The solitude in between a welcome and a farewell

sports bagIt’s the quiet moments that stick with me as the year draws to a close.  Last week as I watched the traffic at the end of the day, I saw one of our student athletes standing with her father.  She picked up her sports bag with her gear and handed her dad her backpack.  She seemed to know her father would take her backpack to the car; she seemed utterly confident in his presence and his help.  Focused on opening plays, she headed to the field, talking to her teammates.  But her father took one last look as his daughter walked away, counting, I am sure, the time he had left to take her backpack.

This Saturday, we welcomed the Class of 2018 and their parents to MA.  I could feel the nervous excitement in the air. As I watched the parents and the students walk through the campus, I thought I could almost see their imaginations working as they tried to envision the next four years. When the new 9th graders headed off for their placement tests, they handed their parents the red welcome bag we had given them.

When I taught Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I was always struck by the students’ ability to relate to the soldiers.  They knew what it meant to carry one’s life around with them.  Think of those backpacks, bulging with papers and pens and books, along with a few extra little things: a stone picked up on a hike with friends, a CD of our favorite music to sing along with on the ride in to school.  The things we carry are the things that make us us. When our kids give us their bags to hold, they trust us with a piece of their selves.  They may be saying, “I trust you to watch and to support me, and I can do it myself.”  As I imagine our seniors leaving, there are moments when I can barely resist giving one more piece of advice or weighing in with an opinion. As the 9th graders headed off to take their tests, I did find myself providing reassurance.

As the adults in their lives, we can sometimes stand by in these moments, unsure of our role.  Should we reassure, commiserate, or help them see the possibility that the future inevitably holds? All of these help, but I would suggest that sometimes our students need us simply to witness their experience without rushing to do something about it. It’s challenging to know when to step in and when to hold back. Sometimes, we want to participate in their lives so that we feel connected. In other moments, we are convinced that we can protect them. In truth, we want to assure ourselves that their growing up doesn’t mean that they grow apart from us.

I love the rhythm that marks the life of school, and the lives of students.  Each year offers new challenges and achievements, bringing them one step closer to adulthood, one step further away from the childhood we relish.  At Welcome Day I could see the senior in each of our new students even as I watched the eighth graders, just at the start of finding their way.  Now the last Senior Speeches are about to be given, the final games played, productions and concerts performed, papers written.  Those backpacks will be taken home, empty until next fall.  We’ll look at them, excited and nervous about what they will hold next year.  In August, they’ll be filled up again, and carried back to school—or to college—and we’ll want to hold their bags, our children, one more time.

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About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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