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Dread of Back to School

John Moe

Julia Barton

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Eleven-year-old Jennadya Davis
(Julia Barton)
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Look for the malls to be crowded this weekend. Parents and kids shopping for clothes, pencils, protractors.

That's right. Back to school. Some schools have already started, many more kick in this week.

Eleven-year-old Jennadya Davis is starting sixth grade at Longfellow Elementary in St. Paul. He's ready.

"You can see new people here and your old teachers. And you can have more fun," he said while attending a back-to-school barbeque at Longfellow.

Not everyone agrees. I was at my kids' school the other night for an ice cream social, another welcome-back kind of thing. My son Charlie is going into second grade. He and I got some ice cream sandwiches and sat on the school lawn.

Now, the big event of the night was the class rosters being posted; kids got to find out who their teacher would be. It was done very theatrically. At exactly 6:30, the lists were hung on a clothesline outside, and kids and parents raced to see where they would spend the year.

I asked Charlie if he wanted to go over and check the list. No, he said. He wanted to eat his ice cream on the grass. But you can find out who you're going to be spending the whole school year with, I said. It's a big deal.

It's still summer, he told me. He didn't want to know who his teacher was yet. He wanted to sit in the grass and eat ice cream. Because he still could. It was still summer.

Once Charlie gets back in school, he'll be fine. He actually loves school once it starts. But August is kind of rough. Fall is coming, the work is about to begin, precious little time left for ice cream on the lawn. All this sunshine and leisure is running out.

It's not just kids who feel that dread. Many adults do too--for all kinds of reasons.

Brooke Juneau lives in Greensboro, N.C. Her nine-year-old son Riley is in fourth grade, and her five-year-old Hayden just started kindergarten. Riley has autism and a rare motor disorder called Joubert's Syndrome.

"I suspect that a lot of other parents of kids with autism feel the same sense of dread about having to get back into the homework routine that I do," she says. "It's really almost like a second job around here."

Brooke has to break down her son's assignments into manageable pieces, even organize it all into baskets, then sit with him an hour and a half every afternoon while he tries to concentrate. And keep her younger son from bugging him, and get him to do his kindergarten homework, too. And after all that, her job as a parent is not over.

"You know, on top of what the kids have to do every evening, there are always folders of you know, fundraisers and permission slips and PTA forms and reading logs, behavior reports. It seems like there's just as much homework for me to take care of every night as there is for the kids," she says. "I never remember having to get my parents to sign much of anything. Usually if I did, it was because I had done something bad and then it just ended up getting stuffed under the mattress or something."

Brooke's glad her kids are learning, and they're having a better time than she is. She was one of those super-procrastinating, but still A-plus, students. Having to be super-organized for her kids nine months out of the year is what's hard, she says.

"We all really miss just the freedom and looseness and the lack of an agenda. That's a hard thing to say goodbye to at the end of August."

And another contingent of adults have something to dread about the start of school, too. Teachers. Gotta have every minute of the day planned out. Figuring out the dynamics of a room--or usually, rooms--full of children. And then of course leaving none of them behind with standardized tests already looming on the fall horizon. Kind of stressful.

Ken Van der Laan taught high school biology for 25 years in Denver's public schools. He'd be up in the mountains much of the summer, but back-to-school worries found a way to reach him up there.

"I'd see a particular plant in bloom--it's called fireweed--and I would know at first unconsciously, and then consciously, I'd have this feeling-it wasn't so much anxiety as a sense of loss, or summer's leaving. For sure, when you saw the raspberries were ripe, you knew it was time to go back to work," he laughs.

Ken's retired now, but says that to this day, the sight of the fireweed and raspberries makes him feel like he needs to get his lesson plans ready.

That night at my son's school, Charlie and I sat on the lawn until he finished his ice cream. I've never seen him take longer to eat an ice cream in his life. But he did finish it. Then we looked up who his teacher was and went to meet her. She and Charlie seemed to hit it off. Then he asked, "Can we go home now?"

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