When I was growing up with my three siblings, my dad drove us all to school every morning, and picked us up every afternoon. There was a school bus, but he liked spending that time with us, and we liked it, too, and so we piled into his car on chilly Wisconsin mornings, and he dropped us off at our respective schools on his way to work.

Every morning, he gave us a rousing pep talk. I suspect it was as much for him as it was for us. On Mondays, the pep talk went something like this: “It’s Monday. It’s the first day of the school week. Everybody else is complaining. Everybody else is thinking about the weekend, and wishing they were sleeping in. But not the Klitzke kids! They get a [wait for it] JUMP on the rest of the kids! The Klitzke kids are concentrating on their school work, they’re listening to their teachers, and they’re going to WIN!”

By Wednesday, according to the pep talk lectionary, “everybody else” was thinking about hump day, and how the weekend was coming, and by Friday, “everybody else” had basically checked out. But not the Klitzke kids! We were going to get a JUMP on the rest of those slackers!

If this doesn’t already sound like a motivational speaker with a wide necktie and a wider smile, consider this: he had an accompanying soundtrack. It was usually “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.

On one of those rides to school, my dad told my brother and me about the Facts of Life, after watching a bull and a cow in a field. I thought they were playing. My brother argued that they were fighting. My dad settled the argument by telling us what they were really doing, and bought himself ten minutes of silence afterward. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.

There was a twelve-year span between the time that my oldest sister was born and my youngest brother was born. That gave my dad plenty of time to perfect the pep talk, but it also softened over time. We still had high expectations for performance (JUMP!), but we were also instructed to be kind to other students, and to seek out someone who might be lonely, and to tell an adult if we thought another kid might be in any kind of trouble. For all the joking and singing and jumping, this was serious business.

I’m sending my second child – my baby – off to Kindergarten this year. I have to confess, I haven’t perfected my pep talk yet. Our mornings are a little bit of chaos mixed in with a lot of sleepiness, and I’m lucky to get to school most days without cursing out another driver. (We don’t live among the peaceful, mating cattle of my youth.) And yet, I think we all have that instinct to prepare our kids for the school day, and for “success,” whatever that might look like. In my law-mindedness, this type of “success” looks like reading every book on the recommended pre-Kindergarten reading lists this summer – all 116 of them. (Yeah. We did that, and we liked it. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.)

IMG_5226There will be internet articles and Pinterest pins with detailed templates for the perfect first day pep talk, complete with catch words and phrases from whatever NPR has told us our kids need to succeed. Grit. Resilience. Self-esteem. Empathy. Protein powder. I will read those articles, and even buy the New York Times bestsellers that follow, simply trying to keep up with how, exactly, I’m messing up. As it turns out, “you’re doing just fine! Keep it up!” does not sell many books, and it’s terrible click bait.

The message of the Gospel isn’t much of a pep talk, either. The victory over death at the cross isn’t peppy or tidy. The one-way gift of grace isn’t earned, regardless of whether we’re paying attention to our teacher on a Monday, and even if we weren’t particularly nice to a classmate on a Friday. The message of Gospel love is even more powerful, to me, when we fail miserably at our pep talk expectations, which we invariably do. That’s not to say that I’m not going to use my best motivational speaker impression on the first day of school this year. But I am grateful, like my dad was grateful before me, that we are loved and forgiven before we even put on our brand new backpacks and best first day of school photo smiles. Glory, Glory Hallelujah.