Every morning before I send my boys into their elementary school, I say the same things. I tell them I love them, I remind them to turn in their folders, and I encourage them to be kind. Then, I say something that I wish someone would have said to me when I was their age: “Do your best, but remember that school is not real life!” As long as they are trying their best and being kind, there won’t be consequences at home for non-behavior-related things that happen at school, and they know it. I did that on purpose.
I wish I’d understood when I was little that school is not real life.
Let me give you one of the millions of examples I could provide of how my anxiety disorder disrupted my childhood: When I was in fifth grade, I forgot to turn in a Bible assignment. (Yeah, Bible. Southern Baptist private school. It’s a whole thing.) Anyway, I forgot about it, and by the time I remembered, my teacher said it was too late. I couldn’t turn it in, and I had to take a zero. That would make my overall grade for the report card period an 84—which was a C (yes, really) in my school.
I had never gotten a C before in my entire life. I was supposed to be the smart “good girl” who didn’t make mistakes like forgetting an assignment. At ten years old, I had already fully thrown myself into the role I felt most suited to play. As a chubby kid, the message I received from the entire planet outside my home was loud and clear: I couldn’t rely on my looks to carry me through, so I’d need to be smart, kind and hard-working.
My parents had high expectations for me academically because I was always a high performer, but they also lavished me with praise. This wasn’t their fault. I never wondered if they thought I was brilliant and good– and I lived for their approval.
The night before I knew report cards would be coming home, I laid in bed silently until I heard them go to sleep, then I let myself fall apart.
I cried quietly until the nerves took over, and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. I walked into school the next day with my knees shaking, spent the entire day jittery and sad, and when I got into my mom’s car after school with my report card in my hand, I broke down. When she saw that I was so upset, she thought I was going to inform her that I’d been mistreated or even abused.
When she realized that my hysterics were related to a grade, she was so relieved, I didn’t get a consequence. I also didn’t really get a pass or any kind of reassurance because she didn’t even know I needed it. She just told me to do better next time. And I did. I never got another C until 11th grade.
My oldest son is my carbon copy.
He is smart and naturally kind. He is also anxious and prone to putting the kind of pressure on himself that I put on myself when I was his age. When I see him start to get very upset about something related to school or his own personal performance, I am instantly transported to the early 90s when I first began suffering with what I now realize is a lifelong anxiety disorder.
Back then, I didn’t know that all I needed to do was talk to my parents and they would have helped me. I didn’t have the language to describe it even if I had wanted to try. I didn’t know what an anxiety disorder felt like, and I certainly didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to be so tied in knots all the time.
Sadly, I can’t go back and help little Katie understand what she never understood back then. I can’t give her the wisdom to tell her parents how she was suffering, I can’t give her back those sleepless nights, and I can’t even let her know that she wouldn’t really need that Bible class anyway. I can’t undo the way anxiety stole so many of my childhood years that were supposed to be carefree.
But I can help my kids not to suffer the same fate, and that’s why I make sure they know that school is not real life.
It’s not that I act like school is not important. If they are upset about something related to school, I don’t dismiss their concerns, saying, “School is not real life.” If it feels real to them, it’s real. I don’t use my mantra as a weapon to minimize their experiences.
They also know that I expect them to behave, follow directions, treat other students kindly, and give every assignment their best effort. If I ever hear about one of them being unkind to anyone or completely refusing to try, I will be very, very disappointed, and they know it.
I just make it clear that once they give an assignment the best effort they can muster that day, I’m not concerned with the outcome. If I see one of them struggling consistently with a concept, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m happy to get them the help they need to learn and succeed in school.
A failed assignment won’t follow them home.
I won’t be disappointed at the dinner table if they can’t properly diagram a sentence every time, or if geometry just isn’t their thing. I won’t ground them for being unable to memorize the dates of Revolutionary War battles, or being kind of shitty at writing term papers.
In the real world, everyone isn’t good at everything. My husband works in military finance, and absolutely loves numbers. If I asked him to write this essay, he would stare at a blank screen with absolutely zero inspiration, even though we are raising the same kids with the same rules. Creative writing is not his jam.
If you asked me to balance the budget for an Air Force base or fill out travel paperwork for someone who is deploying across the world, I would probably cry. That’s not what I’m good at doing.
My kids will find the things they love, and once the government-mandated portion of their schooling is over, they’ll pursue a lot of those things, and do very little of the rest. I want them to know that right now, school is just their job, not their life. They are there to learn a little bit about a lot of things in the hopes that something “sticks,” and they get some ideas about what they might like to do later.
Over my front door, I have a sign that says, “Take a deep breath. You’re home now.”
When my boys get home from school, that’s the first message they see. It’s also the one thing I hope I can provide for them as a wife and a mom. Life outside these walls will always be full of stress and anxiety and frustration. Doing the things we have to do is never as enjoyable as doing the things we love to do.
But when they walk into our door, I always want them to feel like home is where they can breathe. At home, you’re seen, you’re loved, and you don’t have to be good at everything. You only have to be your happiest, most authentic self, whoever that may be. That’s the version of you that belongs here—leave your school worries at the door.
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