In photos passed around at the office or posted proudly on Facebook, in conversations remote or at the coffee machine, whether about emerging kindergartners or newly liberated college freshers, the off-to-school transition has a universal thread. For evidence, examine those photos more closely.
The kids are jubilant. They’re ready to rock and roll. Just look at those grinning small people, feet practically dancing out of their clean new shoes, the backpack’s weight sported proudly like a badge of achievement. My very favorite first-day shot shows a new kindergartner, the nephew of my very dear friend, rushing toward his waiting teacher with a flower he picked, just for her. Even better, it’s a giant, mature sunflower that he yanked from the ground at the roots, and he’s waving the entire plant, nearly twice his own height. The expression on the teacher’s face proves that even those who have seen it all–teachers of small children, police officers, dance teachers, tech support, and auto mechanics among them–can still be surprised on the Big First Day.
But check those shots again, and behold the parents. They muster a smile, but look closer, at their eyes. However diligently they’ve nurtured, how carefully they’ve shopped from lists, how much encouragement they’ve bestowed and precautions they’ve dispensed, they aren’t fooling anyone. Emotionally, they aren’t ready. Not really.
And how could they be? In my parental career, three decades and change, there hasn’t been a single landmark event more terrifying than my daughter’s first day of school. Not even her wedding, nor the birth of her children. For the naturally anxious, like yours truly, there are so, so many questions. Which side of the street will the bus stop on? And what evils might lurk on that massive bus? Will her lunch spoil before she eats it—or did I even remember to send lunch? Will there be mean kids? Will the teacher be patient with her constant questions? Does she have her shoes on the right feet? Is she even wearing shoes? Am I?
For her, it seemed so natural. The door of the big yellow bus creaks open, and she bounds up the steps without a backward glance or word. The driver waves as she closes the door on my baby’s toddler years, the sweet, oh-so-short times when our world together is everything. The bus rumbles away toward the rest of her life, leaving me bereft, alone on the sidewalk. At the office, I watch the clock all day, distracted. My sister calls and leaves me a message that begins, “Did you put your baby on the big yellow bus today?” I burst into tears.
All this comes flooding back as Buddy’s first day of kindergarten approaches. I’m dying for scoop, but struggling not to pry. In this and many other things required of mothers, my daughter far surpasses me in thoughtful preparation, so there is no help to offer in advance. I listen for clues and wait for the big day.
Finally, it arrives, and with it the requisite photos of suddenly-taller Buddy, backpack strapped firmly in place, new shoes laced onto feet big enough for some other, older kid. Actually, on closer inspection, the shoes appear intentionally un-laced. (I guess that’s a thing.) And look at that face; he’s so ready he didn’t really want to stop for this picture.
When I catch him for the big news bulletin, it is oddly reassuring to learn that some enduring elements of this passage retain their importance as the generations roll on. Among them: Why do grownups think this is such a big deal?
So, how did it go? I begin. “Ummm….it was good,” he nods, nonchalant, offering nothing further. I press on: What did you do on the first day? “Well, we went to the cafeteria.” Another pause. Did you eat there? Buddy’s expression indicates this merits a DUH, but he kindly does not deliver one. “We had apples and milk, and Maggie from my other school was there, so I sat in the chair next to her.” Did you read any stories? “We talked about the kissing hand.” This, I learn, is a charming tale about a raccoon whose mom reassures with a kiss on the hand that he takes her love wherever he goes. Buddy scampers away, returning with a school folder. It contains a paper hand for family members to kiss and return to school. I give it a peck, glad to join in this little symbolic assignment.
With that, he has said all he has to say on the topic. But I have more questions! Did he meet mean kids who made fun of people (my personal torment from grade school, re-surfacing, natch)? Did he look around and wish he was taller/shorter/wearing different shoes/not so blonde/had a better sandwich/home with his little sister? But I follow his lead and zip my lips for now. Such things loom so monumentally in our hearts, but if they crossed his five-year-old mind, he didn’t let on.
A few days later, the fall season opened for the pre-school program where Sis goes two days a week. Sis desires nothing more in this life than to keep pace with her brother, so her parents marked her first day, as well, with a photo opp and special, Sis-style first-day outfit. This met with resistance (see photo). The source of this pout remains known only to Sis, but her generally exuberant nature apparently re-emerged later. When her mother sought a first-day report from the director, she got this: “That girl lives every moment.”
Knowing Sis, the imagination boggles at the implications. But whatever happened, I hope she keeps it up.
Copyright Eve Hutcherson, 2016.