Nine months later, I’m reflecting on the letter I wrote to my firstborn on his first day of school.
The following letter was written on August 20th, 2018 — the day my eldest child began his first year of “all-day” school.
While this moment is incredibly common and many of you have already experienced this event, these were my thoughts on that day roughly nine months ago.
As this school year has now concluded, I find myself reflecting on those deep-seated intentions as a new season began. I hope to continue to be reminded of these sentiments and, one day, place this letter in his life-weathered hands.
May you, dear reader, as I have at the end of this school year, find a reminder of our role as human beings in the adventure of parenthood, being a family, and making the most of this structure we call ‘school’.
To my firstborn on the first day of a new season:
Today marks a day in which you will repeat a routine continuously for 13 years (or shorter or longer). You wake up earlier than you actually want to, throw yourself together, get your things for the day, and go to a building where your day is quite rigidly scheduled. The intention is to learn while interacting with other people in, hopefully, a productive, transformative, & meaningful way. Though that is the concept, making that a reality is a different story.
Our education system was set up as a replication of a factory and in the hopes of producing informed citizens for the modern workplace to prepare you for the future. You may not realize this now, but I don’t think it is completely great and it is by no means the ideal setting in which I would wish for you to be. However, it does exist and, yes, we are putting you through it.
There will be benefits — you are guaranteed human interaction every single day with, mostly, the same people. If nothing else, these 13 years will produce relationships. What kind of relationships they become will be dependent on how you navigate them and how the others respond. I can tell you that, at best, I have only one relationship with folks I met during my 13-year educational journey. I have lots of contacts that still remain, but honestly, not one person did I stay connected with from Kindergarten on and my only surviving friendship is a couple I met in 11th grade.
Maybe you will create bonds to the extent that some folks become part of your community. Maybe you will connect with people to the extent that you will be at each other’s funeral. Maybe you will meet a future spouse.
Or maybe you won’t.
At the least, you will be in constant contact with other human beings every single day — which seems to be a good thing.
You will also be shown how the world works. Unfortunately, this is done (mostly) in a square box, at a desk, with books and sheets of paper or electronic screens. This form of learning happens through material that is divided up into subjects and watered down to what people, usually legislators and administrative boards, have decided you can handle and who have decided what you need to hear. If you can’t tell, I’m not much a fan of this either.
Today, you sat down at your desk and we were able to say goodbye. I gave you a hug and a kiss and I told you something that I doubt you internalized, but that I hope has been so instilled in your bones that it, somehow, resonated:
“Remember who you are.
And ask lots of questions.”
If there is one thing I can offer in this adventure, it is to remind you of those two suggestions every single day.
I have watched you learn and ask questions and own your understanding of the world. You have told me how sharks live and how to avoid bears, but you have also taken to the life of bugs and plants and helped me understand how to appreciate their beauty and enjoy their existence. You have generated family structure suggestions that have altered our identity as a household. You have posed questions and ideas that have generated transformation for all of us, together.
Fermentation can’t happen without certain ingredients being present, but you have the ingredients necessary and I am confident in the identity you have already crafted to use your setting to bring out your already beautiful soul in unexpected ways.
Do I love the idea of the modern school system? No. Do I think that you can utilize it to grow and learn and become the best version of yourself? Yes. You are already wise. You are already good. My hope is that the next 13 years will simply ferment you forward so that your identity will continue to unfold into more than any of us can imagine.
We threw around the idea of homeschooling because we realize the flaws that come with the educational system, but we chose not to because, though the school system isn’t guaranteed to groom students into the best version of themselves, you have the tools to make your experience into a highly formative season. The school system might not be the best option from our idealistic perspective, but it does have the potential to be a good option if we approach it correctly.
Even at this early point in your life, it is apparent that you already know how to learn. You have the tools to learn anything because you have taken to the process that makes learning possible. Learning is not what you mindlessly absorb from textbooks and exams. Those may act as mediums to assist your learning, but growing and exploring the world so that you see it more fully and navigate it more healthily — that’s what learning is all about. Which means you, if you already have owned the process that makes it possible to learn anything, might not even need the current educational structure.
However, there is another implication in play if you truly know how to learn — the hope that you can take your ability to explore and grow and see into the educational structure to make the most of it. Your educational experience may not always give you the tools to be a learner, but if you have the tools already, you can utilize them with the content presented in every single class and every single moment to allow it to develop into true learning. You won’t learn by just showing up — you will learn if you carry the right posture with the right tools that you’ve already nurtured into your existence every single day.
Sure, there is the argument for socialization which I hope happens and the argument for being around teachers who are different adults than your parents who have given their lives to best lead students in learning, which I also hope happens, but it is the anticipation of sending you into a space where you can lead your own journey that has us confident in our decision to do this.
We also have the hope that, as opposed to you being negatively influenced and jaded by your peers, your rootedness will not take on the possible negative qualities, but rather, your positive qualities will impact those you come in contact with — that you and everyone you exist around will thrive because you are there.
This is my hope.
And though it is idealistic, I am confident we can all provide the nurturance to continue to put you in a position to build something beautiful within the school system.
And I believe this hope will unfold if you start each day guided by the narrative of remembering who you are and asking questions. You going to school isn’t just about learning and being a productive member of society, it is us using the available medium of a school system to unleash you on your journey with us still being able to be by your side.
What this will lead to in 13 years makes me excited.
I want to recant my previous statement — that we chose not to homeschool you. This is not true.
Just because you spend a solid chunk of your day a few miles down the road doesn’t mean that we are not teaching you here. You will have many teachers over the next 13 years, but none will be as passionate and dedicated to your transformation as your mother and I. Maybe that is part of why we are okay with this decision. At home, every day, we get to learn together, become together, and grow. In a way, we are still choosing to provide a sort of “school” at our home and with our household. We are all still in school together because we are always learning. And we hope to utilize our time in profound, intentional, and meaningful ways that will make all of us continue on our journeys forward.
When you show up to your school building, then, I hope we have nurtured our life together in a way that only catalyzes what you do there. Essentially, we still get to be by your side — we still get to be your teachers and journey with you — and we fully intend to.
Now, I want to share my final exhortation on what I hope today marks for this next season of your life.
The day you were born, a lot happened. Of all the days of my life, I think I remember those details more vividly than any other. I’m sure you know the details by the time you read this, but there is a set of details that isn’t as discussed as often as the others.
One day in the Fall, your mother and I were at a pizza place in Pasadena. We ordered calzones. They weren’t that good. But we went not only to check out the food spot, but to just get out of our apartment for a bit and talk. So, upon finishing our meager dishes, we sat in the restaurant. While we were sitting and chatting, a child at a table started getting rambunctious. As you know by now, this is a relatively normal escapade. Eventually, however, the whole environment started getting a bit chaotic as the child’s siblings started adding to the noise like a firework setting off every flammable item in reach. In the midst of the spiraling chaos, it was obvious that the parent was overwhelmed. I don’t blame her.
For some reason, not knowing parenting was on our horizon, we started talking about what we would do in that situation. As we walked home, the discussion went further. We ventured on to discuss how we understood parenting and what kind of parents we think we need to be. That day, we began painting the picture of how we believed a family ought to work and what we believed we wanted to be like with whatever children we would possibly have.
Unfortunately, we never got the chance to fully sketch that picture out as you surprised us before we nailed down our thesis on parenting (full disclosure, we now realize that waiting to have children until we got the full picture of parenting would be impossible. You can never be ready…you can only continue to paint the picture as you actually experience the role of parenting. Not to say that we couldn’t have used a few more conversations, but we were as ready as we would have ever been).
In the hospital on that day of your unexpected birth, amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, we eventually had a chance to calm down. I grabbed a pen and some paper and, in the proper fashion of my personality that needs to process every detail, I started trying to articulate what your mother and I discussed that day and the conversations we had since. We asked, “What is parenting? Why does it exist? What are the important principles we want to live by as parents? How should we raise this child?”
We wrote a lot of things down that day. I had a paper completely filled front and back, but there was one image that stood out to us as we prepared to meet you — the image that would become the foundation of the canvas as we continued to paint the picture of parenting.
When we got married, we did this exact same thing. We sat and asked all those meta questions to make sure we were beginning our marriage as healthily as possible. There were lots of pens and papers and attempts to fully process our entrance into that new, unfamiliar season, too. The image we came up with that encompassed all our thoughts (which filled the fronts and back of many papers as we had more than 2 hours to prepare) was that a marriage is like a flower that actively pierces the concrete of the world.
Two people commit themselves to each other and embody selflessness, emptying themselves and handing their identities to each other in intimate connection. It is a form of resistance and a form of healing in a world that desperately needs to go in a different direction. This humanity project is full of darkness and concrete, but a flower that pierces those cracks can bring a little color and a little light.
Thus, a flower that pierces the concrete.
So as we sat in the hospital room awaiting your arrival and, on the infamous piece of paper, I drew a picture of a flower because we realized that if marriage is a flower that pierces the concrete, a family is when that flower which has grown as the result of two people giving their lives to each other, plants some new seeds.
The central image we left that hospital room with the day you were born was that for us to be parents meant that we have a responsibility to the seeds we planted — to guide and to nurture and to see to their growth, flourishment, and health.
What struck us most during that moment was the realization and awakening to the fact that you weren’t part of the same plant, even though you did come from us. You were your own plant on your own adventure in the world and we were simply there to unleash your existence in the best way possible. We are a flower guiding you to be the best flower you can be. You are not indebted to us, you don’t owe us anything — our love produced you and we simply have the responsibility to help you continue in that love in your own, unique way.
Today, on your first day of ‘all-day school,’ we watched the seedling put out its first buds.
You are in the first space of truly being your own flower. We oversaw your initial stages of growth, a seed sprouting and developing its first leaves, but now you are becoming more independent and your growth is more determined by you. We hope that as you blossom, we will always be here to enjoy the world with you.
And, as you continue to grow, we intend to continue to nurture and to guide you as the flower you are.
Yet, we do so with the full understanding that you are your own plant. Today was the first time that I tangibly felt that what we said in the hospital just a couple hours before you were born was vividly true. The flower that resulted from our love is several miles down the road growing. Our hope is that you know we will always help you grow as we continue to figure out how to grow ourselves, but since the beginning, we have known that you were your own person. The time is now here where, though we are still connected and, honestly, we always hope to be, you are growing without us.
That’s what I see this beginning of school being for you — to use the soil we have attempted to share with you so that you might use every opportunity during every single day to continue to become the beautiful flower you were when your seed first took root.
That you will use the structure of school to nurture your development so that you may continue to bring a little light and a little color to our world that so desperately needs it.
We’ve tried to give you the nutrients — but here we are and your life is actively blossoming.
We’ve tried to give you the tools and identity that you need — but your journey is yours and it is certainly underway.
Let’s keep the garden growing, even in the rigid corners of education, but my hope is that you will do so by flexing your wisdom to emerge the beauty of what is possible.
And know that I am not only going to be with you as you grow, but that I am so excited to see how you continue to blossom.
Therefore, as you begin this journey, the only advice I can give you is the advice I will whisper in your ear every single day before you enter those halls:
Remember who you are.
And ask lots of questions.
The flower that results from you doing that for 13 years during this season of life will be undeniably profound.
And all of us, myself included, will be that much better for it.