My son is currently in the first grade. It’s hard to believe my oldest—that 6-pound, 15-ounce baby we brought home from the hospital yesterday—is in elementary school. For years, people have been saying things like “they grow up quick” and “wow, the kids sure are getting big!” It’s happening right in front of you as parent, and yet it’s hard to notice. And then one day I did. My daughters are five and two. My son was just five. They were right.

While my son is busy doing his first-grade thing, I’m busy at the high school level doing mine. When summer ends and classes begin, transitioning into school mode is a challenge. I wish I were talking about the students. For example, I stayed away from my classroom as long as possible this past summer. As a high school teacher, the thought of that first week back makes me cringe, if I’m completely honest. It’s nerves mostly. It’s almost as if by setting foot in the room–with a few days of summer remaining–class may resume early. I can’t risk it.

Teaching high school juniors is interesting, to say the least. Sixteen-year-olds for most of the day can take its toll. They complain about writing assignments—or any assignment, for that matter. They groan and roll their eyes as I move them away from their chatty friends. Foul language erupts, despite my classroom signage dissuading it. It’s all part of the experience. There are different personalities to manage and varying degrees of academic grit. Some students are eager to interact, often smiling as they enter the room. And then you have the downtrodden, those who appear tortured as they cross the threshold, as if being there is more punishment than they can bear. Many are polite, though, helpful, and diligent; others are arrogant, flippant, and even defiant. It can be quite a mixed bag, the latter of which you hope is a small percentage. And while most of my students are just fine, there’s enough crass behavior to make me worry about my own children.

And now with another school year nearly in the books, I think about my boy. What have his first-grade experiences been like? He’s a world apart from my students. The thought of my son as a 16-year-old is hard to fathom, but given how quickly the last seven years seemed to pass, it’s closer than I think.

When I look at him, I see a kind-hearted little boy. I see a smile with an array of adult and baby teeth—the adult variety far too large for the allotted space. I also see braces in his future, and maybe even a retainer or two.

But all kidding aside, I see innocence.

With a hard part and hair combed to the side, he loves school. Well-mannered and full of enthusiasm, he enters the building. Is it only a matter of time, though, until he makes the shift? I wonder if that sweetness he has at age seven will still exist at 16. I don’t expect it to look the same; I just hope it’s there, in some form.

I want that kind-hearted spirit of his to remain intact as he matures. I want him to be the kid who stops in the hallway when someone drops a book. I want him to be the kid who helps grandma carefully navigate the bleachers—maybe even someone else’s grandma, too. I want him to be the kid who can empathize.

As a father, I often consider my role in helping build that character. My instruction, discipline, and example are all key components in shaping him. He listens to my speech. He examines my practice. He sees me. What am I showing him? I want him to become a man of integrity–one whose character remains true, in spite of external factors.

At school, I overhear things in the hallways I wish I could un-hear. Expletives fly from lockers as I pass. Uncomfortable weekend stories fill the air, plenty loud for me to catch the details. I cringe, pause, and correct. “Oh, sorry,” they say, sheepishly bowing their heads. They’re not, though. They’ll do it again. Same time tomorrow, same place. It’s lip service. It’s their way. Had it always been? Was there a gradual shift from first grade until now? Not my boy. He’ll respect authority figures. He’ll treat women with respect. He’ll keep a tight rein on his tongue. Maybe. And that’s the hard part.

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Patrick Danz

Patrick Danz is a follower of Christ, husband, father, educator, and sports enthusiast. He lives in Trenton, Michigan, with his wife, Nicole, and their three children: Keason, Carmella, and Alessandra. When he's not teaching, Patrick spends his time writing, golfing, grilling, and quoting lines from Groundhog Day. His work has appeared on Parent.co and Fatherly.