As I sent my kids back to school this year, I sent them with my prayers.
I love the beginning of a new school year. I love meeting my kids’ new teachers. I derive over-the-top joy from new school supplies. I savor the excitement my kids have about seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and their plans, goals and hopes for the year. Certain churches, including my own, start each school year with the “Blessing of the Backpacks.” Kids bring their backpacks to church one Sunday in late August and lay them near the altar. Then we as a church pray for students, for teachers and schools in our city. It’s a tactile way of “blessing and sending” our kids into the tasks and challenges that lay ahead and a joyful and moving way to start the year.
We thank God for the gift of education, for another chance to learn about the world. In the last busy weeks of summer vacation, amid rummaging through school supply bins or rounding up immunization records, I can forget what an unbelievable gift it is that my children can spend their childhood learning to read, write, add and subtract. It’s a gift that most in human history did not have and that millions of children around the world, especially girls, do not have today. It is good to take a moment to recall what a privilege it is that, because of the work of people who came before us, we’ve inherited a system where it is simply assumed that all of us — not just the richest among us — will be able to educate our kids.
So we pray for the children in our midst. We pray that they will learn, grow, and discover truth, beauty and goodness. They are learning to think, learning to notice, learning to take up the enormous responsibility of seeking to understand the world and act wisely in it.
There is so much joy, newness and hope buzzing in the air this time of year.
But it’s always a bit more complex than that. For me, there is a sense of lament as well. The new school year is also a time when, yet again, I must practice letting my kids go. A mentor of mine whose children are now adults told me that for each new stage they entered, he felt delight and joy, and at the exact same time, he grieved losing the stage before. This is the complex melody of parenting. From the time the cord is cut till your children grow into adults, parenthood is a long practice in loving deeply yet letting go. Over and over again.
But the toughest part about this time of year isn’t merely letting my kids go. It’s that I must let them go into a hard and sometimes heartbreaking world. With prayers from their church and their parents, we send them out — into conversations that I don’t monitor, relationships I can’t control, a system that I am not in charge of. They could face “mean girls” and bullies. There will be misunderstandings and conflicts, difficulties and failures, disappointments and frustrations. I can’t rescue my children from it. I can’t make a world for them that is never painful, confusing or unfair. There’s sorrow in that for me, every year.
Our worries for our kids can be even darker. The start of school marks another year that we have not made our children safe from violence in schools. Just three months ago I stood on the edge of a playground at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, after a shooter killed 19 children and two adults. I couldn’t take my eyes off the empty swings. I could not stop thinking of kids who had swung happily on them. Kids who went to school bearing their backpacks and lunchboxes and did not come home. I have thought of their parents a lot in the past couple of weeks and the grief they bear as they watch their neighbors’ children begin a new year.
A year ago, two friends and I, all mothers, co-wrote a short book of prayers for children. We decided to include a prayer for the beginning of the school day. As we workshopped a draft, we discussed what we should cover in it. It began, “Dear God, Bless our school and our teachers and all of our helpers. Give me courage to be a good friend.” We edited a few more lines about kindness, curiosity and the gift of learning about God’s world. Then, our conversation grew sad and serious. We knew we had to address the need for safety — something so many parents think about as they drop their kids off at school each day. We were writing for 4- through 9-year-olds. How does one possibly address the reality of gun violence with such tiny kids? But how could we ignore it? These tiny kids have lockdown drills. These kids know that violence lurks amid the happiest of lives and classrooms. They know this in a way I did not when I was their age. The prayer ends “And please keep everyone safe all day long.” That’s the best words we could come up with, the best we could offer.
I left that writing session feeling angry, angry that we had to think about mass violence when writing a prayer for second graders, angry that we as a country have failed children, angry at how children live in a world where adults do not keep them safe. It felt wrong because it is wrong.
According to Everytown, last year alone, there were “at least 202 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 49 deaths and 126 injuries nationally.” Gun violence is a scourge on American life and in 2020 gun related deaths were the leading cause of death for those under 19 years old. Even so, I understand rationally in the cold light of day, that statistically the chance of children dying in school shootings is low. But it still rattles a mother’s heart. It’s the nightmare, the fear that you can’t shake. It’s the ever-present shadow of “What if?” And it’s the exasperation that parents even have to carry that worry, the horror that I live in a society that is more committed to adult autonomy than to the safety of children.
Still, this year, yet again, I sent my children into their work in the world. I do so each year because it is a world full to the brim with beauty, wonder, mystery, laughter and loveliness and I want them to get to know all of it, to revel in it, to play in it, to explore it. I want them to learn to be faithful, thoughtful, and wise within it. But it is also a world where, each year, we ask our kids to face more than they should ever have to. When I send my kids off to school, I am sending those I love most into the unknown, into a world of joy and pain and into a world that I can’t control. So this year, I will bless them and send them out again, with my prayers, and I’ll wait, with anticipation, to see them again at the end of the day and to hear how their day was.
How about you? How are you praying for your children or others, teachers, administrators or schools as this new school year begins? Are there particular prayers you use? Or specific rituals or practices that your family embraces this time of year? Share them with me at [email protected] and we will select some responses to highlight in next week’s newsletter. Please be sure to let us know if we have your permission to print your full name and approximate location along with your response.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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