Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Dwindling of the School Firsts and Lasts

I'm one of those moms who always insists on a first day of school picture. I don't ask for much, so my kids always indulge me. Doesn't mean they look happy in those pictures, but those regular markers in time do capture a lot of growth and change.

Looking back on all that growth and change, I am astonished at how fast it has gone. Especially when so many days seemed to crawl by, seeing that the years have flown takes my breath away sometimes. The markers matter, because various milestones of firsts and lasts force us to stop and notice before it all slips away.

This year and the previous one have been such a peculiar blur that the firsts and lasts have gotten all out of whack, particularly where school is concerned.

My oldest daughter didn't get to finish high school in a way that felt anything like closure. School simply stopped last March. Everyone expected to be gone for a couple of weeks, then return to class. That never happened. Aden got to venture back into the abandoned school at an assigned time to retrieve her projects from the art room eventually, but that was it. There was an unsatisfying "graduation" ceremony that was just an online video. She got a cap and gown but no event at which to wear them.

Aden indulged me in my mom-photo moment, where I had her put on the cap and gown and pose outside of our house. It was more like dress-up than anything else. It reminded me of how I wasn't a girl who ever dreamed of wearing a wedding dress, and always assumed if the time came I'd just wear something practical that I could wear again. But when it was time to actually plan my wedding, it hit me that only on that one day could I wear a dress like that where it wouldn't be play-acting or strange. I could walk around in that dress exactly once without having to explain myself. I decided not to blow that chance. A cap and gown is like that. It's a costume with an expiration date. And in Aden's case, the date got erased.

Aden's first day of college became unmoored as well. Covid robbed us college tours, but Aden was accepted to all the art schools she applied to. When she decided on UW Stout, she went through the procedures of registering for classes and getting a dorm room assignment, etc. But then the pandemic numbers became too scary and she deferred for a semester. She repeated the whole thing for the spring semester, and deferred again.

By the time she registered for everything for this fall, she felt quite competent at navigating it all this time around after so much practice. We've gotten the campus tour finally. She's been in contact with her roommate. We've bought the Twin XL sheets, and I own a UW Stout blanket I can snuggle in the TV room when I can't snuggle my daughter this fall during Star Trek. That first day of school was delayed, but is finally happening. Although I won't get to take an actual first day of school picture this time. The last one of those for Aden was in fall 2019. After so many years, that tradition is over.

At a different end of the high school spectrum is Quinn. He had his eighth grade completion ceremony this spring. Which means after three kids, and fifteen years, we no longer have anyone at Fernwood Montessori. That is a shift in our lives that is hard to grasp.

And again, the transition in these pandemic days is hazy. Fernwood normally has a tradition of the seventh grade parents throwing a dinner event for the graduating eighth grade families, and the kids get certificates, and everyone gets to say goodbye to teachers they've known for so long. But Quinn did the last few months of seventh grade online, stayed online for nearly all of eighth grade, and only went back to in-person school for the last few weeks of the adolescent program. As parents, I'm not sure when we last stepped foot in the building. Quinn's seventh grade class didn't have a part in the Winter Concert, and Covid shut life down before the annual science fair, etc. I think the fall parent/teacher conference in 2019 was the last time I was inside Fernwood. And now we're done there, and there is no reason to step inside again. It's surreal. The number of hours I spent doing volunteer work, meeting with teachers, attending cultural fairs and Halloween dances.... There was no official conclusion to any of that. It just faded away as if it had no meaning.

I will take a moment here to say something about all that time at Fernwood Montessori. Like everything, it had its ups and downs, but for the most part I'm glad my kids got to go there. My kids have complaints that they weren't allowed to play with sticks on the playground, and fellow parents understand that the Montessori philosophy--although good on paper--doesn't mean our kids can figure out to put on a coat when it's cold out, but overall it was an environment that held up kindness as a guiding principle. I remember being concerned about the behavior of a violin teacher that was brought into the school for lessons, and Aden agreed to peek in on the class to spy for me. She told me the teacher was yelling at the kids. Her assessment was, "It was not Montessori." I liked that in my daughter's mind, Montessori was equated with being kind above all. (And yes, I did my best to do something about the bad violin teacher, but eventually budget cuts did it for me.)

Despite whatever my kids want to say about Fernwood simply because it was "school," I know they were cared for there, and guided in ways my peers and I were not when we were growing up in our own schools. One of our few regrets is that Aden never received proper credit for her design that was turned into a mosaic on the addition to the school building a few years ago. She was thoughtful about it, drawing on elements of the "Cosmic Opera" that her lower elementary teacher put on annually for many years. Many kids submitted designs, and she was surprised when hers appeared on the building without any acknowledgement. There's no way to prove it at this point, but I'll share it here, so there is a record somewhere in the world that Aden came up with this concept to represent her school:

Fernwood did have a ceremony for Quinn and his class, but it didn't feel connected to anything we knew. They held it in a neighboring high school that had room for distancing. Each child was limited to two guests. Everyone was masked and far apart. The kids were separated from the audience. A few kids spoke. The principal and a teacher spoke. There was no mingling. There was no dinner. There were no goodbyes. The one part of the eighth grade graduation that I've always loved is the slideshow of the kids set to music. Everyone submits photos of their kids as babies, and as younger kids, and finally present day, and it's really moving to see all those little faces grow up on a big screen. I submitted my three photos of Quinn that I wanted to see up on that screen, but due to some sort of deadline technical glitch, when Quinn's name came up, it was only accompanied by a goofy stick figure. Thus ended our time with Fernwood.

I did get a first day of school photo of Quinn standing outside his bedroom door about to start virtual classes for eighth grade. It is a noticeable break in the pattern, but then so was all of 2020.

This week he started high school. That first day of school picture is back to Quinn standing on our front porch in his jacket, looking uncomfortable and sweet, doing what his mom asks of him even if he'd rather stay out of view. He's attending in-person, but it's hard to say for how long based on how many Covid cases were reported on the very first day of class. He has a fresh supply of masks, which is the strangest addition to our back-to-school shopping list, that sadly no longer feels that strange.

Our middle child is in the most nebulous set of school firsts and lasts. Due to health concerns, she didn't attend her eighth grade graduation from Fernwood back when that happened. Then she did a year of high school, most of a second year of high school before the pandemic shut things down, and all of her junior year was virtual. I managed to eke out a VERY reluctant first day of school-in-the-house picture for that one.

Compared to all the time we spent at Fernwood, I feel sadly disconnected from Mona's school. Which is a shame, because Bay View High School is where my grandfather went. It's a beautiful building with excellent teachers. It's right on the park and only a few blocks from our home. I've wanted to be a part of things there. But my daughter wants distance from her parents in a way her older sister didn't, and the kinds of activities that interest her never invited us into the school. When we sat in the auditorium for Quinn's eighth grade graduation, it occurred to me that we'd never had occasion to be there for anything related to my child who actually attends that school. We've never seen a play or a concert or a science fair or a sports event. I've only stepped inside the school for conferences or a medical issue.

She's now in her senior year, back to in-person. But she managed to get ahead in credits by doing summer school every year, and only needs a couple of English classes to graduate, so she should be done with high school before 2021 is up. Are there "graduations" for people who finish school midway through the year? Does she get a cap and gown? I doubt it. Especially in Covid-times where ceremonies don't really happen to begin with. She's also only doing half days, and showing up at lunchtime at the violin store where we've hired her to work. Since I don't see her leave in the morning and she arrives only a couple of hours after I get to the store, it barely feels like she's in school at all. So she may finish high school with the least fanfare yet.

It's really messing with me. I didn't realize how much I relied on certain milestones to keep my parenting identity anchored. I never cared about graduation ceremonies until they all went away. Maybe I'll get to see Quinn march one day? As we listen to boring speeches on a hot spring afternoon? I sincerely hope so.

Because I only have so many firsts and lasts left to document. There are only three first day of school photos left to take of Quinn. Once those are done, I'm left to the mercy of whatever my kids choose to share as they move entirely into worlds of their own. I hope they remember to take a picture once in a while. I want to see them.