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Father reflects on daughter’s early years

June 29, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2018

Our eldest, daughter, Zoe, has always loved school. She finds comfort in the learning, structure, and rhythm of the experience. When at home, starting at age 3 and for many years after, Zoe fashioned her own classroom, where she recreated daily lessons and activities.

At age 9, Zoe informed my wife, Lori, and I, that she would one day attend college in Vermont and then become a teacher.

As Lori, younger brother, Adam, and I — sitting on hard plastic chairs, lined in neat rows along the hardwood floor of the room where Zoe ate more than 1,000 lunches — watched her stride across the stage to accept her certificate of promotion from fifth grade, I had some moments of reflection.

Zoe was tall, beaming and at-ease. I felt a sense of joy and pride that she had navigated with grace so many opportunities and challenges during these early years. I remembered the untimely death of a teacher who skillfully stretched Zoe’s intellect and self-confidence, annual science fairs, dealing with the news of school shootings, lockdown drills, monthly community meetings, standardized testing, gardening and friendships.

And, I recalled how supporting Zoe through each of these experiences — and more — stretched my understanding of fatherhood, appreciating that together, as a family, we grew along with her.

I also tearfully recognized the end of her elementary years as further evidence that time moves in one direction, leaving in its wake memories that fade, and my helpless wish to keep her, and Adam, youngsters forever.

It was the principal’s closing words that brought me back to the present. “Remember to be yourself and be nice,” he instructed. For Zoe and her peers, it was a fitting and final lesson, and a poignant reminder for the adults in the room, too.

For me, the sum and sequence of these seven words offers a creative tension, where all of us — young and old — are challenged by both discovering and being one’s self, and by responding to the world’s desperate need for more niceness.

In this way, I appreciate that Zoe has been part of a learning community where she and her peers have been offered a protective space to glimpse these life lessons.

As Zoe stepped off the bus, which she affectionately calls a giant cheese block, for approximately the 2,000th time, Lori and I were waiting, silently remembering each last day of school in the preceding five years. We welcomed her with hugs and kisses.

At home, she eagerly shared her yearbook, with its many memorable photos, signatures from friends and teachers, and her stated hope that 20 years hence, in the year 2038, she will be a second-grade teacher.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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