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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Before You Go: ‘Back to School’

CRL columnist John Gray on hitting the books again.

It can be the longest walk you’ll ever make, those 20 steps from the front door of your home to the curb where the big yellow school bus is waiting. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve prepared them (or yourself) for this moment, it is still hard letting go of that tiny hand for the very first time. You worry they’ll forget the things you’ve told them or that the other kids will make friends easier and your little one will sit alone and be sad. Mostly, you worry that if anything goes wrong, for the first time in their short lives, you won’t be there to brush the hair out of their eyes, lean in close and say, “It’s all going to be okay.”

This is the month when we send our munchkins, big and small, back to school and for any parent it brings a hodgepodge of emotions. There are two television commercials they play over the years that sum it up best. The first shows the kids trudging through a store shopping for school supplies looking like they’re being led to the gallows while dad is whisking along happy as can be with the song, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” playing in the background. The other commercial shows a young dad putting his daughter on the school bus for the first time and he’s so nervous he literally follows the bus all the way to school with his car.

I was always the second dad. As much as children can drive you nuts and tire you out, some of my saddest moments are when my children leave my sight. You know they’ll be fine, in fact you know in your heart of hearts that this is good for them, but you miss them as if a piece of you, the best part of you, was cut away.
We had it easy you know. By “we” I mean us parents who went to school 20, 30, especially 40 years ago. Life and our education system was a whole lot simpler back then. You rode the bus, learned your three “r’s”, joined an after school club or team and, if you could find a date, went to the prom. That, in a nutshell, was it. Today it’s a lot more complicated.

For starters if a child lives anywhere near his or her school there likely is no bus ride. Cutbacks have forced the district to make children walk. While I know we have an obesity problem and walking sounds nice, some of our kids are strolling on dangerous roads, not to mention the number of “creepers” you have to worry about driving around our neighborhoods trolling for vulnerable children.

When they get to school chances are they’ll be jammed into a classroom with a few too many students; again the result of budget cuts. Don’t believe me? My youngest child is in one of the best school districts in the area and he spent last year in a classroom full of both third and fourth graders merged together. The teachers were great and made it work, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

When the school bell rings at the end of the day our kids run into another problem. All those clubs and teams that you could join when you were younger either no longer exist or if they do the children (meaning the parents) have to pay for them. Of all the wrongheaded things I see happening to our education system this one irks me the most. Education isn’t just memorizing data that you can regurgitate for a standardized test. Sports, drama, language, choral, government, math, robotics, honor societies, debate and community service, to name a few, are all a fantastic way for a child to learn and grow. And for a kid who perhaps isn’t Einstein, they offer a place to thrive and feel good about the gifts God did give them. Besides, if a child is in glee club after school they’re not off causing trouble somewhere else. Extra-curricular activities should be just as important as history or biology in my book.

Discipline, or the lack of it, is another change affecting our children. Thirty years ago if you dressed inappropriately, caused fights or made it impossible for the teacher to actually teach, you were sent home. Period. Today, we are so politically correct and worried about the troubled student (instead of the rest of the kids who want to learn) it’s like getting Congress to pass a binding resolution just to say a disparaging word to the child or their parents about their disruptive behavior. This isn’t me saying this; this is what I’ve been told by friends who are teachers.

Then there’s bullying. Back in the day a bully threw food at you in the cafeteria; today they hurl harmful insults from the shadows of the Internet. Social media has become the breeding ground of hate and teenagers use it like a weapon of mass destruction to damage another teen’s self esteem. There’s not much mom or dad can do about this one except remind your child why they are special and reveal to them what the person behind the insults really is – jealous.

Not everything today is bad though. I love the way “special needs” children have been mainstreamed into our classrooms, offering the kids yet another teachable moment not found in their text books. We have some of the brightest teachers at our schools doing amazing things with these eager, young minds.  And, let’s be honest here, having iPads, Google and spell check have certainly made writing a term paper a whole lot easier. Do they still call them “term papers”? Probably not.
I just wish it was a little easier for them, that’s all. I wish the girls dressed a little more lady like. I wish the boys had fewer tattoos. I wish the teachers could teach what they think the children need to know, not what’s on the state test. And I suppose, if we’re being honest, I wish our children could stay children a little longer. The things they are exposed too, especially of a sexual nature… it’s just too much, too soon.

So this month they go back to school. If I sound like a dinosaur who wants things to go back to the way they used to be, well, guilty as charged. But you can’t go back and you can’t protect them forever so the walk from the front door to the curb and the big yellow bus is a difficult one. I’m reminded of a line from one of fiction’s greatest teachers, John Keating of the “Dead Poets Society”, “Twas always thus and always thus will be.”

John Gray is weekely columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at [email protected]

John Gray
John Gray
John Gray is an Emmy-winning journalist and writer. In addition to his 32 years of television experience, John is the author of three children's books and two novels. He is married with three children. He and his lovely wife Courtney have five dogs, three of them are rescues with special needs. They make their quiet home in Rensselaer County.

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