Now that my son was a rising fifth grader and my daughter a rising first grader, our family had developed a tradition for the night before the start of school. The kids would fill their new backpacks with cool cartoon laden folders with things like SpongeBob SquarePants, lay out their carefully selected back to school outfits, select a restaurant for the family to eat the last supper of summer and, importantly, have some sort of emotional breakdown complete with anxiety filled tears and attempts to negotiate their way out of the inevitable.
The night before my first day at Darden was no exception.
The start of the Darden school year is a one week Leadership Residency from Saturday to Saturday in late August. Classes begin at 8AM and are scheduled until 5PM with evening activities that keep you going until about 10PM. Students are encouraged/expected to stay at the Darden hotel even if they lived locally.
The first week of school had been on my mind since submitted my application in December.
It was one of the items in the “cons” column in my analysis for attending Darden. While I understood that it would be an incredible way to immerse yourself into learning, it was also the week of my daughter’s first day of school and Jennifer’s birthday week. I had never missed meeting the bus for the first day of school and I certainly had never missed Jennifer’s birthday.
Jennifer was completely understanding about her birthday and didn’t let me focus on it one bit. Her family would be in town for a weekend reunion and we could celebrate another time.
The kids, on the other hand, were feeling the stress of me returning to school and regularly questioning my decision.
“Two years, Dad?!” they would often say. “Why are you doing this?” By the end of the summer, I had my stump speech pretty well memorized and could do it from the shower or while making dinner.
I attempted to emphasize the importance of school (something my son regularly questioned and by regularly I mean daily) and how I was trying to be a role model for them for hard work and the importance of life-long education. I also told my son that we could study together as if that was cooler than the Charlottesville skateboard park or throwing the baseball in the yard. He sort of got it.
My daughter was less persuaded. Having just graduated from kindergarten, her idea of school revolved mostly around coloring and singing songs about the alphabet. As far as she knew, I was pretty good at both of those activities. Why did I need to go back to school?
Following tradition, we ate at my restaurant of choice and then went home to set up my backpack complete with new SpongeBob folder (a gift from work) and pack my bags for the week. The tension in the family was beginning to reach a peak. I promised both kids I would read to them and kiss them in the morning before I left. Jennifer had fun plans for the weekend and I was trying to emphasize how much fun they were going to have.
I packed my bag to check in for the week. Even though I was only going to be 2 miles from home, it felt like I was about to cross the Atlantic. I packed everything from workout clothes to business attire and everything in between. I carefully folded the notes they kids had made me for my hotel room to ensure their safe arrival at Darden. Once packed, I went to my daughter’s room to read and lay with her for a few minutes to get her settled down.
She sat on my lap as we read. Neither of us focused on the content of the fine Disney literature, just that it would be our last night together for a week. I gave her the tightest hug I could muster and with tears in both our eyes, we laid down in her bed for a couple minutes. As soon as her head hit the pillow, her emotions peaked. “Dad, why do you have to go? Please don’t go. Please.”
Wiping away tears, I thought what if I don’t stay over?
The first day was going to be filled with things like tours of the UVA Lawn and student ID pictures, if there ever was going to be one night in all of my experience that coming home wouldn’t impact my school work, it would be my first night.
I sat up in her bed and said, “Ok. How about this? How about if I just go for tomorrow and come home tomorrow night?” I’m not sure why the idea hadn’t occurred to me before this, but I felt like I’d just negotiated peace in the Middle East. She looked up beaming from ear to ear and said, “promise?”
“Yup, and I’m going to prove it to you.” I walked back down the hall unzipped my bag and unpacked. I felt like a hero. Darden could have almost all of me for two years, but my commitment to family came first.
24 hours later I’m lying in bed reflecting on the excitement of my first day and my heroic move to put family first and come home. I had fulfilled my commitments to school and family and I was relieved and still reveling in my decision to come home after the first day.
After exchanging details about each of our activities from the day, Jennifer rolls over and says “oh, I think I figured out why she was so upset last night.” “Really?” I replied, thinking I know exactly why she was upset. My girl was going to miss me and couldn’t possibly think of me being absent for a week let alone her first week of school.
“She thought you were leaving for two years. She was totally fine when she realized it was just a week. Goodnight.”