In the days leading up to the start of school I had several conversations with my son Sam and all of them started the same:
“Mom, I’m scared to start first grade.”
Each time I would offer standard responses. I asked follow up questions and gave him space to talk about his feelings. I encouraged him to think about what he was excited about. I reminded him about how much he had loved kindergarten. Nothing I offered seemed particularly helpful to him, and within a few hours we’d be back where we started.
“Mom, I’m scared to go to first grade.”
Truth is I’m scared for him to go to first grade, too. Starting his grade school experience in a pandemic means that I’ve never set foot in his classroom. I’ve never had a parent/teacher conference. I’ve never seen the principal in person. I drop my kid off in front of a big, busy building every day and watch him walk into a place I’ve only entered on election day.
Then there’s the fact that the Delta variant has paid us a visit and while I’m so grateful we are in a district that requires masks, I’m actually less confident this year that he won’t get sick.
So yeah, I’m scared about first grade, too.
Maybe it’s because his fear is mingled with my own that finally, during another round of the same conversation, an old and special memory popped into my head.
I’m the director of the camp and retreat center for the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island. Long before I was the director, I was a camper. Thirty years ago at the start of each camp session all the campers and staff would crowd into the large barn that still serves as our primary gathering space for worship and meetings. We were welcomed to camp by Father John Hall, one of the co-directors of the camp at the time.
After offering a warm greeting, Father Hall would say some version of the following:
“I know some of you might be nervous to be at camp today. Some of you are here for the first time, and some of you haven’t been here for a year. So it’s natural to be nervous. But take a look around you. Someone here is more nervous than you are. Perhaps you can remember that, and you can reach out to someone else to help them feel welcome here. Then everyone will be a little less nervous.”
As Sam and I were headed to the beach for our last official summer evening the night before school, I shared Father Hall’s words with him. I encouraged him to be a friend, even though he was scared. I told him to look out for other people who might be even more nervous than he was. He ran ahead of me to our spot on the beach, and by the time I caught up he had already introduced himself to another boy on the beach. They spent the whole evening playing together.
I don’t know if Father Hall’s words impacted Sam, but I know they impacted me. They meant something to me all those years ago at camp, and they meant something to me leading up to the first day of school this year. I remembered to look around me, and pay attention to the fact that there are people everywhere, all of them nervous about the start of yet another pandemic school year.
It’s so easy to get lost in our own overwhelming emotions and fear and fail to see the experience of those around us. But what I learned from camp all those years ago is that the very best antidote to our own fear is reaching out in kindness to someone else. Not only can we impact the experience of those around us, but we can transform our own fear into action, and – like Fr. Hall taught me – into friendship.