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Back To School

Ah – crisp September – You are most welcome here! O Chill in the Air, Dear Crunch of the Apple, Ye Shavings of Sharpened Pencils.

This time of year has taken on precious new meaning for me in motherhood: it marks the return of blessed routine. This year, our eldest daughter started Pre-K, a joyous occasion, marked by nightly readings of Knuffle Bunny Too, and the purchase of a pair of shoes that are two sizes too big, to compensate for the fact that all summer long her sandals were two sizes too small.

But, alas, each gain comes with loss. The summer days, their lazy, lingering, twilight evenings are gone. And the introduction of school marks the return of normal work-life for parents, and the incorporation of a new parent into the house – the teacher – creating a sometimes vicious love-triangle. We know that at some point in our daughter’s schooling, it is of course inevitable that she will come home with information that we disagree with, and may even conflict on a profound level with our beliefs and practices.

When I was in fifth grade, in the mid 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was raging. I asked my mother what AIDS meant, and my understanding after that conversation was that it was a terrible sickness one could get if one was married, at the same time, to multiple people. At the time, I was learning about Jacob at school. The teacher explained that he married Leah, and then Rachel, and then Bilhah, and then Zilpah. Well, I put two and two together, raised my eager little hand, and asked “Why didn’t Jacob get AIDS?” Let’s just say that the teacher didn’t appreciate the question. A diatribe of “that’s a STUPID question, how could you ask such a thing, etc.” ensued. My parents talked to the teacher, but, ultimately, it appeased them more than it helped me. I had learned my lesson – sometimes the worlds of school and home don’t align.

When our daughter came home from Chabad last year and pronounced that all boys wear kippot, we gently told her that some Jewish boys wear kippot, and some don’t, and some Jewish girls do too. She countered with – “but Morah (Teacher) told me that only boys do,” and when we said, yes, some boys do, but some don’t, and some girls do too, she burst into tears.

Can we trust our children to sift through conflicting information? And – at what age, if any, is it appropriate to tell a child that her teacher may have been mistaken? That her teacher shared one perspective, but there may be others? Is home-schooling the only answer? Or is this how children learn that there is a complex, multi-faceted universe of truths, facts, beliefs, and opinions out there? Maybe our job is to hold them as they cry, mourning each year the coming of September, and the annual loss of innocent simplicity it brings in its autumnal wake.

–Maya Bernstein