Back to School

Back to School

The following is an excerpt from a Letter from the President that I wrote to the membership of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp in September. At the time, I had spent almost five months at home with my children. Although it made me question my sanity, we had formed a bond. It was as if they were as close to me as joeys in a kangaroo’s pouch. We were contained in our own bubble  – as intense or as crazy as it was – it was ours. It felt safe. The morning I ushered them off to school I felt conflicted. It was as if I had all sent all my babies off to kindergarten again. But even then, I wasn’t able to take them to their classrooms, kiss them goodbye, or wave from a window. 

My daughter assured me at the gate and said, “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll take Brecht to his class.” Cosette, the little Mama. And Brecht, my youngest. Because we live in Belgium and school starts at age 2 1/2,  he’s been in public school, full-time, every day, since 2017. Which means, he’s had three extra years of public education. We are both grateful. 

But I yet, as I saw my three children run off into school, I knew if we were at home in Texas, things would be much different. Brecht, who turned six in October, would have started Kindergarten at a public school in Texas this fall. We would have both been anxiously anticipating his enrollment in school. . .  but yet,  I have seen his kindergarten classroom – masks, school bus partitions surrounding each desk, and all spaced at socially distant intervals. 

I felt. Thankful. For being in a country where. . . for the most part. . . people bind together to fight a common enemy. (German occupation and WWII wasn’t that long ago.) I felt happy that the Belgian government deemed children under 12 as low-risk. And that the cost vs. benefit of students under 12 wearing masks vs. the emotional impact favored in the latter. 

Each year I send my kids to school with chocolate chip cookies to give to their teachers and a pre-thank you note in English. I know it’s not easy to educate American children in a Flemish-speaking school, but every teacher has always been warm, welcoming, and understanding. My children are fluent because of their efforts and each of them indulges me in English parent-teacher conferences because of the graciousness of their hearts. 

This year, we sent notebooks on the first day of school. And I wrote a note to the Director. She and I have never quite. . . gotten along, but I wanted her to know how thankful I was to be here in Belgium. Because perhaps the alternative, for the first time in all my years living overseas, wasn’t what I wanted for my children either. 

“Dear Membership,

Welcome to Fall 2020 – those promising days bathed in golden slants of light. I find comfort in the familiar rays and shadows pulsating with energy. There is a stir in the air, and my memory skips across decades of new school years and American football seasons. Fall signifies the kick-off of a round of holidays marching towards the end of the year. With a full heart, I untuck my pumpkin decorations from the boxes in the basement. Now, perhaps all of this may be in vain. The school year, American football season and holidays may not resemble anything familiar in the next few months. But that does not bother the weather.  

As I told my board last week, I wanted to thank you for all – as members also, for your help (and patience!). It’s been a long few months for all of us. I’ve often been reminded of Carol’s lecture, Waking Up to Brokenness. She spoke about how once you lose hope, fear sets in. Personally, I think as the summer dragged on. . . the excessive heat and then the rain. . . my get-up-and-go was challenged. But yet. . . my family got out, and explored many beautiful places, despite the will to just surrender to another ‘family movie night’. Last week, as I prepared our board agenda and fielded WhatsApp messages, I thought . . . is this going to be okay? Can we kick off another year full of hope. . . or are we defeated from the get-go?

Last Tuesday I saw the hope in my children’s eyes. They ran at a full sprint into their classrooms for a new school year, without barely looking back at me, standing at the gate. I felt the weight of the past five months, and a tear trickled down my cheek. But they would have none of it. What’s done is done, they seemed to say. Time to move forward.

And as I walked away from them, and wiped that tear away, I felt a little bit of myself return. And I was reminded, as women, that we all have gifts, countless gifts! And like a birthday present in the closet, those talents really don’t do anyone any good. . . until they’re shared. I send my thanks to each of you, as members of our club. I am thankful for our board members’ open hearts and willingness to share their gifts with this organization. We are all still here and there – for our charities and each other. See you Thursday!     

Celeste Bennekers

American Women’s Club of Antwerp President”

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