Back-to-school means shaky legs

I watched my youngest pull himself up the diving board ladder. He confidently walked along the board protected by the rail and then slowed. I could tell he was tempted to turn back as he had before, but mixed in was a determination I hadn’t seen on previous attempts. He left the security of the rails, made his way to the end, and he jumped.

We had worked toward that moment all summer. He told me he wanted to try so we started taking steps to make it happen. First he practiced swimming the distance from board to edge in shallower water. Then he started underwater and swam the full distance. He kept practicing until he was confident he could swim the distance quickly. Then he decided to give the board a try. But he just couldn’t make himself take the plunge. There are some things we can’t perfectly prepare for within any challenge, and the height of a diving board is one of those things.

Weeks went by. We didn’t talk about the board much. His swimming got stronger. He grew more confident playing in water over his head. And then he decided to try again. As he exited the middle part of the pool where he was comfortable and made his way toward the boards, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But that’s when I saw the determination hidden behind the fear. Despite the shaky legs as he inched toward the edge, I knew he was going to take the plunge. When he came up and his eyes met mine, I saw pure excitement. There were lots of high fives and “I’m proud of yous.” He finally knew the exhilaration of jumping off a diving board first hand, and he went back for more.

Diving boards included, any sort of transitions tend to be a multi-step process at our house–when we can help it. Perhaps some people can face new things without a second thought, but our family as a whole isn’t like that. And there’s nothing like the arrival of August to make our collective tough-to-transition-ness obvious.

Nerves and uncertainty are normal in our house during August. It doesn’t matter what grade my kids go into, there is a certain degree of worry. Back-to-school tends to bring concern and stress. So we do our best as a family to work through what we can ahead of time. We try to extend extra grace as kids struggle to fall asleep at bedtime. We talk through worries and if they resurface, we talk some more.

But all the preparation we do before is nothing like the relief that comes from taking the plunge and entering those doors on the first day. While I always know we will have multiple situations to work through as the year progresses, I’ve generally been met with smiles at the end of the first day. The kids are proud because despite shaky legs, they survived the jump.

As school begins for Hillsboro this week, Brad and I officially become parents of a middle schooler. We will also be parents of newly-turned fourth and second graders. As the youngest makes the transition from the front hallway at Hillsboro Elementary School to the back one, it becomes clear we are fast leaving behind the stage of parenting young children.

It’s interesting. In the past, I have experienced dread at the turning of the years. Even this summer I dreaded the turning of the calendar page. But at the moment, I don’t feel the need to dwell on the quick passage of time. Despite a few uncertainties from my elementary-aged kids–multiplication facts aren’t so fresh; not having an abundance of free time to spend outside with neighborhood friends and instead plopped back at a desk–I know both of them are capable to tackle the year ahead. Their re-entry might start with a nerve-riddled jump, but they will be cannonballing and diving in no time.

And I know something about my sixth-grader too. The board might be higher this year, but she is ready for middle school.

Even though she says she would prefer to return to her kindergarten teacher’s classroom and stay there (she loves you Mrs. Boldt!) I see in her a girl who is prepared to step into a higher-level school.

I see in her a girl who has survived adversity in her past and has the ability to face new challenges as they come. I see in her a girl growing in wisdom. I see in her a girl willing to do hard things even when it takes a few times to get it right. I see in her a girl with compassion for others and a keen sense of observation. I see in her a girl who will grow even more in the years to come.

I’m proud of her, even as she fights to let go of the rail and walk with shaky legs to the edge of a higher diving board. And when she comes up and her eyes meet mine, there will be high fives and “I’m proud of yous” and hopefully she’ll return for more with excitement, confident in the small steps that will eventually lose the shakiness and lead to dives and flips.

Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog,

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