Why Back-To-School Is So Gut-Wrenching (And So Important) For Me Right Now

Back-To-School in NC

My late son Jackson's artwork. Back-to-school was grueling for me this year, but here's why it was so valuable.

By Billy Ball

August 31, 2023

I lost a child in January. But our local public schools made the grief more bearable. 

This week, I dropped my daughters off at school. They were just two of a million or so kids going back to school in North Carolina, but they felt like the only two.

That‘s because I lost my son Jackson in January. I was public with our grief and the fundraiser we started in his name. I’ve been less public with the healing, which is a work in progress. This week’s been a little bit of both—healing and grief. Going back to school without him is gut-wrenching. But it’s also, as I’m finding out, a good thing. 

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Right now, there’s a lot of conversation about schools in North Carolina. What they are and what they aren’t, who should be funded and who shouldn’t, what we should teach and what we shouldn’t, whether they’re safe. But what I’ve seen this week in our local public school answered some of those questions for me. 

It’s the small things: the man asking for PTA volunteers, the woman who handed us a popsicle and a free book at orientation, the teacher who invented an elaborate, funny handshake to greet my oldest. Schools have to be adaptable. For us, they adapted to a grieving family.

A community is only as good as its community schools, and community schools are only as good as the people inside them. In NC, we’re surrounded by good people. It’s not saccharine if it’s true.

Tuna Salad, Lock-Ins, and Traffic Cone Tuesday

On Sunday, I unpacked the kids’ backpacks and found my son’s, which had been untouched since we lost him. His stuff was still in there—one of his drawings, a yellow toy car, his homework with his name scrawled at the top. He was still working on his letters.  

On Monday, on the first day of school for most people in NC, a shooting at UNC-Chapel Hill sent the campus and nearby elementaries (not ours) into lockdown. I didn’t need the reminder that it’s all so tenuous. But we got through it. I won’t downplay the trauma, but for me, when you’ve seen hell, a fire is just one part of the scenery. 

My youngest daughter started a new pre-k on Monday, too. It rained, but, like most 4-year-olds, she didn’t care about getting her butt wet on the slides. She reminds me of Jackson but I want to see him in everything. When I brought her home, she complained about lunch. She said it was “just mustard.” The school lunch menu alleges it was tuna salad. 

On Tuesday, I dropped my oldest daughter off and the teachers were out front greeting the kids—as they are every morning. It was “Traffic Cone Tuesday,” where they learn about road safety. Teachers and principals danced in giant traffic cone costumes. A boombox played “Earth, Wind, and Fire.” It was dorky, disarming, and informative.

None of these details mean much of anything. But when the bottom drops out, as it did for us, you refill your bucket with little things. Life comes in between all the sad, whether you want it to or not. 

And when you’re concerned with death—as I’ve been, as we’ve all been—back to school is a gift. Kids can’t help but live. They bounce when they should break. They laugh when they’re supposed to be quiet. Optimism is inevitable. In basketball, they call it “next play mentality.” You missed this shot, but that doesn’t mean you’ll miss the next. Kids have next play mentality. 

The Best Educators

I was an education reporter for years. But I’ll tell you something I’ve learned about education that has nothing to do with curriculum and policy. 

Community schools are the anchors of communities. It’s not just the teachers or the principals. It’s the guidance counselors, the office managers, the bus drivers, the PTA presidents, the librarians, the custodians. 

When we lost our son, people from our school dropped off food and books. They connected us with counseling—for us and our children. They’re still doing it. Parents stepped up, volunteering to babysit, pick up groceries, or host a sleepover.

Good educators and good communities make the best of things whether it’s easy or hard, whether times at home are happy or sad. It’s not just algebra. It’s movie nights, soccer, fundraisers, and car washes. They don’t just teach our kids how to learn, they teach them how to be. 

My son should have gone back to school this week. There’s no fixing that he isn’t. But my daughter came home Tuesday singing a mash-up of pop songs repurposed to talk about number properties. “Can’t stop the feeling,” the chorus of that Justin Timberlake song, was now “mul-ti-pli-ca-tion.” 

She loved it. She was having fun, and there was nothing else going on in her life. Next play. Next play. Next play.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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