John encourages us to start this school year with a new mindset
For many, the start of school ushers in a welcome shift from summer.
It means reunion with friends, the return of routine and the familiar sights, sounds and smells of the school building. Yes, we may miss the freedom of summer, but it’s certainly a joy to be surrounded by others and in places we feel welcome, are encouraged to learn, and fit in with others.
For many this is a wonderful transition.
For many. But not for all.
Some children, families and teachers are navigating a whole different range of emotions. Back-to-school for some brings back feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, fear, loneliness and dread.
These are arduous emotions many of us remember experiencing. I wrote about struggling with these feelings in the book IN AWE, and those memories briefly return each time I send my own kids out the door this time of year.
35 years ago, I left school on a Friday afternoon in January as an athletic, popular, mischievous fourth-grade boy.
15 months later I returned to school on a March morning as a fifth grader radically different. After being burned, I was seated in a wheelchair, without my fingers, scarred over my entire body, scared about how others would perceive me, and unsure of what school would be like. Would I still have any friends? Would I be able to get from class to class? How would I get my books from my backpack to my locker?
Ultimately, deep down, I wondered: Would I still belong?
After an early morning physical therapy appointment, Mom drove me in our old Mercury station wagon. Leaning back against the red vinyl seat, I sat quietly next to her, terrified about the day ahead of me.
I’d never been wild about going to school. Even before being burned, I had welcomed any excuse to miss school and stay home.
Snow day? Check.
Water-main break at school? Check.
National or religious holiday? Check.
Potential illness? Check!
On that March day, I took a deep breath. The school was around the corner. Could I come up with an excuse to postpone my return?
It was too late. Mom made the turn, school was within sight, my fate of returning to school was sealed. And that’s when I heard the shouts and screams from up the road.
Hundreds of students lined both sides of the streets.
Mom slowed down the station wagon, and we crawled toward the school. As we did, kids on both sides of the road shouted welcomes, waved signs and smiled excitedly at me. They were trying to make the little boy who felt he didn’t belong recognize he did.
As we rolled into the parking lot and Mom stopped the car, the cheering got louder. Mom got out, opened my door and helped me out. Being a cool fifth grader, I’m not sure I even looked up or waved to acknowledge the cheers. But I heard them. I was profoundly moved by them. I will never forget them.
As our principal propped open the door into the school, I saw that my classmates lined both sides of the hallway. These were my friends I worried might not accept me back. Being rolled through the welcoming tunnel that formed, tears sprung from my eyes. I felt accepted, embraced, enveloped by love.
Maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay.
The welcome didn’t end with that carefully orchestrated morning. It lasted all year as I carefully navigated a new reality. My classmates didn’t look away. They didn’t avoid me. The other kids didn’t mock me; they engaged with me. They said hello, helped me with my books, fought over who got to push my wheelchair, and sat with me at lunch.
I was burned, scarred, broken, and different.
But I was back.
And they let me know it was okay. That I was okay.
Now here’s the thing: we all know some students will show up terrified this year because they have scars and hurts. Some will wear those scars externally, but most will be hidden. They’ll be concerned about acceptance, about friendships and about simply getting through the year. They’ll be dealing with stuff at home that they don’t talk about and no one even knows about. And it’s not just students who might struggle. New families and new teachers will arrive with anxiety wondering how they fit in, wrestling with self-doubt.
That’s when you and I show up. We don’t need a formal parade to make our new students, families and teachers feel welcomed and loved. We just need a heart that remembers what it was like to struggle, what it was like when someone reached out and what it was like to experience that profound impact in our lives.
We have a chance daily to make others feel welcomed and loved. We have an opportunity to remind them that they matter and that their life is a gift. It might, in fact, be the most important thing they learn this school year.
Don’t miss the chance to teach it to them today.
Today is your day.