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

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.