“A Back-to-School Rule,” column for Aug. 23, 2016


Few experiences in a child’s life are as daunting as the first day of a new school year.  The summer I was 6, my mother and her new husband decided, against my advice, to move to a town 10 miles away.

At the time, we were living just up the hill from the best place on Earth, my grandparents’ house; a stone’s throw from the market where I bought treats; and a shortcut through the woods to the school where I finished first grade at the top of my class.

I had all I needed within walking distance. I saw no need to change it. But my mother said children should be seen, not heard. So we moved to a place surrounded by a cow pasture and a whole lot of lonely.

On my first day of second grade, I was waiting for the bus before daylight. I sat alone the entire ride. The school was swarming with unfamiliar faces. I felt like a hornet in a beehive.

In the office, I stood on tiptoes to hand my first-grade report card to the lady behind the counter. She squinted down at me.

“Is your mama here?”

“No ma’am,” I said.

“Well, bless your heart,” she said, and pointed me down the hall to a roomful of chaos. No teacher yet. Girls gossiping. Boys trying to kill each other. On a table, I spotted paper and pencils, took one of each, picked a desk, put my head down and went to work.  Minutes later, a big girl came over and sat on top of my desk, covering my paper with her generous backside.

“Whaddaya doin’?” she said.

“Writing to 100,” I replied.

Her eyes narrowed to slits.

“Is that all you can do?”

“No,” I said. “It is not.”

Then I rose from my seat and headed to the pencil sharpener. I swear to you now, as I swore to her later: I had no idea that when I stood, the desk would flip over and break her nose.

Her name was Jane. From that day forward _ after she stopped screaming and got cleaned up _ she was my best friend. Wherever we went _ to school or church or basketball games _ Jane saved me a seat, or I saved one for her. Her parents were strict, but when I stayed over, they let us talk all night.

Jane’s mother, a librarian, loaned me books I loved to read. Jane’s dad made arrangements to help me win a scholarship to college. Jane and I roomed together our freshman year.

After college, I moved to California, married and started a family. Jane stayed in our hometown to be a social worker. She never married, never had children of her own, but she was “mama” to many.

We were friends for more than 50 years. Her death seven years ago wasn’t unexpected. She had been in failing health. But even now, it’s still hard to believe. I think of her often, especially at the start of the school year.

TV ads try to tell us what children need for school _ new shoes, clothes, backpacks. Those things matter. But really, children’s needs are fairly simple. Beyond the basics _ to be fed, cared for, well-mannered and loved _ they need the blessed gift of friendship.

More than just having a friend, they need to be one. They need to know they have the power to offer friendship to someone who may need it more than they do.

For years, I feared how people saw me. But one day I finally understood: All my needs were met. I was whole. I didn’t need to be smart or pretty or popular. I just needed to be kind.

My grandson Henry recently graduated from preschool and received an award from his class for “Friendship.” No Olympic medal could make me prouder.

Every day _ especially on the first day of school _ children need to know that they are loved; that they have all they need; and that the best way to win friends is to be one.

Also, as my friend Jane might tell them if she could, they need to use the sense God gave them not to sit on top of a desk.


  1. Kate Sciacca says

    Just delightful as usual. Some of my formerly homeschooled grandkids are starting regular school this year… I pray they have the blessings of good new friends…

  2. Mary Jo Martinsen says

    Oh, my. As a retired teacher, I had many, many first days. Love your column as usual. Had to share a memorable first day. The first day of eighth grade, a boy (who shall remain nameless because it would make the story even worse, perched his rear on the edge of a desk at the front of the class and FARTED loudly. That set him up for the rest of the school year. Poor kid. Junior high causes enough kids to need therapy as it is.

  3. Adrienne Thomas says

    Thank you Sharon for another wonderful column, you put into to words feelings and thoughts that we all share.
    Best regards,

  4. To have a friend you must be one. I always looked forward to school and who would be in my classes. With real friends, you pick up where you left off.

  5. Peggy Nodine says

    I miss Jane too. We had so much fun working on our class reunions together. She was a very good “Mama” to so many. She claimed so many children as her own and they all loved her so much. We all have so many good memories of our days in school together. We had some really fun pajama parties. Jane was one of a kind. Lots of good memories of you and Jane and all our great friends. Love you.

  6. sydney love says

    As I read this as always Sharon, you made me laugh and cry. I think I could read your columns over and over and never tire of them. You are my favorite. As I read this, also I thought of my own grandchildren that are going to a new school this year because of a heart break in their own family. My son, as he tries to do what is best for them in the midst of a year that has brought so much change in their little lives and his own life, is trying to make the best decisions. My little granddaughter, as you, is going into 2nd grade and I pray that she and her brother will find some new faces that want to be their friend and will reach out to them and make them feel welcome in a world that seems so lonely and unfamiliar. Thank you for sharing this at a time that is so personal and tender for me also. By God’s grace we will all be ok but especially my son and my grandchildren as my heart breaks as I watch them move through unfamiliar territory. You prove many times to me that as I once read somewhere, ” we are all just walking each other home.” Don’t ever quit, Sharon!

  7. Lisa Bennett says

    How funny! On my first day at a new school – it was in the middle of 7th grade, not 2nd, but the same uncertainty and loneliness applied – almost the same thing happened. Lindsay, with long blonde hair and dimples, had been assigned to guide me around. She plopped herself on the desktop where I was seated. When I got up, the desk flipped and, yep, she needed stitches in her lip. That started a lifelong friendship and a competitive game we still – at 60 – play: “The Living Scar!” Whoever gets hurt gets to claim that she’s “The Living Scar,” at least until the other person makes a counter-claim. Thank you for the reminder that I need to stay in better touch with my old friend.

  8. Martha Walker says

    Jane was indeed a mama to many! I was a friend of her sister, and I was amazed at how many friends Jane had as she went through school. When I returned 10 years later to teach in Landrum, it was unbelievable how many of my students knew Jane and loved her so. She influenced many people.

  9. Oh Sharon… another great laugh! It’s kind of like if you build it they will come. If you will be a friend friends will come. So true and especially important to be a friend to someone who looks pretty lonely and scared. Brings back a memory of my first day in chemistry lab (3 weeks late). I must have looked pretty lost because this lovely young woman motioned me over and invited me to be her partner. AMEN! She saved me that day and is still my friend 25 years later. Thanks for reminding me and thanks for being my friend! God bless you Sharon! Hugs, Davey

  10. I still remember principal of school when I was a teacher .He said” Teachers should not lean or sit on the table or desk .they should stand up all day on their toes . But it was hard ,for 6 hours, stand up and keep an eye on each child ,teach them ,listen to their fights ,tell them stories and leave them after school is over. I was teaching kG students for 3 years but that was the most wonderful time in my teaching career of 20 years. I think I should go back and bless my kids’ teachers who taught them how to read and write ,I do not know my teachers must be dead . But I want to bless them in heaven .I am 6o and still learning. God bless beautiful writers and computer engineers who made it possible . Thank you for reminding value of friendship ! Lot of love .

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