Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer, and speaker. She writes about parenting and education for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and her own blog, Coming of Age in the Middle. Her book about why and how parents need to let their children fail, will be published by HarperCollins in 2014.
New Hampshire is known for many things, but high fashion is generally not one of them. When I head out to the post office or to pick my son up at school, my priorities regarding coat selection center on its appropriateness to the outside temperature and whether there are eggs in the pockets left over from chicken chores the day before. If I’m feeling fancy, I might figure the coat’s color into my calculations, but I’m not usually feeling very fancy.
The phone doesn’t usually ring before six o’clock in the morning, so I knew before I answered it that my grandmother had died. She was in her nineties, and had been in a slow decline for months. Family had gathered by her bedside, and to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, she’d willed away what portions of her were assignable, and our eyes were long since wrung dry
We moved to the woods in search of a home, a place where our sons have space for solitude. I wanted them to know the sudden upwelling of frigid spring water in an otherwise warm lake. The silver underside of leaves revealed by winds before a rainstorm. The ozone whiff of an impending January snowstorm mixed with the comfort of wood smoke.
The trails around my home are so familiar to me that I avoid roots, adjust to slopes, and leap over fallen trees without breaking stride. I know the seasons of my territory; where some paths will be too muddy, when to avoid a mother bear’s favorite scratching tree, and which trails are best left untraveled during hunting season. I’ve been exploring the woods around my home in Lyme Center for years, and I thought I knew everything about them.
A teacher’s year is quantified by the same measures as a layman’s year; it divides up by the same three hundred and sixty five - give or take a leap - then the smaller twenty-four, and more minute sixty, but these measures are where the similarity ends.
Three years ago, when he was eleven, my son Ben set down a very specific parental code of conduct we’d be expected to follow at summer camp drop-off. We could say our goodbyes at home, but once we arrived at camp, any displays of affection, attempts to make his bed, arrange his things, or force premature familiarity with his cabin mates would be strictly prohibited.
The day before my first date with the Robie Farm dairy herd, Lee Robie gave me some last words of wisdom. “Don’t wear your best underwear,” he said.
Thus ended my romantic vision of farm life wherein the farmer walks on to his porch, clutching his coffee in the gentle dawn light, smiling as he gazes down on his herd, ambling home from verdant summer pastures.
But here’s what I learned: there is no gentle dawn light at four AM, and the cows do not amble home of their own accord. They amble home when the farmer speaks loudly and carries a big stick.