No, this isn’t about playing Mozart while your two-year old naps, or picking the right language to assure your kid is Valedictorian. It’s about celebration, and memories. And thinking ahead.
High school graduation is one of the major milestones of our lives, and perhaps the clearest and most widely accepted marker of maturity and independence. Childhood is done.
My son just graduated from high school last week, and I’m feeling exhilarated and sad. I’ve sorted through all his class photos, remembering the grinning, geeky child he was in grade school. That boy is no more.
But I started thinking about this day a long time ago, and preparing for a very special present that would track his growth and progress through the years, academically and otherwise.
I confess this idea didn’t originate with me: I was interviewing a woman for my first book, The Heart of a Family: Searching America for New Traditions That Fulfill Us. She told me that every year starting in kindergarten, she had asked the teachers of each of her children to write a letter the child wouldn’t receive until he or she graduated from 8th grade. The letters were going to be included in a lovely scrapbook.
I seized on her idea, with variations. I wanted to gather teacher letters through high school, and then present them in a keepsake box rather than a scrapbook.
I soon learned that most teachers are very receptive to the idea, as long as you respect their workloads: don’t ask until the school year is over, and just request a highlights letter, not a massive report. I asked them to be as specific and as honest as possible.
The trickiest part was getting the high school letters assembled, because there was such a narrow window between the end of classes and graduation. I made the request to my son’s three favorite teachers: all of them had taught him at least twice. His favorite, the drama teacher, had been working with Max since middle school, and he’s had the biggest impact on my son’s life.
TIP: I did not start project this until 2nd or 3rd grade, and though I tried to catch up with some of the earlier teachers, they did not respond. There are missing years in my letter box, but that didn’t stop me, and it shouldn’t stop you either. I just presented the ones I had. Another option would be to create your own write-up of the missing years, listing the teacher’s name, favorite classmates, some projects or triumphs that stood out.
I wanted to supplement the teacher letters in the box with others from family members full of memories and good wishes for the future. So I sent a request about a month before graduation, asking them to send a letter on paper rather than e-mails.
On graduation day, Max was celebrated with all manner of treat foods and gifts. But he said the box full of letters was the absolute highlight of the day.
At the party, I saved the box for last, and my son was both surprised and elated. One by one, he read the letters aloud, and it was such a powerful experience to see the portrait painted by the succession of teachers who had taught him. The letters were full of anecdotes and humor, things he said, occasions he misbehaved, the funny “lobster dance” for which he was famous in 5th grade. His 3rd grade teacher wrote, “You had wild hair sometimes and you didn’t like to wear shoes so much.” They all praised his amazing writing, and his extravagant use of big words.
Photographs are wonderful mementos, but they are insufficient to help us fully recall our past. Whether you follow this exact pattern or not, think about how you can someday deliver to your children a deep, emotional recreation of their childhoods.