Back to School: A Survival Guide

Digital composite of School materials and apple with back to school text and library background

I heard the front door open and ran to meet him.  The knots in my stomach had been swirling all day until my insides felt like a tangled mess of anxiety and pain. The look on his face told me what I needed to know, what I had feared the most.  The silent tears that spilled down his freckled cheeks shattered my heart into a thousand pieces.

Taking him in my arms, as I had not needed to for years, I embraced my oldest son and cried with him.  I had no chance of being strong at that moment, no hope of providing comfort.  No words to say, except choked sobs of I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  Never had I felt so helpless. Never had I been so helpless.

That day three years ago was one of my worst as a mother.  We had just moved to Texas, and we gave them all promises of happiness and new friendships.  Not knowing that 95 percent of our ward would go to a different high school.  Not knowing that the handful of boys he would meet in his high school would all have different lunches than him.  Not remotely comprehending just how hard it would be.  He sat by himself at lunch for almost two weeks.  It felt as though we had pulled him from a comfortable, safe place and thrown him into a fire.

It got better.  Faces eventually became recognizable.  Days melted into routine familiarity.  He slowly pulled himself out of the lonely despair of that horrible first day.  He found friends he could hang out with and relate to.  But it was months before I could talk about it without tears.

The first day of school can be a terrifying experience, even if you are not starting somewhere new.  It feels as though everyone has it together, has a group, or knows their way around life better than you.  It can be incredibly hard to navigate.  Here are some things that worked for us, in the hopes that it might help you, too.

A new year is a fresh start.  This is your time to reinvent yourself.  You have a clean slate.  You can be whoever you want to be.  Break away from the friends who are dragging you down.  Or, if you’ve got a great group that lifts you up, take this opportunity to stand up and be a leader.  Be confident enough to invite others into your circle.  If you’ve struggled and not been the best student in the past, this is your year to get it right.  If you’ve been lonely and quiet, flex your friendship muscles and put yourself out there.  Do something this year that you’ve always wanted to do, but have been too afraid to try.  There’s no reward without risk, so be brave and try.

Look out for the lonely.  Until you’ve had to face the vulnerability of sitting alone in a high school or middle school cafeteria, you don’t know the anguish and pain it takes to do so.  If you see someone sitting alone at your school, introduce yourself.  Go out on a limb and invite them in.  This person doesn’t have to be your best friend for the rest of your life (but you never know, they might end up that way), and it could make a huge difference for them.  Most of the student body at our high school had no idea my son was new, and just assumed he sat alone by choice.  Don’t leave anyone sitting alone.  Don’t let that happen on your watch.  We are beautiful daughters of God, and we can serve Him best by helping others.

Make it count.  Maybe you got less than stellar grades last year.  Maybe you didn’t live up to your full potential.  Start fresh this year and do your best.  Reach out for help from teachers if you feel lost or fall behind.  They are the most underutilized resource in our schools today.  Your teachers want you to do well.  They need you to succeed.  Make this year the one you academically soar.  Whether you’re planning on going to college or not, these high school years really do matter.  Learn study habits and work ethic while it’s relatively easy.  Life is going to throw a whole lot more distractions your way in the next few years.  Make the most of your time now.

Get involved.  When we moved to Texas, my son decided to go out for the football team.  He had never played the sport before.  I was beyond terrified, as high school football in Texas is practically its own religion and parents start their children in it long before kindergarten.  I was so afraid he would not be able to compete and would get hurt (emotionally more so than physically).  He not only survived, but he thrived, and it was the means of his entire high school happiness.  He found his friends on the football field, and a family in the team.  He was eventually a starter on the varsity team, and had an incredible experience.  Maybe sports aren’t your thing — try writing for the school paper or audition for a play.  You will never know until you try just how good you could have been.  High school is the time to branch out and do something new.  Don’t limit yourself.  Join a club or team and get invested in your school.

Be brave.  Be confident.  I know you are looking at everyone around you and feeling as though you don’t measure up.  That girl next to you seems more popular, more pretty, dresses better, and has a thousand followers on Instagram.  Let me tell you a little secret — everyone feels that they don’t measure up.  Everyone.  The popular cheerleader, the star of the school play, and the band geek all lose sleep at night over it.  Everyone is too busy worrying that they aren’t good enough to notice whether or not you are good enough.  So let it go.  Relax.  Be confident and own who you are.  Don’t try to be like anyone else – be the best you there is!  Walk down the hallway and hold your head up high.  You are amazing and beautiful and strong.  Don’t spend your school days wishing to be someone else.  YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH.  You are fantastic.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  I know it feels like the end of the world when you don’t get asked to Homecoming.  Or have to wait to get your license until long after everyone else.  I promise it’s not the end.  There are so many wonderful, exciting things headed your way.  Heavenly Father has a huge plan for you, and part of that plan is falling down, failing, and having struggles.  These hard days and trials are what will help make you the beautiful woman you will someday become.  These tough experiences will teach you compassion, empathy, and kindness.  They will help prepare you for relationships, parenting, and careers.  Don’t let the little things hold you down.  Don’t let the opinions of your peers define you.  Don’t hold grudges and ruin friendships over petty disagreements.  Relax, be happy, and flexible.  Love others freely and smile even when you don’t feel like it.  The sun always comes up after a dark night.  You can get through this hard time because there are wonderful things ahead for you.  One day you’ll look back and laugh at the things that seem so hard today.

The teenage years are tough ones, but they can be some of the best for growth and figuring out who you want to be.  These years will never come again, and you should make the most of them.  As you head back to school — be it tomorrow or in a few weeks — remember to be confident in yourself and watch out for others.  Be kind, be amazing, be YOU.

You got this.

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I am the mother to three incredible teenagers and wife to a superbly supportive man. I love to travel, write and eat cookies. Preferably all in the same setting. I currently serve as a Laurel Advisor and Ward Camp Director.

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