might extend Thanksgiving break by a day or two to visit the Grand Canyon. My girlfriend has been after us to pop up to Seattle in the spring. One of summer’s best selling points is that there is no school. I think it’s okay to replicate this school-less-ness for family time during the school year.

Look. Laugh. Listen. Love. The kids and I laughed this summer. We talked. Not just “uh-huh” conversations when I was checking my cell phone for PTA meeting times or what new dinner I could make with chicken. But actual talk. We weren’t always running late or juggling car seats or play dates. I was more present with them. I listened to their ideas, and adjusted plans when they had ideas for how a day might go differently. Sometimes that was as simple as looking at them when they spoke. Sometimes it was making sure I hugged each of them every single day.


This summer I was more the mother I wanted to be.

This fall, I am pocketing a little summer to continue that trend.


A Partial List of What We Found When We Cleaned out the Minivan for the Back-to-School Carpool


A dead scorpion

Seventeen empty water bottles

Five rolls of Scotch tape

Half a bag of melted gummy bears



Markers without lids, lids without markers, none that matched

Two remotes to two different broken DVD players

Diapers, new and used

Kleenex, new and used

Bubble gum, new and used

Six tubs of baby wipes, none of which can ever be located when changing an actual baby

Half a sandwich


Stickers on the windows

Handprints on the windows

Footprints on the windows

Tongue prints on the windows

Enough preschool artwork to fill an exhibit entitled: “How My Parents Did Not Love Me Enough to Keep My Preschool Artwork”


One explosively rancid applesauce pouch

One tooth, probably human, unlikely ours

One baby seat completely unanchored to its adult host seat

A pickle