At the end of every school year, I have to create an individual report for every student in each of my classes. I write things like, “Jack has shown strong growth in historical writing this year, as shown by…” They are sometimes dry, though I try to show the parents of my students how much their kids have learned by using specific examples. Still, I know it’s really only part of what they learn in my class. Do they know how to support their argument in writing or analyze the Constitution in a debate? This stuff is important. But it’s not all of what I do in class. Trying to describe a student’s overall growth is much more difficult.
So I totally understand that my own kids’ teachers can’t fully capture each of them in writing either, though they try. I know, for example, that Tommy knows all of his upper case and lower case letters. But Tommy has changed in such fundamental ways this year – ways that are difficult to note on paper. My dad and I have discussed frequently how he’s developed from that baby stage into a kid who has friends and opinions and favorite songs.
So as we got ready for the last day of school this morning, I took a step back and really looked at my kids. They seemed so much bigger – especially Austin, who appears to have grown almost a foot. We sat in the kitchen of my friends Mark and Chris, eating waffles, as has become our tradition.
Mark quizzed the kids about their favorite day of the school year. Chris poured me some ice coffee. Everyone was happy. It felt about as perfect as any moment can feel these days.
I went over and tried to smooth down the cowlicks in Austin’s hair. It always looks a bit disheveled, and this morning even though he’d tried to style it, his hair still stuck out in the back. He is still such a little boy in that way. As I touched his head, he smiled at me in the way that he sometimes does: with affection, but a type of affection that’s held at bay by his more reserved personality.
As I stood by him, I thought about how a few days prior I had received an email from the school counselor about him. She told me that as part of one of their exercises, the kids had written a letter to their third grade teacher for the next school year. One of the prompts was “one thing I want you to know about me is….”
In response, Austin wrote: “I am named after Austin, Texas and my Dad died.”
He drew a sad face at the end of the sentence.
It broke my heart a little bit, but the counselor and I both had the same reaction – Austin was finally talking a bit more about his loss, opening up to others around him. For a kid who holds his emotions close, it was a big step.
It’s also a step that’s hard to quantify on a report card.
Claire, of course, is a much different kid. This morning, dressed in a new striped dress with pigtails in her hair, she exuded joy. By the time we got to the school grounds, she was so excited for the last day of school that she was literally hopping around the field. She came up and hugged me at least a half-dozen times. “I love you, mama,” she said every time.
Claire has always been in touch with her emotions, and as a girl, I think, it’s been more socially acceptable for her to do things like cry around her peers. She was emotionally connected with herself last year, but she’s developed even further this year in the way she understands her life and the events in the world.
For the past few weeks, Claire has been working on a story about a fictional family living through a terrible tragedy. She had a hard time with it, and told me one day she even started crying when she was writing it. “It can be frustrating,” she said to me one night, “because I have to re-write some of the paragraphs over and over. But my teacher is really patient and understanding.”
Yesterday, I got an email from the teacher, who wanted to share the story with me. I opened it up and felt a million emotions wash over me as I read it.
It was beautiful.
Her story is about a family living in New York City a few days after 9-11. The father has just been killed in the attacks. It’s written from the perspective of the oldest girl (who, coincidentally, has two younger brothers) and it tells how she is processing the whole event. The story takes the reader through the funeral and burial of the father with specific details that no 10-year-old should be able to describe. And yet, of course, my daughter can. Here’s an example from the beginning of the story:
They started lowering my dad’s body into the ground. It was a scary sighting, but he was in a simple wooden box, so I couldn’t see him.
Oh, I thought, such restraint is beautiful – and heartbreaking – in writing.
I started to cry after the first page. It was Claire’s life with a thin veneer of the events of 9-11.
One of my favorite parts was when the protagonist of the story returns to school after the death of her father. The writing really hit me at this section that follows: (I asked Claire if I could reprint it here, and she said yes. I’ve edited the story just slightly to make it fit here.)
The bus dropped us off at the west corner of the school. I saw everyone including some members of my class. I got what I thought would happen: people staring at me whispering what I assumed was “Look that’s the girl who’s father died.”
I walked the steps up to my classroom. One after another keeping my head down hoping no one would notice me. Then I quietly, slowly opened the thick wooden door taking a deep breath. As I walked in it looked like all my classmates were having quiet time.
I lost my concentration when everybody – I mean everybody – came over to me. Giving me big hugs or letters and pictures they’ve been working on.
Everyone started asking me REALLY, stressful questions like, ok “I’m so sorry. are you ok? are you ok!?” And it just makes, me want to cry more!
My heart almost stopped when I read that section. Even though we hadn’t talked about it much, I knew that she was describing exactly how the events had unfolded for her a year and a half ago. All of her peers wanted to be kind, but it was really overwhelming for her. She just wanted to be treated like a normal kid.
That time period right after Shawn died was so hard for me, but I didn’t often think about what those small moments were like for Claire. Clearly, they hadn’t been easy. But now, less than 18 months later, she can write about it. She can put it all into a semi-fictional story and she can process those emotions in another way.
As a parent, I was impressed with her writing. But more than that, I was impressed with her choice of topic and her ability to delve into difficult emotional material.
I’m not sure how that goes on a report card either.
My kids are bigger than they were nine months ago. They’ve grown this school year in a million ways. They’ve learned so much about reading and writing and math from their teachers and their school community.
But it’s this other stuff – the ability that my older kids have to voice their emotions in new and different ways – that I am more proud of than anything else.