Claire, daughter of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley, chops wood
New Perspectives

The First Day of School, Part 2

When class lists came out, the kids were thrilled. Both of the boys got teachers they really liked, and Claire was excited about the new teachers and classes she was going to have. Everyone was back in real, full-day school for the first time since March 2020 and the mood in our house was one of excitement.

I felt that way, too. Really. But I also had this nagging sensation in the back of my mind. What will this year hold for them? Are they ready for this transition, both in school and in our family life? And – logistically – do I need to email their teachers with our family story?

It’s something I’ve struggled with each year. I don’t want to be an overbearing parent. I have three great kids, none of whom need me to advocate their awesomeness to their teacher. But my kids have a life story that I think might be important for teachers to know.

I think this, because I am a teacher, and because knowing key life events of my students helps me a lot in the classroom. Here’s what I wrote back in 2019:

I debated this year about whether or not to write their teachers. I didn’t want to be that parent who is emailing teachers before school starts. So I hesitated.

But then I thought about last year and what happened in the high school where I teach. Just before school started, an administrator pulled me aside to talk to me about a student who was coming into my class that year. The student had faced something really difficult the year prior, and this administrator wanted me to know the basic details, in case something came up in class.

I didn’t do anything with this information. I put it in the back of my mind.

But one day, I saw this student walk in class and I knew – I knew – that something wasn’t right. I pulled the student aside and we talked after class. Later, this student sought me out a number of times when things were tough. I never had perfect answers.

But I was there. I held space for that student’s emotions the best I could.

So when I thought about my kids starting back at school, I thought about this student. I thought about how pain can sometimes remain hidden, unless someone knows to watch out for it.

And yet, for my kids, their loss – and even Chris’s arrival in our family – are not new events. They lost their dad Shawn 3 1/2 years ago, and their dad Chris moved in with us over a year ago. A few nights ago, I told Chris about about my dilemma. Should I email the teachers, or is it time to stop?

We started to talk about how the kids talk about our family, and about their dad. Claire had recently been at a camp in Maine where she learned how to chop wood and hike with a heavy pack and she bonded with a group of kids in her cabin. What had she said about our family when she was at camp? I called for Claire, who was in the kitchen, and she came to sit with Chris and me. We asked her if she’d told the other kids in her cabin about her dad Shawn or anything else about our family. And if she had, how did she do it?

She was quite matter of fact about it. “I just tell them, my dad died, my mom met my best friend’s uncle and now they’re getting married!”

Did she ever feel weird about it?

She thought for a minute. “No, not really. Sometimes people say, ‘I’m sorry’ and that’s nice. And everyone is really excited my parents are getting married!”

We let her chat on about camp for a while, and then we asked her whether the kids at school knew about her dad Shawn and her dad Chris. She told us that her old friends – the ones from elementary school – all knew, but lots of her new friends and acquaintances didn’t know. She didn’t seem upset about it. “If we get to be good friends, I tell them.”

But what about her teachers? She’d moved to a new school last year. Did they know?

“I don’t think they knew,” she said, simply.

Did she want me to tell her teachers this year?

She thought about it for a second. “I don’t think you need to. If it comes up, I’ll tell them.”

Eventually, she scurried off to watch TV. Chris and I talked about what she’d said. How much did the teachers need to know? Maybe for Tommy or Austin it would be important, since their teachers would be interacting more with us at drop off and pick up. And all the teachers would need some sort of explanation this fall, when the kids miss school for our wedding.

But I might be able to pull back a little this year, and let the kids take the reins – at least somewhat. Yes, I want to keep my kids safe, and make sure they don’t have unneeded pain because someone doesn’t know their history. But also, as adults, we sometimes try and add our own meaning to our kids’ life events (or at least sometimes I do that). I’m not saying that a teacher doesn’t need to know about a major life event of a child, or that widows should hide their family situations. And yet, I’m starting to realize that at least for Claire, this major event – the loss of her father – it’s just a piece of her life story. It’s a major piece, but it’s not the only piece.

The boys are less able to navigate tricky situations on their own, so I may email their teachers eventually. And their teachers will be updated when the kids are out for our wedding. But I don’t think I’ll say much more at this point. I’m feeling okay about my decision to step back a little, and let the kids tell their own life stories, in the ways that they want to.

As Claire left for school today, she turned toward me and smiled from behind her mask. Seventh grade! “She’s getting so big,” I said to Chris, feeling overcome with emotion. Of course, I wasn’t just talking about how tall she is now.

2 Comments

  • Dolores Bradley

    What a great mom you are. You were trusting Claire to be able to navigate this in her own way. And you know the boys well enough to know that they’ll need a little more of your interventions. I think Sean would be so proud of you and of them. Happy new school year! And I’m so happy for your upcoming marriage.

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