First day of school, Part 1: Trouble in paradise

by Wolf Pascoe on September 27, 2011

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. — James Taylor

school classroom
School started a couple of weeks ago. Nick is nine this year, in the Fern Hill equivalent of 4th grade.

According to an online resource I visited the other day, 4th graders should be reading prose and poetry aloud, making oral reports, alphabetizing, and developing word-attack methods. Nick isn’t. I haven’t a clue what a word-attack method is.

Nick should also know simple fractions, multiplication and division facts to 100, estimation of outcomes, and problem solving analysis. He doesn’t know those things either, I suppose, although I can’t say for sure about the last two—what they are is beyond me.

What is he learning at this un-school we send him to?

It’s complicated.




We get to the yard early so he can pick out his cubby for the year. Children and parents crowd about us, full of first-day thrum. We wait for Nick’s best friend, Jay, so the two can have spaces side-by-side. But Jay is late, and when he finally arrives, the only cubby left is far away from Nick’s. There’s no saving spots for friends.

Jay is devastated, and berates his mom, Jennifer, for their tardiness.

“Jay,” says Nick later, “Why didn’t you get here?”

This is called kicking someone when he’s down. Jay responds, “Why didn’t you save me one, loser? I hate you.”

I don’t hear this. Neither does Jennifer. I’m re-connecting with other parents I haven’t seen over the summer, checking out the new futon by the mosh area, renewing my acquaintance with the giant pines shading the yard.

Soon it’s time for morning meeting and I step into the elementary room to check in with Nick and say goodbye. He’s halfheartedly sketching on a piece of paper at the room’s only table. Jay is in the corner with a group of boys.

“Can you pick me up early?” Nick says.

“You just got here.”

“I’m tired. It’s too hot.”

“Well, I’ll see if mom can come early,” I say.

I hug him and he doesn’t let go.

“Can you stay?” he says.

Parents are welcome any time in the Fern Hill yard. Some, especially parents of the younger kids, plan to spend the whole day today. But Nick’s asking comes as a surprise.

I have no plans, except some marketing, which can wait. I was going to write a blog post, too. I’m behind on the blog. A lot of work needs doing there.

Tension grips my throat, and a kind of panic that makes me want to run from the world and take refuge in fantasy. In this case, the fantasy of a writer with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Would you rather write about your kid, or be with him, loser?




garden courtyardSomething in Nick’s tone tells me he’s verging on tears.

“Why don’t we go outside,” I say.

I catch the eye of Nick’s teacher, Dante, as we exit. Dante nods.

We walk over the sandy path to the garden and sit down together under a pomegranate tree. I put my arm around Nick. The sun-dappled yard is empty now, everyone else inside at their morning meetings. We’re alone with the trees.

“Dada, I want to go home.”

I know better than to ask the reason. I tell him he needs to stay.

“Why?” he says. “There’s nothing I want to do here.”

How do I work? Einstein is reputed to have said.
I grope. 

“If you go home, nothing will happen,” I say. “If you stay, you can be surprised.”

“Please,” he says, his eyes brimming.

“Nick,” I say, “You need to be here.”

And the tears come. They come and they come and and he lets my arm remain. In my mind I breathe out a bubble around us, a clear and shining bubble of something impenetrable and transparent and loving. I suspend us in it.

We stay this way a long time. Every so often he hiccups and asks me to take him home. I say, “No” and he cries some more.

What the trouble is I can only guess. I suspect it has to do with Jay and some connection missed, some terrible loneliness in Nick.

The morning meetings end. It’s the only structured part of the day here. The kids stream into the yard. Some pass us by with concerned looks but say nothing. They start their games and plans, breaking off in little groups. Nick hides his eyes.

I think of other kinds of schools, where other children sit inside in rows of desks, developing word attack methods, alphabetizing, estimating outcomes and analyzing problems, taking tests, preparing for the uncertain future. Some of these kids undoubtedly are feeling scared and lonely the first day of school, or worried about friends. I surely felt that way on my long march toward a career, though I wasn’t paying attention. Tending to feelings is not the vocabulary of achievement.

To hell with that. This morning is precisely why Nick is at this school, so he can can have this moment of unhurried presence with himself, full of yuck and hiccups, without agenda, without plan, without future.

And it’s precisely why I’m here, my panic and fantasies for the moment forgotten, where I can feel the paradise garden, the sun looking through the pines, and soft earth turning beneath us, one second per second.



I had thought I was going to tell this story in one post. Silly me. The First Day of School continues next time with Birches. It takes what it takes.

Of best friends and playovers



What Should a Four-Year-Old Know?



Thoughts about school? Just Add Father is listening. (Unburden your mind by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


If you like this post and have a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account, please consider sharing it by clicking one of the buttons below:

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

TheKitchenWitch September 27, 2011 at 7:44 am

Jesus. This was heart-wrenching and thoughtful and beautiful. I stopped dead in my tracks at “Would you rather write about your kid, or be with him, loser?”

Thick in the throat, here.


Wolf Pascoe September 27, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I think we all struggle with that one, TKW.


Kelly September 27, 2011 at 9:05 am

There’s so much nuance and emotion packed in here. I don’t know that I have the strength of mind and courage of character to sit on a bench while my child grapples with sadness beside me. Likely, I’d give him a pep talk, squeeze his hand, and send him back in … and that keening loneliness may sit with him in my place. Your example will stay with me.


Wolf Pascoe September 27, 2011 at 1:37 pm

I always think of tears as a gift. Probably because I spent so many years holding them back.


pamela September 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

I want to go to Fern Hill school too.

This is a beautiful post and it brought tears to my eyes. Especially this:

“If you go home, nothing will happen,” I say. “If you stay, you can be surprised.”

I am going to remember that nugget of wisdom for sure. Beautiful post per usual and inspirational parenting (also per usual).


Wolf Pascoe September 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I liked it too, Pamela. But it didn’t impress Nick.


BigLittleWolf September 27, 2011 at 11:45 am

I cannot help but contrast your approach to parenting (and schooling) with the harried, hell-bent-on-“success” parents who push and prod their children in more conventional directions.

I do not know what is best.

I do not think there is a single “best,” or the same “best” for all children, or even one child as he evolves over time.

But I am struck by the purity of your love for your son. Not its simplicity, mind you, but the conscious choices you make to create that bubble of support and acceptance, which is rare for any of us at any point in our lives, and really ought to be the business of parenting above all. At least, so it seems to me.

I am struck by something else. This:

“If you go home, nothing will happen,” I say. “If you stay, you can be surprised.”

In fact, if he were to go home he could be surprised and I’m sure you know it. But the way you constructed this lesson – that in a place designed for learning and exploring there can always be surprise – I find brilliant, and reassuring. For all of us.


Wolf Pascoe September 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Such a long discussion this is, BLW. Conventional education gave me my M.D., and it pays bills. But it did nothing to open my heart. And nothing is worth a closed heart.


Sirena September 27, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Word-attack method? Yikes. It sounds so, well, violent. No wonder us baby boomers who went to “normal schools” are so messed up. Nick is so lucky to go to a different kind of school. And to have YOU.


Wolf Pascoe September 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

It’s because I know how to relax, breathe, and be.


Barbara S. September 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm

The choices we have to make and on which so much hinges – writing or being with Nick. Good for you for staying with him and for explaining that he needed to be there (love the ‘surprises’ part!)


Wolf Pascoe September 28, 2011 at 7:51 am

on which so much hinges
Good title, Barbara!


Tom September 27, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Your story reminded me of another story that I heard on “The Story.” It concerned Rachel Bissex and her son. You can hear the story at:
The Story: archive for 9-27-2011
It runs from 26:30 – 30:00.
Both her story and yours tell about love between child and parent. The characters are different, but the feeling is the same.


Wolf Pascoe September 29, 2011 at 9:27 am

Readers may find more information about the Rachel Bissex story here:
The Story, September 27, 2011
The piece, “In White Light,” may be found as Tom indicated above, in the 26:30-30:00 segment of the one hour program.


Privilege of Parenting September 28, 2011 at 12:55 am

Maybe there is something about caring and connecting and not quite racing anywhere that is spontaneously emerging amongst us all, some as yet undefinable response to so much that has failed in a world where rows and forced order and the sublimation of love and hurt and feelings in general leave us anxious and empty, but unaware of this and manically driven in all the wrong directions.

Thanks for taking the time to share this sort of time with us.


Wolf Pascoe September 28, 2011 at 7:45 am

Such a gentle way of saying manically driven.
But maniacs we are.


Alameda September 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

You give us the essence of parenting, love and protection. It is beautiful.
But the uncertainty of preparing our kids to the realities of life will remain with us no matter which method we use!


Wolf Pascoe September 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

— Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”


Pauline Gaines September 30, 2011 at 11:34 am

Wonderful, reflective piece. I related so much to this. My daughter is in 4th grade at a progressive school — not as free-spirited as Fern Hill, but it’s the same general idea. I went to a rigorous, pressure-cooker K-12 school so wanted something different for my kids. Not sure I did the right thing…I worry that my daughter is behind academically, but am relieved to see her flourish emotionally and socially. I hope that the social-emotional piece will put her on solid ground for secondary school, when she’s going to have to learn to do things in a more traditional manner.


Wolf Pascoe September 30, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Thanks, Pauline. Yes, this seems to be the tradeoff. Have you seen the Ken Robinson talk on the changing educational paradigm? Here you go: Changing Educational Paradigm


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: