Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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The Time to Enjoy the Ride is Now

There are some expressions that you never truly understand… Until you do.

It took me until I was 29 years old and a weekend spent at Lundy Canyon during a freakishly cold June to understand what “not a happy camper” meant. Dressed in every article of clothing I had packed, I climbed out of my tent to warm my numbed toes by the fire, putting my feet so close to the flames that I melted the soles of my Ugg boots. The expression that I’d long been acquainted with, and had probably used on occasion, finally made perfect sense. I’d shivered my way through most of the night, barely sleeping, and trying to climb inside my husband’s skin when it dawned on me: I was NOT a happy camper.

Eleven years later, I think I finally understand what it means to be Over the Hill.

For the past three years, I told my husband that for my 40th birthday we were taking a trip to The Grand Canyon. I had never struggled with any birthdays before– I mean, aside from being still slightly intoxicated during college finals the day after I turned 21. Yet something about turning 40 seemed downright ominous. There were all those stories: suddenly requiring readers after a lifetime of 20/20 vision, the way the scale creeps up…and up….and up despite working out harder than ever before, and let’s not forget (I shudder to even say the word) perimenopause.

I suppose I figured that if I had any reservations about turning the big 4-0, standing on the rim of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, one that was millions of years old, could help put things in perspective.

And if I was wrong, I could always jump in.

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Visiting the canyon was a bucket list item for both my husband and me and it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. And it was. We got to take a road trip through the desert with our kids, spend some time hiking and taking in the sights, and catch up with close friends in Vegas on both ends of the trip.

Perhaps turning forty wasn’t a big deal.

That morning, I woke early and snuck out of our hotel room to watch the sun rise over the canyon. There were plenty of other tourists doing the same, but by walking a short way down the rim trail, I was able to find solitude as the sky was painted in breathtaking hues.

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I was officially forty.

That night we were back in Vegas. We met up with our friends at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate when I made the mistake of telling the waiter it was my birthday.

“And it’s a big one.” I joked. “Guess how old I am?”

He didn’t even really pause to think about it. He took one look at me and said, “45.”

That’s right. Cuarenta y cinco.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

There was an awkward silence that fell on the table as I added more salt to my margarita with my tears.

My husband quickly rationalized how women in Vegas all have “work” done and so many look much younger than they are. When I glared at him, he proceeded to insult the man’s intelligence, which only made me feel slightly better.

From that moment on, I was headed downhill.

Since turning 40, ironically, my hearing and eyesight have both improved.

One morning, I woke and noticed that the bed sheets had left strange marks on my chest. Hours later, the marks remained. If these small creases in my skin weren’t from my linens then…

Oh—Shit.

Suddenly, I recalled all those times as a teenager that I’d slathered up in baby oil and laid in the sun, sucking down Slurpees and chain-smoking Parliament Lights.

I whispered a silent prayer: Dear God, Please bring back the turtle neck this winter. And the mock neck the year after that. And then the cowl neck. There’d be no more décolletage for me.

And that’s when I heard it:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I assume it’s the sound of the clock counting down what’s left of my life. Everything will gain momentum now as I race towards a finish line I’d prefer not to cross. Within a month of turning 40, my youngest will partake in her graduation to the first grade, my oldest has started saving money for her first car, and I have scheduled my first mammogram. My closest friends ask me how it feels to be 40, which only serves to remind me that they are still 39, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake these five pounds that showed up around my midsection just in time for summer.

Every anti-aging cream, wrinkle reducer, fine-line diminisher, and work-out regimen are appearing on my timeline, and I’m questioning why I didn’t invest in these things sooner…before it was too late.

But truth be told, I know why. It’s because I wasn’t 40 and when you’re still headed uphill it’s a slow climb that feels like you’ll never reach the top.

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The other night, my husband asked, “Do you think you might just be having a hard time with the idea that you’re getting older?”

I hollered at the younger man I married, “Me?! Me?!”

“No. Me too.” (He stopped reacting to my histrionics years ago.) “I’m surprised I don’t wake you up in the middle of the night when I try to straighten my leg and groan.”

Huh. Maybe my hearing is going after all.

But then, I hear it again:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Still..When you’re headed downhill, there’s really only one thing to do.

It’s time to stop pedaling so hard, let the wind blow through your increasingly gray hair, let go of the handlebars, and learn to enjoy the ride. 

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