Try to Breathe and Savor the Next Few Months, Head of School Tells Her Seniors

Spring is notoriously busy for the Senior class—high school seniors and college seniors. It is a tender time for students—and for parents.

Last weekend, we traveled to Maine to see our daughter’s final college production. She directed The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in a gymnasium at the top of Bowdoin’s Student Union.  She and her cast and crew transformed the gym into a theatre and produced a spectacular evening of theatre. Watching her warm up her actors, I watched her doing what she does best: breathing life into a play. She was confident, gracious, demanding of excellence, inspiring, funny, competent and, unmistakably, an adult. The realization shook me a little in my folding chair.

Wasn’t it five minutes ago she was in a jumper starting fourth grade at Laurel, the school I lead. “Oh, brother,” I chastised myself, “Way to tumble right into that cliché.” Yet, I had.

high school girls LAX
Senior year goes by so quickly. (Flickr by K.M. Klemencic)

 Senior Year Goes By Quickly

Back at school, we hosted a breakfast for our seniors—all girls–and their parents, a of kick-off to the celebratory season that that marks the end of high school. The girls, freed of their uniform plaid skirts, appear in dresses and skirts and rompers. They are transformed, coltish, heading towards adulthood. Parents sit obediently where their daughters point, eat scrambled eggs, look fondly on their girls and the young women who have populated the landscape of their daughters’ lives. Carpools, birthday parties, sleepovers…each girl’s childhood floats over the room, a nostalgic miasma.

School is full of these threshold moments, the step between one chapter and the next. There is much to celebrate. Each student has grown and accomplished much, but this is the time, too, to acknowledge the shift and change that will come without this particular daughter in her family’s home.

My friend, brilliant psychologist, Michael Thompson, leads a workshop called: The College Process as a Family Rite of Passage. Parents focus enormous energy on a child “getting into college;” perhaps, this is to shield themselves from acknowledging, in some corner of their hearts, that she is leaving.

What Parents Can Expect During Senior Year

I explain that in the coming weeks, the girls may look up from homework to see their parents standing in the doorway, gazing at them with a tender, loopy smile. “Your parents,” I tell the girls, “are seeing you as you were when you were a toddler, imagining you at six and ten, the day you scored your first goal, when you lost a tooth.” All of childhood swims before them as a girl hunches over her computer.

It’s a funny push-me, pull-you moment for seniors and for their parents. Some girls can’t go soon enough; others never want to leave. And sometimes girls have both those feelings in the span of an hour. Perfectly rational parents occasionally impose bizarre curfews and take daughters to the basement to teach them—again—about how to sort laundry and how to use the cold cycle. Parents feel squeezed, as if there should have been more time to teach girls about credit cards and writing to grandma. But time leaks away.

“Try to breathe and savor the next few months,” I suggest.  “Take nothing personally; in heightened moments, we are vulnerable, fragile, more easily wounded.  Remember these feelings are all part of this process.”

Humbly, I recommend parents refrain from getting a dog or even discussing the possibility until their daughter has actually left. I also urge them not give away a daughter’s room. Coming home at Thanksgiving to a golden retriever feels as if you’ve been replaced; coming home to needing to sleep on the couch means you have been replaced. I share a former student’s indignant sentiment: “I finally have them under control; now they are forcing me to leave. What’s up with that, Ms. K?” It does feel strange, this curious contradictory time.

Next, I move onto to the need for a slip under the commencement robe and the value of lingerie that closely matches one’s skin tone, which is never bright white. A little humor helps leaven all the feelings.

“Commencement is bittersweet and transitions often inspire stress,” I remind my audience. Will the relatives all behave? My high school beau’s step-mother clocked his mother in the courtyard at his graduation.

“Help manage your relatives,” I implore parents, “So your girls won’t have to fret.”

As August creeps closer, there will be worry about a new beginning—the girls are leaving a place they knew so well and striking out for new territory. With that comes predictable and absolutely normal apprehension.

Then, I get to the tough piece—not feelings, but facts. “It’s a tricky moment,” I say. “In six months, no one will be keeping track—you won’t know where your daughter is at 2:00 a.m. The girls will have their independence, but for now, they are still Laurel girls. And that means not drinking when you are underage and not serving alcohol to minors or condoning the consumption of alcohol by minors in your home while you are members of the Laurel community.

It’s tempting. It feels as if everyone else is doing it. But you cannot. If you do, and I learn you have broken the law, I will suspend those involved and to report that suspension to the colleges those girls have chosen to attend. I do not want to have to do that, but I will. And I do not want anyone—girl or parent—to be surprised that even until the end—including prom—actions have consequences and I expect you to live the mission and the values of this school.”

That quiets the crowd. I have put the girls on notice and asked the parents for their help, so the year can end without incident. I close by inviting everyone in the Senior class to schedule exit interviews with me, a practice I began my first year.

I always ask the same questions: Tell me the highs and lows, tell me what you would change and what you hope would never change; tell me what you think I should know.”  These twenty-minute conversations are important to allow the girls to reflect on their experiences, to confirm to them that what they think matters and that I am listening.

At the end, I thank the girls for striving to be their best selves, for allowing me to advise on a few senior speeches, to work with many of them on college essays, for setting a tone, for being brave and empathetic, for leading with grace. I tell them I am proud of the young women they are.

I thank parents for the privilege of allowing us to partner with them in the education of their daughters.

I close with Sharon Olds’ beautiful poem, “High School Senior” that reinforces more eloquently than I could the ache of having a child leave home.

I say “college,” but I feel as if I cannot tell
the difference between her leaving for college
and our parting forever.

I end by reminding girls and parents to “hug the whole experience,” to be gentle with themselves. As they leave, well-fed and full of expectations, I think about the transitions that punctuate parenting and leadership. Some stages fly by too quickly; others seem to last forever. It is difficult to be patient, to embrace change and challenge gracefully, to adapt to our children’s trajectories, to manage all of our feelings about their growing up.

In the days that follow, I remind myself to take my own advice as I head back to Maine in a few weeks to watch my own beloved senior step over the threshold from the end of her college career into her own next chapter as an adult.

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Ann V. Klotz is a mom, writer, and Head of Laurel School, an all girls’ school in Shaker Heights, OH. Her house overflows with piles of books, ungraded English papers and rescue animals. Journals including Literary Mama, Mothers Always Write, the Brevity Blog, the Hippocampus Blog and the Manifest Station have published her essays.  Her chapter about becoming a teacher is included in the anthology What I Didn’t Know, published by Creative Nonfiction. Read more of her work at annvklotz.com or follow her on Twitter at @annklotz

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