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Feature: Summer laze to school days


By Courtney Phillips

Photography by Cindy Burnham

Back to School August 2021

Late last week, I stood in our pantry surveying a dearth of desirable snacks, created by four children starved by the work of summer. In my periphery, I appreciated the many sturdy cushions of our couch stacking carefully and quietly. A shadow resembling my 9-year-old son launched itself from the scaffolding, streaked through the air and landed with the characteristic thud we often mistake for artillery. “Was that Fort Bragg?”

The baby rewarded him with a belly laugh, our 5-year-old clapped and scrambled to the summit. Wryly, but with delight, our tween stole glances from behind a book.

This summer day was shaping up as most, structured by pillow forts, make-believe, hose-squirting, video games, cannonballs, hollering and hooting. When the hollering gets louder than the hooting, I herd them into the car to visit the Haymount peach man, inspect a charming Little Free Library near our home, spy the colorfully curated Betty Kelly’s Gift Shop storefront or take a slow crawl down Hay Street and around the Market House to be among the hustle and bustle.

I savor these predictable, lazy days. Too quickly they give way to rushed hugs, reluctant ponytails, practice spelling tests and abbreviated farewells. “I love you! Be good! Ok! Pay attention! Bye!” ((door slam))

After what feels like a perpetual vacation, I only vaguely recall the morning soundtrack of yore: yawns, creaky steps, shuffles in sock feet, dripping coffee, zipping bookbags. August is the perfect time to ready an unready home and family for a triumphant return to school. Or go fry an egg on the sidewalk. You can do both of those things in Fayetteville in August.

Maggie Carson, a 27-year veteran first-grade teacher at Alma Easom Elementary School, has a tip to ease the adjustment and identify any kinks in the launch sequence. “The most important thing is to start the routine before school starts. Gradually adjust bedtimes and introduce morning routines.”

Re-establish wind-down time now. Seek quiet, calm, screen-free activities that can be enjoyed in bed. In addition to calmly punctuating the day, these activities “build concentration and attention,” says Mrs. Carson. A new collection of stories from the library, crossword puzzles, word searches or coloring books and a new set of pajamas might even build intrigue or, at the very least, acceptance of bedtime.

A white-noise machine can help little ones get to sleep faster and sleep longer. Blackout curtains bridge the gap until Daylight Saving Time ends. Consider an old-school alarm clock for teenagers, or a new-age sunlight alarm to create margin between older children and their phones. Remember, children ages 6-12 should sleep nine to 12 hours per day. Teens 13-17 should clock eight to 10 hours. Adults need seven hours or more.

½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup unsweetened almond milk (regular milk works well too)
1 teaspoon chia seeds (can be left out if you don’t enjoy the texture)
¼ cup vanilla Greek yogurt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Maple syrup, honey or agave nectar to taste
Toppings of choice – diced mango, sliced almonds, fresh berries with granola, peanut butter and/or bananas
Put oats, milk, chia seeds, Greek yogurt, and vanilla extract into a mixing bowl.
Stir well until oats are covered in liquid.
Pour into mason jars or other glass container with lid and refrigerate overnight.
In the morning, remove the lid, and stir in liquid sweetener to taste. If the oats are a little too thick, add a splash or two of milk.
Add your favorite toppings and enjoy.

To turn this into chocolate overnight oats, add 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon of liquid sweetener of choice in step one.

This recipe can be easily doubled or more for a crowd. Overnight oats will last up to a week in the refrigerator.


The first order of business is to create a lunch menu, which happens after attempting to convince your child to eat school-provided lunch every day!

Start by having an extremely honest conversation with your child about any vegetable and protein which they will willingly consume and go from there. “Cucumbers and Slim Jims,” says the 5-year-old.

Some kids prefer bento-style lunches (a little of a lot of different foods), while others are sandwich or pita traditionalists.

The internet holds a host of lunch ideas, from meals prepared the night before to full spreads that can be thrown into the recycling bin after lunchtime. Align yourself with their little personalities and find a way that works for them and you.

Involve children in all aspects of prep and packing. Maybe if they pack it, they’ll remember to take it with them. Kids can help organize meals on a dry-erase board. If they’re old enough, have them use a grocery app to shop. For little ones, Mrs. Carson notes that practice makes perfect: “Does your child know how to open items in their lunchbox?”
Utilize cold packs, Thermoses and anything that makes the job easier or more fun. A joke of the day scrawled on a seasonally decorated napkin is never a bad idea. You can buy pre-printed jokes on a pad of paper, too. Concede to an outlandishly colorful lunchbox, as it will be easily identified in the lost and found.

Last year, we dipped a toe in normality for the final nine weeks of school. Cumberland County blessedly provided “breakfast on the go,” which I plan to mirror, this fall. A simple grain or protein, a fruit and a drink. Items like overnight oats, sausage biscuits and quiche (“breakfast pizza” in our house) can be prepared beforehand and hold up well. My goal is to prevent a Grimm trail of Pop-Tart crumbs from the car to their classrooms. Wild Berry is the collective favorite.

Finally, give some thought to dinner. I continue to be surprised that it must happen every single day, whether I’m ready or not. A slow cooker, a quick cooker, freezer meals prepared ahead, weekly grocery delivery, local co-op vegetable boxes and meal subscription services are helpful tools. Experiment with recipes now. To transition leftovers to lunchboxes the next day is an art form.

This is a great month to organize kid areas. Mentally, the school year can be messy. Why not begin in a neat space? Devote a bit of time each day or night to donating, selling or storing anything that doesn’t fit their body or current style. Don’t forget toys, accessories and books!

Personal tip: To maintain or regain order, have kids pick up and put away a set number of mislaid items to begin their nighttime routine. A good start is 20 items and that saves my sanity daily. By Labor Day, if you stick with it, you’ll be able to holler out, “Twenty things!” from anywhere in the house and watch the magic happen amid deep sighs, groans and heavy footsteps.

When shopping for school supplies, stock up on items that make it easier for kids to do their homework and special projects. Let the teacher-provided supply list be your guide. Their old virtual learning desk or a quiet nook with fresh supplies will give a child an organized, well-appointed command center.
Speaking of paperwork, do they need an eye exam for new glasses, a sports physical or immunizations? Be cognizant of all paperwork you can complete before the first day of school.
Allow yourself to imagine their hurried scrambles in the morning. Are they looking for a hair elastic? A bow? Their water bottle? A shoe? Their bookbag? A jacket? Sports equipment? Designate a place for those items and restock before the year

begins. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and hairbrushes grow legs and walk
away in our home. If that happens to y’all, too, buy extra.

The time is nigh to scour the internet for sales, take a quick peek at their school’s dress code and drag them shopping. If you must purchase an abundance of new items, build a collection of interchangeable pieces. It is less expensive and easier to manage than an array of new “outfits.” One caveat to this rule is fall picture day. If the flyer usually sends you scrambling, attend to it while held captive in the Belk dressing room.

Evaluate your laundry area for fresh detergent, softener, fabric sheets and Shout Color Catcher sheets for new clothes. To simplify sorting, buy easily distinguishable undergarments for each child.

Have a dress rehearsal the day before school starts and snap “first day” pictures, then. This is a great time for a pep talk, courtesy of Mrs. Carson: “Be excited!” she said. “A new year means new beginnings and fresh starts!”

I asked my 12-year-old, who is never short on opinions, for back-to-school prep tips.

Immediately, she expounded on the importance of accomplishing a summer “bucket list” I didn’t even know she had. Nearly interrupting to rephrase my question, I hushed. Stop to smell the roses at the Fayetteville Rose Garden on the campus of Fayetteville Technical Community College. Take a slow drive down Smithfield Road to pick blueberries at Berry Blessed Farms. Go rock climbing. Go skating. Make a terrarium. Put together the big puzzle. Bake a three-tiered cake. Fill their lunchboxes, their closets, their bookbags. Fill their hearts and yours, too.