Bryce and Tyler, into the woods at Morton Arboretum

They burst off the bus, happy to be home from school and happy to see me — I think, I hope, (still?) — even though they’re 8 now, as of last Sunday, and growing more complex with every year. We all develop a dark side as we get older. I wonder what theirs will be like. We’re just beginning to get acquainted. 

But at the moment it’s all sweet light, and the world is still warm, and the daylight lasts till 6:30, even on a grey October day, and they have a plan.

“We know what playground to go to today,” Tyler says, as if they were plotting this on the bus, “the one at our old school.” That would be Cloverdale School, as idyllic a name as one could append to an institution of lower learning, the kind of name that would be considered “corny” if it appeared in a novel, but befitting an outlying suburb like Carol Stream, which is not named for a river running through, but for a little girl, whose last name was, indeed, Stream, daughter of the founding developer, who named it not after his own ego, as some might, but for a little girl, who died just a couple of years ago at a ripe age.

“We can’t do anything until you get through your checklist and we have dinner,” I say with manufactured sternness. Mom has posted a checklist of things to do each day after school before actual fun is allowed. The list begins with “Wash hands.” I stand over it, prepared to bark out each task like a drill sergeant, but Tyler says, “I know the list” and off he goes without a whine, word or whimper of complaint.

They complete the list lickety-split and I warm up the pumpkin pancakes that Mom has made as an October treat, so there’s none of the usual fussing about the food, with wailing and gnashing of teeth about how “I don’t know if I’ll like it,” while I finish the sentence with “until you try it,” like a scratched LP. The pancakes disappear in an eye-blink and off we go to the playground behind their old school, where they spent kindergarten, cut short by the pandemic, so they never really said a proper goodbye before going remote, then moving to a new school last fall for first grade.

We pull into the Cloverdale parking lot at 4:30, an hour past dismissal, and even though a number of cars remain, I tell them I don’t know if any of their teachers are still around.

As they get reacquainted with the playground apparati, little ones from the after-school program look up at them like Greek gods and, in answer to their queries, I hear Bryce say, “second grade” as if he were some grizzled, seasoned veteran. As they show off their improving jungle gym skills to the current kindergarteners, I wander over to the window of Bryce’s former classroom because I have fond memories here, too, and spy a figure hunched over a computer in the corner, so I wave the boys over to take a look. 

“It’s Mrs. Scheptock!” Bryce says like Scrooge being shown his schoolyard days of yore by the Ghost of Christmas Past. He knocks on the window and, sure enough, his former teacher opens the window and recognizes him immediately. Delight fills his face and voice as she comes out and gives him a hug. They happily gab and catch up. Mrs. Scheptock says her partner teacher, Miss Scardina, has moved to Connecticut and we learn that Tyler’s former teachers, Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Lally (who alternate days), now teach first grade. The boys share what they remember and tell her about their new school. 

I haven’t seen the boys this animated in some while. After Mrs. Scheptock retreats inside, Bryce’s long-legged lope has real bounce as he and Tyler run to check out more windows. No one is in Tyler’s former classroom, but they keep looking and finally he spots Mrs. Lally, who comes to the window and the animated exchange is renewed. It’s so nice to see them, she says; they’ve gotten so tall. The boys chirp like inspired birds, never running out of things to say, and Mrs. Lally probably wonders if she’ll ever get to tie up her tasks and head home, but she is generous with her time, as you would expect from a dedicated teacher. Finally they say goodbye — a real farewell this time, not some virtual, pandemic-clipped ending.

It’s almost a cliché, but people say teachers never really know the positive impact they’ve had on students because most never return to tell them. The boys aren’t seasoned enough to put that impact into words, but Mrs. Scheptock and Mrs. Lally could see it in their faces and their voices. I certainly did. There is nothing quite like the appreciation that infuses a parent or grandparent who sees that their kids were happy in a school that once served as an indispensable partner in their upbringing.

We return home, aglow, and the boys tell Mom about their coup, then help her stretch the cottony cobwebs over the bushes in front of the house to complete this year’s Halloween decorating. 

Life isn’t always idyllic when you’re 8 and getting older, but on this day the light was bright, even in the gathering dusk of a grey October day.

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