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Hope, courage, joy: What adults can learn from looking into the eyes of today’s children

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This weekend I sat in a steamy outdoor pavilion, chairs set up in sets of two, watching my youngest child and his classmates graduate from 5th grade. Someone played “Pomp and Circumstance” on a single cello as the 5th graders walked to their seats, wearing non-athleisure clothes for the first time in over a year. I shoved my own 5th grader’s feet into last year’s shoes-that-go-with-khaki-pants and borrowed socks from his dad’s drawer.

Ah, 5th grade: that delicate time between childhood and the tween years. Those years when your parents can’t shelter you anymore and you start to hear unimaginable things (eye-popping things) from your peers. It’s the year when you watch the puberty video at school, holding in nervous laughter, or letting nervous laughter fill the room.

Bodies show the slightest hints of the metamorphosis that’s right around the corner. Years ago, my daughter’s 5th grade teacher greeted the class on the first day of school with this line: “Welcome to 5th grade, the year that deodorant is no longer optional.”

Attitudes start to change, as well. For example, as we were walking to the graduation ceremony, my son asked if he could walk without us to the school, a request we denied. “It’s just that y’all are so embarrassing. Well, mainly mom.”

The eyes start to roll in 5th grade. There is huffing and stomping and thinking they know best. Boundaries are tested and limits are pushed.

At our elementary school, 5th grade is the oldest grade. Many or most of the kids have been with each other since kindergarten. It is a public neighborhood school and part of the Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas, located in the most diverse city in America. That diversity has brought richness to my kids’ lives in ways I never could have imagined.

Because my youngest son just completed what was our 18th and final class at this beloved elementary school, I cried through the ceremony. But what really triggered me was a message from our wonderful principal, Melissa Patin.

She told the children she was proud of them. They completed the school year in the midst of a pandemic, wearing their masks without complaint, staying distanced without bucking the rules. She described that first day the children were welcomed back in person.

She could not see their smiles because of the masks, she said, but she was able to look into their eyes. And, she said, “I will never forget looking into your eyes and seeing hope, courage, and joy.”

I have seen that hope, courage, and joy in my own patients’ eyes this year. The world we once knew has changed. Most of us made it through, but almost 600,000 people in the United States did not. After the hellacious year it’s been, I was able to watch the future march across that stage. They are proud that they handled the challenge of this year, and appear ready to take on any problems that await them in the years to come.

As our masks start to come off and we can see each other’s faces again, let’s not forget the value of looking into each other’s eyes. Let’s not forget the hardship through which we slogged, from which we learned. Let’s not lose the resilience and flexibility we taught our children, or they taught us.

Watching those kids graduate today, I realized that, in a lot of ways, the kids handled the adversity of this year better than some adults did. I saw some of our country’s future today, and the future looks bright. Even if they are giggling through puberty videos.

I take comfort in the fact that, while I only witnessed these children graduate, there are 5th graders all over the country who are ready to face tomorrow. There are teachers and parents and school administrators that made the year happen, and for that I am grateful. I, like Mrs. Patin, look into the eyes of children and find hope, courage, and joy. And because of them, I myself feel the same: hopeful, courageous, and joyful.

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