The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional


Photo Credit: CHOReograPH (Bigstock)

The summer is fading—and the sun is rising—as I drive my son to his summer job.

At thirteen-years-old, Aidan has spent his summer riding a bus into the cornfields, along with other teenagers, walking row after row of corn, and pulling the tassel from each stalk, so the rows can pollinate each other. As we cross a river, he looks to the west, where the night is slowly giving way to day. He says it’s beautiful how you can see the layers of night disappearing in the sky. We talk about how, even farther west, there are people still sleeping in the dark, unaware of the passage of time.

This image haunts me.

It haunts me long after Aidan boards the bus, long after the sun climbs into the sky. Because that’s how most of us live—myself included—asleep in the dark, unaware of the passage of time. Or running to and fro under a midday sun that hangs so high and steady in the sky you can almost convince yourself it isn’t moving. Hurry is its own kind of sleepwalking. The noisy bustle obscures the ticking of the clock.

The passage of time is only unmasked in the boundary lands.

The passage of time can only be truly experienced in those boundary lands between day and night, when stars quickly disappear into oceanic blue. Or those boundary lands between summer and autumn when green leaves morph into every color of a dying rainbow. Or those boundary lands between life and death—birthing rooms and graveside services. Or those boundary lands between childhood and adulthood we call graduation ceremonies. Or those boundary lands between youth and old age—birthdays with numbers like forty, or fifty, or sixty.

Or the boundary land many of us are entering this week—the boundary land we call back-to-school.

Our family will be walking through the boundary lands of first-to-second grade, third-to-fourth grade, and, gulp, seventh-to-eighth grade. Sending Aidan off to kindergarten eight years ago made me more than a little emotional. I thought that would subside over time.

Yet, here I am, feeling the boundary lands once again.

I’m starting to think this back-to-school boundary land is so emotional for so many of us because it stands in for all the other boundary lands.

It is a marker of the passage of time, so it is a symbol not just of our kids growing up and moving on but a reminder that all of life is moving on, as well. In every new backpack and lunchbox there is the haunting reminder of birthing rooms and funerals, of seasons rolling along, of a sun relentlessly rising and setting, regardless of our tendency to sleepwalk through it all.

Boundary lands like this one present us with a choice.

Will we allow the periods of time between boundary lands to become wastelands—will we slip back into mindlessness about this passage of time, will we settle into the oblivion and become unconscious of it all slipping by? Or will we turn the ordinary, wide-open spaces between boundary lands into farmlands? Will we tend to them, cultivate them, and sow within them mindfulness and intentionality, so that one day we can reap from them the memories of time well spent?

Next year, when the tassels are all pulled and the summer days are fading once again and Aidan stands on the edge of the boundary land between middle school and high school, will the space between now and then be more like wasteland, or more like farmland?

That’s what haunts me.

But, the truth is, not all hauntings are bad hauntings.

Some ghosts are good ghosts.

Some ghosts whisper with a voice of grace, reminding us of what is important, reminding us of what really matters, reminding us of bedtime books and bedtime prayers, of morning breath and morning hugs, of animal crackers and peanut butter and jelly, of Saturday morning pancakes and Sunday morning church shoes, of tricycles and bicycles, of car pools and swimming pools, of sick days and half days and holidays, of girls who will be grown and giggles that will be gone, of boys who will pull their last tassel.

Some ghosts remind us that ordinary time is, also, sacred time.

Some ghosts are worth listening to.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional

  1. Today, I am on time for the party! 🙂
    This is a humbling post Kelly, thank you for it! I always thought something was wrong with me for things taking me “time”, and years later when I did a pilgrimage, I understood that things didn’t take me time, I needed that time to live them fully, to have the time to muncher every piece, to appreciate the small changes as Aidan mentioned to you about the early morning. It sounds to me that we get so caught up with busyness and transit and soap shows and distracting screens and one-click shopping that when things need us and need our time, we feel it is wrong. But there is where the real presence, the juice, the perfect tomatoe is found. And it is great to remind ourselves that those moments are unique, we won’t get them back and we are given them to live them fully. Thanks again! Big hugs! Cris

    • This is a beautiful reflection, Cris, thank you for speaking from your experience and your true self. I like the idea that ordinary experiences “need our time.” We think of everything that needs our time and never consider that the small moments need it, and probably more.

  2. In adulthood, the reckoning that is jumpstarted by the new school year has become reckoning with the High Holidays. How does Rosh Hashanah arrive more quickly each year? Judaism’s wheel of time returns us to the boundary land as we meet Jewish New Year. Ten Days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, demands of us to take an accounting of our soul. Have we matured in the past year? Have we honored last year’s pledge to summon patience in the face of its darker twin? Have we used our words to build up instead of tear down? The shofar, ram’s horn, is sounded no only to summon God’s attention and remind Him of his pledge to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to wake us up, body and soul. We inevitably “fall asleep” again, yet hopefully a bit more awake as we ascend the gyre each year. In roughly another month we will be in that liminal state between the old year and the new. IN preparation, now is the time we are given the chance to rub our eyes, stretch our arms heavenward and begin to prepare.

    • This is beautiful, Debra. I love how rituals make boundary lands out of our celebrations and and religious observances, giving us a point of reference to refer back to and reflect upon. You’ve put it wonderfully here.

  3. I saw the most beautiful horizon once, many years ago while on an international flight. Out of my tiny window in the middle of nowhere, while almost everyone was asleep, there was mostly pitch black. Then, as I was staring into the blackness I saw a pinprick of light, it was the slightest little sliver of light with indescribably red and yellow hues and a hairline of reddish orange extending from either side of it. I felt pure joy for that moment, experiencing that beauty, and yet a sort of sadness came over me knowing that I didn’t have anyone to share it with. Nobody was with me to appreciate it and wonder over it. It was a very lonely feeling, but that loneliness confirmed an understanding in my heart of how important others in my life must be. I think we have to have all the lumps in our throats and wetness in our eyes in order to truly grasp the value of life itself. So Kelly, I say absorb that haunting feeling you described and continue to cherish those cornfield conversations when they come and take hold of the joy you get from the combination of the two. If we didn’t have the indicators of the passage of time, we would never feel any urgency, and without urgency we’d place little value on anything. Without the value add of fleeting moments that may never return to us, we’d probably never find true happiness in this life and then, once we pass into eternity where time and urgency have ended, what growth could we have beyond this life? None, and that is the saddest thing of all. If we are to expand and grow and experience the grandest of all fathomable joy, we must take in the lessons of mortality in full and steer ourselves now before the path we set takes us away from that ultimate joy. A Christian Doctrine found in 1 Corinthians 15: 40-42 describes 3 potential paths for eternity; each a varying degree of brightness and each a varying degree of joy associated with the brightness. If we are to properly align ourselves with the brightest of those paths like an astronaut aiming for a celestial body, the launch coordinates from the ground are the most critical where only a fraction of a degree takes us off course by millions of miles in the end. Setting priorities on the ever critical and beautiful things in life that have the worrisome ability to be passed up as we sleepwalk will put us on the proper launch path to the brightest of eternities.

  4. I don’t think I would be as aware of aging and my mortality if it wasn’t for seeing my children grow and change so dramatically each year. That is a blessing — one that sometimes makes me wistful but a gift all the same.

  5. Up early this morning, and from the chair I sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. The bed was cozy, but I was awake, my mind going, and frankly the sunrise was beckoning. I got up this morning to enjoy all that and the peace of the morning… Then I read your blog… Inspirational as always.. and suddenly I look up and appreciate the sunrise even more. Thank you for your beautiful inspirational writing. I pass it on to friends and family members regularly.

  6. Oh boy. That’s heavy stuff. Every new thing is one of those boundary lands. Every thing noticed or discovered is a chance to accept or change, to decide on a point of view that will be hard to shake off later (I guess that’s the long way to say “judge,” huh?) but what follows the judging defines the judging, after the fact: it’s a turning point.

    Or every thing noticed or discovered is a chance to let it be and flow through without bounding possibilities and limiting experiences with mere words. (They’re good tools, words, and a world unto themselves, I’m grumping at what a fine distraction they can be (“don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself”).)

    And then, there’s not much limit to what can be new. Today’s studying may not have the same sense (how much longer will I be on this plateau where I seem to be going nowhere while the test date keeps coming) as the last several days… ok I’m grumpy about that too. Overt upheaval and excitement would make for more evident progress, if not necessarily in the same direction (so that would be distraction, but ΣFy=0 and better yet ΣMa=0 for a system in equilibrium, oh wait life is more a matter of dynamics than statics) so here I am, “our shoulder is to the wheel of progress and the wheel is turning,” being faithful to the process… and hopefully entertaining someone with my rambling.

    That gets me thinking about boundary lands as in-between-ness. A philosopher writes of bona fide boundaries and fiat boundaries. How are we not always in a state of becoming?

    Yours truly, from the boundary lands –

    • Thank you for this reflection, Julie, and it helps me put my finger on something I wasn’t quite able to name in the post. I tend to think of the space between boundary lands, but maybe the truth is, the boundary lands are the empty spaces between what is most significant about being alive.

      • You are welcome, and: not so much empty as transition zones and turning points, maybe? That smaller thing aside, I agree… the stupid (I am frustrated today, but still, there is SO everlasting much stupid in the day-to-day of flawed and foibled humanity) in between matters, a lot. And in duration it greatly outweighs the transitions. You touched on it with ordinary time as sacred time.

  7. Dear Kelly

    I don’t follow any particular religion
    and in fact stay away from it most of the time. I have gone bi-polar in
    the past, was on meds, etc. then I healed myself with Bach Flower
    I know this experience to be quite a gift! Although saying that, my husband wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.
    My “prayers” are live and in the moment and are currently focused on our wildlife.

    I trust you can get to my Endangered Species Photographic Competition on Facebook.

Comments are closed.