Last Wednesday was the first day of school for my 15-year-old daughter, Emily. She likes (needs) to sleep late, as most teenagers do, but I managed to pry her out of bed at 7 a.m.
“It’s time,” I said. “You need to get up, get ready, and go.”
Get up. Get ready. Go. It’s a routine that most parents of school-aged children live with.
This is my fourteenth year in a row that September marks the start of this very specific morning routine. The first year was 2006, when my older daughter, Ana, was 5.
“It’s back-to-school time,” all the retail ads scream in mid-August. “Are you ready?”
Am I ready? No. After nearly three full months of summer, snapping back to a scheduled routine is like a shock of cold water on my psyche. It is, of course, much worse for Emily. She’s gotten used to staying up past midnight and sleeping until noon (as is normal and appropriate for a teenager).
I imagine her brain making new connections, becoming more fully realized, shifting and growing within its cocoon of sleep. I wonder how much damage we’re doing by interrupting whatever biological and physiological magic happens to teenage minds while they sleep.
Get up. Get Ready. Go.
It’s hard to believe that I used to anticipate September, looking forward to the end of unscheduled, sleepy summer days. Routine was good for us, I reasoned. It was a fresh start. But that was back when time made sense.
I used to have two daughters.
In spite of their three-year age difference, they anticipated the first day of school together, tackled it as a team. It made the transition back to scheduled, over-structured days more tolerable for both of them. When Ana died they were cheated out of this camaraderie.
We don’t have the luxury of time, even though we think we do. We don’t know what may happen tomorrow or next month. We don’t know how many Septembers we have left.
That’s why I want to let Emily sleep late. Well, that’s one of the reasons.
Emily would’ve had to deal with her first day of 10th grade on her own even if Ana hadn’t died. Ana would have been at college, settling into her dorm, responsible for getting herself out of bed without my help.
I wonder if she would’ve called her sister the night before school to wish her luck. I think she would’ve. Ana understood that mornings are the hardest part about September.
Emily can manage the social aspects of high school, deal with homework and tests, somehow get everything done even when she feels overwhelmed, but mornings? They kick her ass. They hurt her head. They drag her from sleep when she needs it the most.
Why does high school start at 7:50 a.m. or earlier? I guess it’s because someone made up an arbitrary rule one hundred years ago and no one knows how to change it. I’m so tired of arbitrary rules.
I drive Emily three miles to school every morning instead of making her take the bus so she can have an extra half hour of sleep. I don’t mind, but I also don’t think it helps ease the affront to her brain when I wake her from the deep, nurturing sleep she needs.
Get up. Get ready. Go.
It’s not just the early mornings that bother me about high school. It’s all of it — the militant schedule (43 minutes per class, 3 minutes to get from one class to the next), the focus on academics over art, the punitive environment that penalizes kids for being late or absent, the pressure to prepare for college, the relentless testing and homework.
“Leave her alone!” I want to scream. “Why does it have to be so hard?”
In truth, I’ve never been great with authority, with scheduling and rules and predetermined formulas for success. It’s why I’ve been self-employed for 17 years. I don’t like handing over my schedule to a third party, giving them 8 to 10 hours of my day in exchange for a paycheck.
It’s why both my girls went to a progressive private school throughout elementary and middle school — one that started at 9 a.m. It was a place where they had freedom — to be kids, to be late, to be absent. It allowed them to explore seemingly frivolous things, like the year we got a dozen chickens and the girls wanted to stay home from school and help take care of them.
“School shouldn’t get in the way of their education,” Ana’s third grade teacher said that year. Now that was refreshing.
Emily is doing fine. She’s managing what she needs to manage. The problem is more about me than her.
September is hard because the shape of it is different now. Instead of feeling like the beginning of something, it feels like the ending. I want to hold onto a time in my life that’s already gone — the years when my girls were little (and alive) and I could give them the luxury of an extra hour of sleep.
In a few years, Emily must function in the world without me. Thus, she must wake up early. She must go to school. She must grow up. I want this. I want Emily to grow up. I’m even looking forward to it, but knowing this doesn’t make mornings any easier to bear.