Off to School Altars
By C. B. Cabeen
Last year my almost four year old spent the first event of the school year in hiding. She’d enjoyed preschool in the Spring, but now that school was about to start again, she was worried and didn’t want to talk about it. I felt helpless. Her initial transition into preschool had taken months of patient work, but now I had a baby, and what if we had to do the same thing again? I couldn’t shepherd my kiddo through the experience this time–fundamentally it was her experience, not mine–even though we were so intertwined that her distress felt like my own.
I started building an off-to-school altar for my daughter then. She helped me arrange it, and with a little prompting, found more material to add. We reminisced about things as we added them, until we were sitting by the finished altar making up silly stories about school. We’d come unclenched.
Building altars together is part of how we deal with life transitions and other situations where our hearts are full and mixed up. Altars give us a way to mark the changes in our lives, and they reveal our lives back to us as something sacred to honor and celebrate. They provide a gentle space for children (and their parents) to imagine their role as students and what relation that has to their family. The process of choosing or creating emotionally charged objects, arranging them, and gazing on them opens up our abilities to see the broader picture and reach a synthesis–or at least start a conversation. Disparate feelings can stand side by side on an altar without having to edge each other out.
Crafting an altar with young children usually works best if it’s intuitive and playful. You won’t want to plan too much of the process ahead of time, though if you have more than one child, you might want to designate some parts of the altar for each to arrange separately and some parts to share. For inspiration, here are some ideas for creating and using a school altar with small children:
School Supplies. How will the rhythms of day-to-day life change with the school year? One of the most concrete ways to imagine the shift in routines is by handling the objects related to them. New school supplies feel numinous with potential to me and readily find their way onto our altar, ready to be marked with names. When my daughter first started school, we printed her name so many times that she asked me to write it on her, too, so that like her things, she wouldn’t get lost and everyone would know who she belonged to. Her own printed name had become a blessing. The next year she found it reassuring to get her shoes off the altar before she left for school and put them back there when she came home, making the altar a safe container for her time at school.
You might also enjoy the playful consecration of school supplies here.
Aspirations. What do you and your children hope to do or learn at school? Putting relevant objects and pictures on the altar can help clarify desires. You might also include a vase of wispy dandelion heads for blowing wishes.
Does the new school year also bring your child a new identity? Consider objects that allude to salient features of the school or your child’s identity at school, for example, if your child will be “in the orange door” or in the “rainbow fish” class.
Child as Hero. What has your child done to get this far? What new challenges do you see?
For a child who’s apprehensive about school, think about times in the past when your child has demonstrated virtues related to whatever he’s worried about: courage, curiosity, or the ability to learn, for example. Put a reminder of that quality on the altar and tell the story that invokes it.
Clearly anything your children have made or used at school in the past might find its way to the altar, especially things they struggled with or were excited about–but you don’t need to limit your school altar to what they’ve done at school. Including material from growth experiences outside school helps create a continuity of experience between home and school and helps envision children as creative, capable individuals. Besides, art work makes a good background for the altar.
Think about your child’s favorite stories or myths. Do any of these provide a lens for viewing the child’s experience at school? For example, is it an adventure where you’ll dig for buried treasure? Meet dragons? Play around with putting favorite hero figures on the altar and see what they do there.
You might also include items that point toward more specific worries or suggest specific solutions. For example, our favorite book for overcoming separation anxiety at school was The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn. In the book, a young raccoon’s mother kisses him on the hand every day before he goes to school, so that he can take her love with him. We used that same ritual for a while when we said goodbye at school.
Seasons of Growth. What objects help you imagine your child’s growth and your own? Feathers for taking flight, opening flowers, a long-saved umbilical cord? Young children may not think much in symbolic terms yet, but this altar can be a space for everyone in the family to reflect and see points of connection between our lives. For each “with” we outgrow, we create a new kind of “with.” You might include your own first-day-of-school pictures or things that you or other family members made when they were in school. (Make sure to tell the related stories of when you were a student.) Or you might include reminders of how school life affects everyone in the family. What will your own involvement in school be like? If you’re going to be doing something particular during school hours, you might bring a small reminder of that to the altar, too.
Lastly, we add sacred statues and invite our gods to look on the altar we made, to share their wisdom and guide us through the school year. We might even prepare a lunchbox meal to offer them this year, and see if it helps me make peace with packing lunches.
Have you made a school season altar? I’d love to hear about it.
C. B. Cabeen is a pagan who identifies loosely with Reclaiming. Her spiritual work focuses on storytelling and parenting her four year old and one year old, but occasionally she finds enough time away from them to tweet for Pagan Families.