Duly Noted

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    Some of the most smile-inducing parenting memories I can conjure up involve meeting my kids in an elementary school cafeteria for lunch.

    There’s something about elementary school that announces to us parents, You are welcome here! Yes, most teachers want your help reading at story time. And it’s true, the office folks appreciate you making copies for the gift wrap sale. But more importantly, during these lower school years, your kids actually enjoy seeing you at their school. At the lunch table, you might get to meet little Jake, this week’s new friend. In the cafeteria, you get a visual on the worker who presumably told your daughter there was a one-plastic-spoon-per-student-per-year rule.

    And just when you’ve gotten used to balancing your bottom on a seat the size of a salad plate, juggling your kids’ requests, and adjusting your work schedule so you can make it to yet another elementary school lunch date, it happens.

    Middle school.

    The middle school cafeteria might just be one of the scariest places known to Mom. At least that’s what the average sitcom or Disney Channel original movie would have us all believe. For a number of reasons, including the fact that most tweens would either succumb on-the-spot to acute shame disorder or voluntarily stuff themselves into a locker to avoid harassment from peers, Mom and Dad do not pop into the middle school lunchroom for a visit with their kids. That is, unless they’ve recently won a Super Bowl championship (I’m talking about you, Michael Robinson).

    But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to. For me at least, the desire to stay connected with my children through the interminably long middle-school day was much more intense than it had ever been in elementary school. That’s why I started leaving the occasional sticky note in my oldest daughter Sam’s lunchbox. My first handwritten notes were mostly about classes. Because I had logged a fair amount of study-buddy time with Sam, I felt compelled to boost her confidence for tests she would take later in the day, or reassure her afterward with parental wisdom like: Yay, it’s over! Have a cookie.

    NapkinNoteKarenReading this month’s profile on Garth Callaghan, also known as the Napkin Notes Dad, I was reminded of the simple practice of writing notes and the joy it can bring. I first heard about Garth on Twitter almost a year ago when I clicked on a link from The Today Show. Here was this dad, a guy from Richmond no less, who had been writing notes on napkins and tucking them in his daughter’s lunchbox since she was in elementary school. Every single day.

    Granted, I had done the sticky note thing now and again, but every single day since his daughter, Emma, was in second or third grade, Garth had come up with something worthwhile to write – his own words at first, and later, inspirational messages from others. The genius of this was that he was writing the notes on Emma’s napkins (using Foray needle-tip pens to avoid bleeding, I learned later from Garth). As Emma starts high school this fall still reading a napkin note from her father at lunchtime, the rest of the story begins, Garth is the double-cancer dad.

    My oldest child is now eighteen, and over the years I’ve composed many notes to her – some on napkins, some not. Many have traveled electronically, via email or text and on Facebook as well, and although I admit this method of back-and-forth is often the only thing between me and an anxiety attack, these messages don’t hold the same place in my heart as the ones written by hand. As I type this, she’s moving closer to the day when she’ll be responsible for her own lunch every day. I’m sure lots of people reading might be thinking it’s crazy I’m still packing her lunch anyway – let alone tucking a note in it occasionally.

    But I’m going to keep at it while I can, sharing the kinds of messages my teen needs to hear, like: Have the day you have. No pressure… Or one from last month: There are twice as many chickens in the world as humans. Love, Me…  and one of her recent favorites, Tell Ben I said hello! I miss that young man. I’ll do this mostly because she said she likes it and partly because it makes my heart smile.

    And truly, at the end of the day, what could be more noteworthy?

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    Karen Schwartzkopf
    Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family: husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director, and their daughters—Sam, Robin, and Lindsey. You can read Karen’s take on parenting in the Editor’s Voice.