The morning of Katie’s fifth-grade celebration, she stood on stage beneath a congratulations banner, threw her arms in the air and beamed.
Hours later, as I studied a photo of my exuberant 10-year-old, I realized that she had reached a goal that’s gone unspoken but should have been a top priority.
She finished the year — all of elementary school, actually — with a cheerful spirit, strong self-confidence and emotional stability. What more could I ask for?
This is the time of year when families celebrate perfect attendance and straight A’s, the Dean’s List and outstanding (fill in the blank) student. Those are all worth celebration, for sure, but there’s no certificate (nor does there need to be) for what really counts: peace with yourself for who you are and what you stand for.
It’s taken me years to fully understand.
When Cooper started the third grade, his daddy was very ill and under care of hospice. I met with his teacher to talk about our expectations for the school year. I didn’t care about his grades, I told her. For this year, the goal was for Cooper to finish with strong emotional health. Academics were secondary.
Steve died two weeks after the school year began. Cooper missed one day of school before returning to class. Over the next nine months, he visited with the school counselor regularly and received grief therapy from our hospice agency.
The year was tough, no doubt. There were many angst-ridden days and tearful nights. But he ended third grade as a well-adjusted, mostly joyful 8-year-old.
After we endured that first grief-heavy year, my school-year goals returned to normal. Try your best. Work hard. Learn every day, and show what you’ve learned as completely as you can.
I didn’t exactly define success as hitting the All-A Honor Roll every grading period, but I encouraged my children to work toward an A average in every class.
My school-related questions have mostly been academic all these years: Have you studied enough? How was the test? What grades did you get back today?
I regret that I haven’t asked as often: Are you enjoying this class? What are your goals? How are you defining success?
I also regret that I haven’t started every school year with the same goal, with or without crisis: to finish with strong emotional health.
The good news is they’ve managed.
Cooper is not at the top of his class, though he works harder than any child I know. He takes challenging courses for the content (not the extra GPA points) and revels in learning. He’s not defeated by a few B averages. He enjoys school, extracurricular activities and his peers.
Katie constantly volunteers to help others. She embraces new experiences and welcomes newcomers to her routines. She pays little attention to what’s popular and instead holds fast to her beliefs and values.
Will they fulfill their potential? Where will they go to college? What kind of careers will they pursue?
Those questions are secondary to the biggest questions: Will they seek joy in all circumstances? Will they stand firm in their beliefs? Will they finish each journey with raised arms and radiant smiles?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.