It’s bright this morning, crisp and early.
The kind of morning you feel that something new is trying to get born.
Last night, we rifled through the backpacks at Wal-Mart and after much deliberation, picked out four of them. They are still stiff, smelling of that unmolested plastic, like everything smells those first few days of school before the thin film of habit settles over them. Before the first pencil snaps and the scissors get all gummy and the markers lose their caps.
I have already imagined my four oldest children lined up for the bus, backpacks strapped on tight. It’s a morning like this, in my imagination, bright and crisp and early. Maybe they kick rocks at the end of the driveway, eyes scanning the southern horizon for the first glimpse of the bus. Maybe their palms sweat. Maybe anticipation dries out their mouths. They are a mix of trembles and giggles, of timid and excited.
And so am I.
For you see, until this year we have chosen to educate our children at home. They have never ridden a bus with other children, soft country music dancing on their ears from the speakers above their heads in the quiet morning ride, before anyone’s awake enough to have a real conversation. They have never wrestled open a milk carton at lunch, finally learning how to peel back the sides and then pop open the spout with expert hands. This year will be full of firsts.
Something new, indeed, is trying to get born.
And when something is born, it is right and good to give it a name. This I will do before that first day of school dawns bright and early, gathering the little smatterings of hopes and fears in its arms and stuffing them safely inside the gym shoes. Not giving them names they have never known, but reminding them of the names they have been given. Because the world they are heading into is a world that may not always call them by name.
It may give them, instead, a label.
Labels are the opposite of names. Where names specify, identify, and empower; labels diminish. Labels are dismissive. They are confining. They lack creative process and imagination. Labels reduce people to what they seem instead of plumbing the unfathomable mysteries of all that they are.
And I’ve lived long enough to know that even if the teachers and the administration, the janitors and the lunch staff, are friendly and warm, the kids will not always be. There will be categorizations. Ugly labels will be handed out like locker assignments. Judgments will be made – fair or unfair – and you and I both know that even though those are not sticks and stones, boy, can they hurt deep into the bones.
So before that bright, crisp morning dawns early, I will speak to them of who they are. I will remind them of the names they were given in love by the people who would turn the world on end for them. The people to whom they belong. Because belonging is so different than fitting in. Children belong to a home where they can be the uncensored version of themselves and know that they are part of a meaningful whole. They can be silly and immature in their playfulness or vulnerable and angry-honest as they work through tattered emotions. They can reek with body odor after mowing the lawn and then come in for a snack and forget to put away the peanut butter. They can stumble over a joke and slaughter the punchline. But in all these things, they will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are loved.
Belonging means that they are safe.
But part of growing up means to learn that not every place or every relationship is like this. I will tell them of the pressure to conform they may feel, the desire to want to edit themselves for the sake of “fitting in.” In my day it was jeans with a triangle on the pocket and loads of hairspray and Keds, but here, in their day, it will likely look different. They may feel that the way out of being just a label into being named is to follow along, to do things they don’t believe in, to adopt values that are imposed upon them. And that might grant them a name … for awhile.
But it won’t be their name.
And so, in the cusp of the year before us, I will remind them again of who they are. We will stand together in the driveway and wait for the bus and I will try not to cry for the beauty and the risk of it all. Maybe I’ll even quote those glory words of Buechner’s, as a benediction whispered into trembling ears: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Maybe I’ll think of all the ways in which the world will shatter and shelter them, often both within the measly span of a seven hour school day. Then, I will tell them how much room there is in the sacred space called acceptance for all the ways they are still becoming. I will hold close their unwashed hair and smile at their morning breath and know that very few relationships in their life will be as safe and nurturing as home. But there is no better preparation for the labels and the ugly they will face than to know they are loved.
To know the names that are theirs.
To trust that although the giant step through those wheezing bi-fold doors into the unknown wears vestiges of danger, that is not all. It also wears the promise of something beautiful.
It is a brave step toward growing up.
Like something new trying to get born.