11 April 2017

School daze

Grote Jongen, at age five and a half, was confident and excited about starting school. Waiting in the playground on our first day of being school parents, Ned Nederlander and I were ridiculously proud of ourselves and of our high-achieving (our assessment) first-born. We didn’t want to brag, but we secretly suspected we had produced a social, sporting and intellectual genius. He could write his name, throw a ball and count to twenty with exceptional skill. As far as we were naively concerned, our job as parents was pretty much done. The hard work was surely behind us.

The bell marking the beginning of his school day rang, and Grote Jongen rushed enthusiastically to his classroom. Ned and I followed, expecting him to eventually turn and wait for us, overcome by nervousness and separation anxiety. But he simply strode ahead of us and walked into the classroom alone.
“Hello, what’s your name?” we heard his surprised teacher ask, as we hurried towards the door.
“I’m Grote Jongen, and I’m in this class,” he announced. Ned and I skulked in behind him, trying to look responsible and relevant.
Hours later, the bell marking the end of that first school day rang, and it was me who rushed enthusiastically to Grote Jongen’s classroom, eager to hear his stories.
On the way, I passed the Principal. She was a no-nonsense woman with natural authority. I thought I glimpsed a flicker of admiration in her eyes; an acknowledgement of my substantial achievement in raising a child to school age. I felt unbelievably competent and I smiled proudly at her in greeting, awaiting her praise of my mothering milestone. She’d seen my type before though. Without breaking step, she smiled stiffly and said, “Well then, that’s one day down, only a few thousand to go.”
And with that, my grown-up school-parent bubble was burst, and my legs were knocked from under me. I realised that our parenting job was nowhere near done, and that the hard work was not behind us at all.
“One day down, only a few thousand to go.” Those words have rung in my ears many times over the intervening thirteen years. Somewhat unbelievably, today marks the last of those few thousand days of classes. A two week study break followed by twelve exams in as many days are now all that stand between Grote Jongen and alumni status.

As I reflect on Grote Jongen’s school days on this, his final day of Grade 12, I feel the same sense of pride that I felt on his very first day of kindergarten. Even before he takes a seat in the exam hall or opens the website that will indicate his final grade, I am still ridiculously proud of him. Regardless of his final result – which will be cynically presented as a single number – I never want him to define his success by that number. I already have sufficient evidence, gathered over several thousand days, to declare him a raging success and to justify my maternal pride.
I’m proud, for example, of his emotional agility and resilience. At the tender age of twelve he was uprooted from all that was familiar to him before being deposited on the other side of the planet. He was given no choice but to start again. Because he stepped in to an environment where most students have been similarly uprooted, it has been easy to lose sight of how special it is to be able to balance and pivot competently when one’s life lurches sideways. More than five years ago, Grote Jongen stepped into an unfamiliar schooling system in an unfamiliar country, and balanced and pivoted like a pro. That’s a skill for life, or at least for surfing.
He has vacuumed the language of that once unfamiliar country into his head and his heart, and I am in awe of his ability to converse in Dutch so competently. Recently I sat mutely by his hospital bed while he discussed titanium plates, wound management and suture removal timelines with his orthopaedic surgeon, in Dutch. My maternal pride skyrocketed, even though for all I know they were comparing notes on problematic mothers. Yet despite these achievements, Grote Jongen’s inability to respond to simple requests issued in English remains a mystery. “Please hang up that wet towel” or “Put that plate in the dishwasher,” should not tax a boy of his linguistic ability as much as it appears to.
I am proud of how he has played his heart out in hundreds of football matches, since before he even started kindergarten. I’ve loved watching him be part of different teams, variously pursuing wins or accepting losses. He has captained and been captained with grace, a skill that will surely serve him well throughout life.
When he broke a high jump record that had stood for longer than he had been alive, I wondered if my heart might explode.

The memory of him gathering himself, running purposefully towards the thin metal bar 181 centimetres from the ground and clearing it in one athletic jump will stay with me forever. I know it will not be the last time he runs at a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and lands exhilarated on the other side of it.
He has formed sustainable relationships with people from all over the world. He has ridden the turbulent tides of introductions and farewells, holding firm as his peer group ebbed and flowed with the movements of transient international families. That's a rare strength.
He has developed an enviable depth of character. He shows charisma, intelligence, humour and compassion. Let the record  show that he is also argumentative and stubborn, with questionable time management competencies. But he knows his mind and stands his ground, confident in his own assessments and decisions. He is unafraid to rattle a cage or push a boundary. Certainly, this has not always been an endearing quality, but I increasingly trust him to put those skills to constructive use. As the person who has weathered most of his cage-rattling, boundary-pushing experiments, I feel well-qualified to predict that those characteristics will contribute greatly to his future success.
One day done ... several thousand more also done. NOW is the hard parenting work behind us?
On the last of his several thousand days at school, just as he has done since his first day, I'm certain that Grote Jongen will continue to walk his own path, in his own time, and to announce himself with quiet confidence when he deems it necessary. Ned and I remain ridiculously proud of him.


  1. What a GREAT piece again, Kate! And as so many times before it seems, I am again RIGHT there with you... And yes, mine is still in bed as well :)
    We've raised wonderful young men... I for one can't WAIT to see what comes next. The sweet memories will always remain.

  2. Kate, as always, I'm speechless at your choice and articulate flow of words. Beautifully written, and of course we all recognize your substantial achievement in raising your boys! Then AND now. The first head mistress did you a service though: she helped you realize that there are milestones and landmarks on the calendar, but there are plentiful reasons to be proud of them every single day. *even though you want to glue them behind the wallpaper on occasion ��
    Fingers crossed for the next few weeks!