By Todd Nelson
The new school year commences. There is new sand in the sandbox, and new sandbox players in their new sneakers — the faces of the future at play just outside my principal’s office window. I cherish all the hopeful possibilities of their giggles and squabbles. The life of the sandbox seems halcyon and the future far off. But I think we could re-examine it in a way that brings it nearer. It’s right here, right now if you use a special lens.
Imagine at Back to School night if the principal asked the parents of these sandbox players to adopt the lens of a unique vantage point. From my pulpit, I could invite them to consider two things — marriage and grandchildren — that are, by definition, a look to the future.
“Dearly beloved. Imagine that we are gathered at a celebration of love, joy and families uniting with their two young people who have decided to get hitched,” I would say. “Imagine yourself standing at your child’s wedding. The occasion is the grand commitment of one person to another: Partnering, coupling, marrying.” Now we are looking out from the future.
Anyone can use this lens to examine the young school year. You’ll see a benchmark beyond the customary ones, the entry to middle school, high school, or college; beyond career explorations. Your child is finding a soul mate. Is your sandbox now in fresh, sharp focus?
“Soul Mate 101” is not in the core curriculum of any states, and certainly not a common Back to School Night topic. Yet there are very concrete hopes and achievements embedded in this moment. It gives us a conscientiousness that we can savor now with power, specificity, and certainty.
How shall we meet the needs of these children as we look back from their future; from our future? What would you like to be able to say about your child’s character, ability to lovingly bond with a partner, or competence and joy as a young parent presenting you with, say, a grandchild? What kind of parent will you have raised when a new generation in your family arrives?
Wasn’t it just this morning that you worried about their friendships in kindergarten? “Does my little Imogene have a best friend?” And then comes, “How will Max fare in the transition to middle school?” Egad: math placement tests! Ability grouping! Then SATs, recommendations, and applications to college. Resume building! Graduation! Job interviews. Now this!”
Relax. As parents and educators, marriage and child-rearing are what we’ve been tacitly preparing for, but rarely discussing. It’s pushed to the background. Herein dwell life success and succession, accomplishment and fulfilling relationships. They require different skills from the intellectual ones posited by education reform, new apps of all kinds, the myriad proliferating school choices, and data-driven teaching. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking ahead only in terms of the technical, so-called 21st century skills to be required of our children in careers “that have yet to be invented.”
The ultimate goal line is to lead fulfilling lives, to renew wonderful families, communities and the joys of parenting. Though marriage and parenting seem distant, if we include them in our core curriculum we live in a kind of simultaneity with the present and future possibilities. As a new distant mirror, the future is a more effective one. Our best possible selves are in the reflection.
Fortunately, qualities of character and values are easy to identify. They need not be invented. We already know the kind of families, communities and societies we’d like to inhabit. What we hope for our children is the same as what we’re trying to achieve now. It’s what the future needs more than ever.
Sponsoring a healthy sandbox will have more to do with each child’s success than many a math test or entrance exam. And, according to research, more to do with their effectiveness in future workplaces guaranteed to emphasize teamwork and group decision making over the discrete intellectual prowess of individuals. We should divest ourselves of the superficial and transitory consolation of the numerical data — like those math placement tests, and “Adequate Yearly Progress.”
What today’s kids will need in an inchoate future is the lessons from that sandbox: honest and accurate communications, sharing, humor, fairness and joy. A healthy sandbox includes predictable sponsoring of everyone’s ideas and success; taking pleasure in one another’s strengths and respect for challenges. Aren’t these the qualities of life partnership and parenting?
I hope the new school year’s negotiations for space, sharing the dump truck or imagining the bridge-and tunnel-building partnership between young Imogene and Max will be the most enriched, powerful, and far-reaching learning possible — achievements we’ll expect to celebrate in future rituals. The hypothetical wedding is a good vantage point, if only in our imagination. But that’s where the future starts. Suffice to say, good marriages begin in the sandbox, as did your good grandparenting.
Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Brooksville Elementary School.