Small Wonders: Sharpening up for the school year

"Daddy, this pencil won't work," Thing 1 calls from the back porch. "It won't sharpen right."

She's got a fistful of pencils and is trying to sharpen them in preparation for the first day of the new school year. She and her sister, Thing 2, are Chihuahuas who have focused their nervous energy this morning into getting ready for school an hour away.

The pencil is indeed flawed, honed unevenly so the wood shields the lead on one side like a hood. Over the summer she's forgotten Pencil Sharpening 101, so I demonstrate for her, pushing the pencil straight into the wall-mounted sharpener, not pulling it or pushing it at an angle.

"Oh, it does work," she discovers.

After 18 more pencils, just enough for Day 1, she runs off to assemble her backpack, pencil box, space-saver, folders, notebooks, journal, GPS system and emergency defibrillator.

Just kidding. We don't let her take her journal to school.

I read a post recently on Facebook that summer vacation has ended for the kids but just started for parents. Amen to that. Just in time for our first real summer heat wave, school begins.

Triple-digit heat, shadeless playgrounds, smog alerts, over-congested rooms without air-conditioning. All this so my second-grader can be on the same schedule as college-bound juniors and seniors taking prep exams.

School: It's about what's best for the kids.

But anyway, mine arose this day with visions of school chums dancing in their heads. They knew exactly what they wanted to wear, brushed their teeth and hair without being asked, didn't fight with each other over equal spacing on the couch and were ready and eager to go by 7 a.m.

If it weren't for the moles and selective hearing I know they inherited from me, I'd wonder if they were really my offspring. I don't recall ever looking forward to school. Not the first day, not even the last.

But I do so look forward to it now.

We spent a lot of time together this summer, which was over almost as soon as it started. But it's not until today that we see just how much they've grown since last year.

Since last month.

Even 10 minutes ago.

They're outside now chatting with the neighbor kid, showing off their new clothes, shoes, backpacks and lunchboxes, even though they had a red carpet fashion show yesterday to do the same. They are kids, but youth seems to be falling away from them like their shoes, socks and sweaters do on the living room floor when they come home. In them I see teenagers, young adults, brides and friends. What happened?

At school, initial awkwardness fades as friends from last year embrace, and further fashion comparisons begin. More students and fewer teachers again this year, but the teachers are all smiles as they meet their new charge. Nervousness dissolves as the awesomeness of being a grade older sets in. Last year's tears and dramas are long forgotten. As in life, the good floats to the top, and the bad sinks into the murkiness.

After dropping them off, the wife and I wonder why their growth seems to have sped up. The first few years of their lives dragged on, as if we'd arrived at the airport five years before our flight. And now they push us away in favor of their friends, march into class excitedly and bravely without fear. Now we want time to slow down so we can take more mental snapshots.

Kids have the benefit of easily recognized benchmarks in life: First day of school, last day of school, first communion, last game or episode of the season — times when they know that life has changed and a new chapter is opening before them. We have these moments as adults too, but they can be harder to find and certainly less predictable. Ask anyone who's been laid off.

School is a training ground for more than academics, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for 10 or 15 years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education."

Whenever I get complacent, I'm reminded that I have so much more to learn. Every day.

How to be a more patient father; how to listen to my wife without that dumb, blank stare on my face; how to be respectful of people with different opinions than mine; how to take a stand for what I believe and how to be humble when I'm wrong.

I'm still learning to forgive; learning to speak up, put up and shut up. Learning to juggle the balls in the air that life throws at us while not losing sight of life itself. Learning to look past daily nuisances, disagreements and overexposed New Jerseyans. Learning to turn away from my computer when Thing 2 wants me to see the new, permanent marker tattoo she's just given herself.

I'm still learning to sharpen my pencil the right way. If it's ready for the small lessons, it'll be ready for the midterms and final exams for the rest of my life.

PATRICK CANEDAY appreciates the witty things his editors write in this byline each week. He can be reached on Facebook, at http://www.patrickcaneday.com and patrickcaneday@gmail.com.

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