These days schools are very eager to give you a list of the classroom supplies your child needs to bring for the first day of classes. Some of the supplies are for your child alone, and some are for the classroom. In the past, we've had to send everything from a dictionary (I sent Julia with a Scrabble dictionary, since it was the only small one in the house and I refused to spend more money when I new she wouldn't open it even once) to Clorox wipes. This year the list was fairly typical and boring, without any difficult items or specific brands to have to search for from store to store.
Of course the schools don't put the most important things that your children REALLY need on the lists of required school supplies. This is what I realized when I dropped Julia off this morning at her new school.
Starting a new middle school as a sixth grader when all the kids you know are the eighth graders who graduated last year can be a bit intimidating. Julia had all the necessary supplies, including a backpack FULL of the required classroom supplies, Plus a lunchbox, a water bottle, a sweatshirt in case the school suddenly develops air conditioning, and a [cool] book to read in case she finds herself alone at any point during the day. Before we left the house, she complained of a bona fide stomach ache ("It's good to be a little nervous"), and as we got closer to the designated drop-off spot at school she complained about My clothes ("Why did you have to wear that?") (NB: I wasn't getting out of the car in my workout clothes and I left my dog collar choker at home). If it weren't her first day at a new school, it would be like any other first day. But the fact that she truly knows no one -- she met her teacher and the assistant principal last night at Open House -- will cause me to be anxious throughout this week, crossing all my fingers and toes that she will love this school as much as she loved her old one.
The last words Julia said into the air as she stepped out of the car were, "I don't know any one." It's probably a good thing that I didn't have time to respond; she actually stunned me into silence. Then something amazing happened. As she strapped on her backpack, I watched her step into sync with the three girls that got out of the car in front of us. I saw that almost immediately she was talking to one of the girls. Rather than hanging back (which I Totally would have done at her age), Julia was talking with someone she absolutely, positively did not know. Wow. To say I was surprised is an understatement.
On my way home, I started thinking that Julia had a lot of the essential school supplies that a child Really Needs but that aren't on the list. Which got me wondering why the list of what your child needs for school shouldn't go more like this:
- An upbeat mood at the beginning of the day, so your parents (and teacher) don't kill you before you get to school;
- A full stomach from breakfast, since there's no time anymore for mid-morning snack;
- A healthy lunch with enough snack to share;
- A filled water bottle;
- The ability to look people in the eye when you speak to them;
- A firm handshake;
- The willingness to accept imperfection and criticism, and to make fun of yourself;
- A sense of humor;
- The ability to listen and speak up when necessary;
- Clothes that don't make you stand out from the crowd, especially on the first day; and
- The ability to participate in a social group of your peers.
From the minute our children are born, we have a checklist of what our children should have accomplished by a certain age. The checklist literally starts with Apgar scores in the hospital, then proceeds to include things like (in no particular order): smiling, rolling over, sitting, crawling, throwing themselves over the side of the crib without breaking their necks, walking, eating real food, reading, being voted captain of a varsity sports team, acing the SATs, attending an Ivy League University and having a house in the south of France, with enough space for an in-law apartment. Along the way, though, we forget the actual Skills they really need to be successful In Life. After sending four children from preschool to college, and a fifth into middle school, I'm thinking the top of the School Supplies list should include the skills above. The ability to make friends and the willingness and ability to fit in should probably be at the top for a middle schooler.
Believe me. I'm no Parenting Expert. Having children gives you experiences, not expertise. Bill and I have worked hard to give all our children the same opportunities and similar exposure to experiences, yet our children are all so different from each other that I've largely reconciled myself to the fact that "they're born that way!" Making friends and fitting in comes easily for some, and not so easily for others, while these days it seems that each one makes his or her own decision about whether they Want to fit in to a particular social situation. I do know that all of them meet new people fairly easily, while each one also has good eye contact and a strong handshake. No doubt these skills derived from a combination of "they're born that way" and parent education, if only out of necessity (having children ranging in age from 2 to 21 has its own natural learning curve for them as they grow up).
Perhaps the list of School Supplies doesn't include practical life skills because parents are so overwhelmed these days that requiring more of them would be a futile effort. One very attractive feature of my list, though, is that it doesn't cost anything. Other than food, a water bottle and clothing, all the required elements are free and available to those at all income levels. I for one would give a huge "Hooray!" for a school administration that actually told parents what they need to provide to better ensure a child's success in school. I bet the kids would like it, too.