Back to school always marks the end of summer with anticipation and excitement for a new season for children. Even parents welcome the new routine. New beginnings abound for children of all ages and suddenly we find ourselves in a new place. Kindergarten gives way to first grade, elementary gives way to middle school, and on it goes until our kids finally go off to college or into the real world and we wait breathlessly for the results of all of our hard work.
I once heard that raising children is like having a herd in a green pasture surrounded by a secure fence. They are free to explore and discover within the boundaries of the fence. Every year, our job as parents is to expand their boundaries and responsibility so they can become more and more independent. The idea is to increase their limits and make room for their own decisions so they can discover success and failure, and learn to grow from those experiences. Our job is not to control and dominate them, but rather to allow them the freedom of making their own choices as we continue expanding their pasture until they are capable of functioning independently and responsibly without the fence.
Back to school means expanding boundaries for our children while our role as parents diminishes. Their school day lengthens, homework and sports dominate their afternoons, and recess is reduced until we no longer find ourselves even able to deliver the forgotten lunch box or stop by for a spontaneous lunch in the cafeteria. No more peering into the small window at gym class, nor hoping to sneak in a hug between classes.
This year the looming doors of middle school closed behind Christiane as I watched her disappear into the engulfing hallways of the unknown. The unknown is a breeding ground for fear, doubt and worry and it wistfully beckons us to its edge. As the mother of a child with a terminal illness, fear, doubt and worry could take up permanent residence at my house but before school ended last year, I was reminded of why it shouldn’t.
Leadership Casis, a program designed for fifth graders to introduce them to community service, had invited me to come speak about Beyond Batten Disease Foundation and what we do. One of the classes had chosen BBDF for their community service project and they were creating their own ideas to contribute to one of our fundraisers.
I was prepared that day to explain what a foundation is, how it works and give a brief description of Batten Disease and answer any questions that the students had.
The first question came from a girl at the back of the class. “Mrs. Benson”, she asked, “Christiane always wants to do everything herself, she is very independent, and strong. Don’t you think it’s a good thing that having Batten Disease has made her this way even more so?”
The second question came from a student at the front of the class, and she asked, “Mrs. Benson, aren’t you glad Christiane has Batten Disease? I mean,” she continued, “just think of all the other children who have Batten Disease who now have hope because of your foundation, and the foundation was started because of Christiane, right?”
I was amazed at the depth of their insights and while I wasn’t expecting to have such a philosophical conversation with a last period fifth grade class, I encouraged their participation. As I handed out blue and green wristbands announcing the fundraiser that they had been supporting all semester, a boy in the class approached me with a drawing that he had been working on during our conversation. He handed me a diagram of a syringe and some brain cells with arrows and labels. He said “Mrs. Benson, I think if we could just find a way to inject Christiane’s brain cells with white blood cells, we could support her immune system and improve her chances to fight this disease.” He shrugged his shoulders as he handed me his drawing. Then before he walked off, he said, “Oh, and I just want you to know, that I will never take this wristband off until there is a cure for Batten Disease.” I stood there frozen and taken by not only the insight of these kids, but at the compassion and hopefulness that surrounded me and lingered in the room.
The doubt and fear and worry that could have dominated that room was replaced instead with acceptance and trust and hope.
The strong and willful personality of their classmate, Christiane, came with acceptance rather than doubt, and was seen as a positive personality trait, rather than seen as something that needed to be changed.
They trusted that the darkness surrounding Christiane’s life has purpose and meaning in the lives of many children rather than crumbling in the fear of Christiane’s unknown future.
And most of all, they had hope when defeat and worry would have been a much easier path.
We can choose acceptance in any situation. Acceptance perhaps even as the pasture expands and we are reminded that we can’t monitor our children’s every move as we once could. We can choose to accept a child’s disposition rather than trying to forge and impose qualities that are not naturally theirs.
We can choose to trust that challenging circumstances for our children are part of life and are vitally important in forging their character and fulfilling God’s plan. Failure is how they learn and grow. Watching our children struggle or make mistakes is painful, but we can choose to embrace its purpose rather than trying to preempt every possible pain they may experience.
Although, choosing hope instead of despair, is perhaps the most empowering and rewarding, it also seems to be the most challenging. It is the space that speaks to me the most, because as the mother of a child whose future is unknown, this is where I will linger the longest. This is where we all linger and wait for the results of our efforts. When the looming doors of middle school close behind, or the taillights fade as our children drive away to college, it is the space where we have a choice of how we want to live. Do we really want to live crippled by worry, despair and doubt, or do we want to be liberated by acceptance, trust and hope?
Six weeks after my presentation to Leadership Casis, graduation day came and parents were seated facing the stage where the fifth graders would receive their diplomas. I volunteered to direct the graduates down the aisle toward the stage. One by one, 130 students filed in streaming towards me, brimming with eagerness and smiling with excitement. Suddenly, the familiar face of one boy caught my eye and he smiled as he passed me. He proudly held up his arm and tugged on his buttoned long sleeved shirt to reveal the blue and green wristband I had given him that day in class. He beamed with optimism and passed along an unexpected reminder of hope that I am comforted by today. A reminder of what happens in the green pasture when our children are left to explore their own big hearts and engaging minds, and a stolen glimpse of who our children will also be behind the closed doors of middle school. A reminder of acceptance, trust and most of all hope.