My wife and I both come from large families.
I grew up with five siblings. She had only three, but a swirling mass of aunts, uncles, and cousins more than made up the difference.
She and I have been together since Ronald Reagan was president, but I still can’t remember whether the cousin handing me a can of High Life is cousin Mary, cousin Mary Rose, cousin Mary Kate or someone else entirely. Family is family, even if you can’t remember everyone’s name.
That’s also the case even if you’re not related.
A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting in the office of Fox Prairie Elementary when a student came late, well after the bell. The office staff focused on her, but not to chide her or rush her to class. They were immediately, intensely concerned with making sure she got breakfast.
Family knows you don’t learn well when you’re hungry.
Here in Stoughton, our educators see how much our students need. At Fox Prairie, the staff partner with a local church to provide food and clothing for children who need them, and for their parents, too. They have a winter clothing drive so families can pick up winter clothing when they come for parent-teacher conferences.
It sounds so simple when you say it. Children learn better when they are warm and fed. They learn better when they are safe and supported.
So, like all our elementary schools, Fox Prairie is doing surveys to identify kids who have experienced trauma and would benefit from more support.
And Fox Prairie is intentionally building families through a program called “Prairie Packs.” Each pack is a small group of students who meet regularly with a staff member.
The pack stays the same from year to year. As fifth graders leave the pack to move on to middle school, new kindergarteners take their place.
I’ve spent time in all of Stoughton’s schools, but Fox Prairie is special.
When my oldest son got on the big, yellow bus for his first day of kindergarten, the bus took him to Fox Prairie. When my second son wrote an essay incorporating every Jimmy Buffett song title he knew (which was a lot), my wife and I laughed ourselves silly with a Fox Prairie educator. If you asked me to picture an elementary school, I wouldn’t think of my own schools, I’d picture Fox Prairie, with cubicles stuffed with coats and wet winter boots cascading into the middle of the hallway.
So when I went back to Fox Prairie, I figured I’d be discussing reading programs and math curriculum. I thought I’d talk to the dean of students about student behavior and talk with the principal about developing and retaining quality educators.
I thought – if I played my cards right – I’d get some time with Mr. Gus, the extremely laid back yellow Labrador.
I’m not sure what Mr. Gus does, to be honest. I know it’s important. He has his own Instagram account, which is worth your time if you like big, goofy dogs.
I did not expect to still be part of the Fox Prairie family. I didn’t expect that at all. The boys left elementary school a dozen years ago, but people at Fox Prairie still remember them, remember their strengths and their quirks.
“How are they doing? Is he still drawing? I remember when….”
I remember, too. I’d just forgotten for a minute.
I’d forgotten about Fox Prairie, the way you forget about an old friend or the cousins you don’t see very often or the hometown you don’t visit anymore. I’d forgotten the art display as you come in, the overflowing cubbies, the sound of first graders getting ready for recess with the first snow of the year freshly fallen.
I’d forgotten how it felt to be a young, overwhelmed parent trusting strangers to care for my children and seeing that trust repaid.
Fox Prairie reminded me in the gentle way that families do. It reminded me that we, too, belong to a Prairie Pack, even if the pack members are distracted and scattered and perhaps a bit grayer and slower and less excited about snow than we were. Fox Prairie reminded me that family waits, holding your love and your memories for you and offering them back to you when you really need them.
So as we move into the holidays, take a minute to look around.
Who’s in your family? Who hasn’t been around for a while and needs an invitation to come back? Who needs a family? Who needs to be welcomed and fed and warmed?
The holidays can be cold and lonely. If you have the room, invite somebody to your table.
If you don’t, invite them anyway. Maybe get a bigger table. Family is family.