School has started again. The year has circled back on itself, and a deluge of backpack-wearing cuteness fills my Facebook newsfeed. In all the snapshots, tiny students grin at cameras, eager for a new beginning, and in all the posts, parents say things like “I’m so nervous!” and “Finally he’s happy to be going to school!” and “We survived the first week!” The common denominator seems to be that the kids are excited and the parents are–well, surviving.
We survived our first week. School was fine. The bus ride was fine. It was the transfer from bus to classroom that had my five-year-old terrifed and sobbing at 10:30 at night. So, the next day, I followed the bus, per his request. I felt like I needed to explain myself to the bus driver–“Hi, I’m Finn’s mom, and I promise I’m not stalking you!” In retrospect, I imagine the bus driver is probably used to that. He was very nice about it, anyway. The second day I followed the bus again, feeling like I was in an extremely slow-speed car chase scene with a cast of Munchkins. After two days of this, a couple of conversations with the principal, and a rather lengthy note exchange with Finn’s teacher, not one, not two, but THREE separate children were designated to assist my kiddo on the long and perilous journey through the Valley of the Shadow of the Front Sidewalk to the kindergarten classroom.
When he was sobbing hysterically after the first day, I know what was going on in that little hyperactive mind. He was inarticulate, but I know what he was thinking. He was thinking, “I have to get off the bus, and then I have to find the classroom. What if I can’t find the classroom? What if I get lost on the way? What if no one sees me and helps me? What if I wander the halls of elementary school FOREVER, until I am an old man with a long white beard mumbling to himself and frightening small children? What if I meet a dragon? What if, instead of the K classroom, I stumble upon an interdimensional doorway that spits me out into a world with no cheese where the Star Wars movies never existed and there is mandatory naptime every day from noon to 5pm? Oh, the horror!”
I know what he was doing because I do it all the time. He gets his obsessive overthinking honestly.
I’ve been obsessing over his first week, too. There was a time–to be precise, it was 1am every morning for the first three years (four? five?) of his life–when I longed for kindergarten. Kindergarten was a magical place where parents could send their insomniac children and someone else would be responsible for keeping them alive for seven blessed hours of every day. Every once in a while a wave of panic would overtake me as I considered that perhaps my child would be miserable in school and we’d have to homeschool. Let me say here that I greatly admire my homeschooling friends, all the more so because I have realized that I do not have the patience for it. These parents are downright saintly, and I am in awe of them. I am not fit to join their ranks. But if my child needed me to stay home to teach him, I would, I resolved. In those bleak moments, I comforted myself with the thought that with any luck, he would get married someday and then somebody else would have to deal with him.
And now my first baby is in kindergarten. Suddenly I remember all those well-meaning people who nearly got themselves karate-chopped when they said things like, “Oh, the time goes so quickly!” Suddenly, those people are right. They were dead wrong and smoking something a month ago, but now, they are unavoidably, irrevocably right. Sorry, sweet older ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for my kung-fu fantasies.
Of course it’s hard to send your firstborn out into the Wide World. It’s a rite of passage, a marker along life’s road, a step away from the cozy nest you’ve created for your little chicks, feathering it with your dreams and fears, your sleepless nights and your fierce mama-love. It’s hard to watch that first scramble, hop, and flutter to the earth because that giddy clumsy flight is taking your child a little farther away from you.
But as I’ve overthought this, I’ve realized that there’s something else behind the pain of letting go. When you watch a child you love leave the cocoon of home and burst into the bright, open world–and it doesn’t matter if you birthed that child, or adopted, or just love that kid with all your heart no matter whose nest he plummeted out of–you catch a glimpse of past and future, a sense of the infinite. Someone sent you off to school once. And this fledgling may be doing the same in a couple of decades or so. Life goes on, and it goes on with this sweet sad beautiful symphony of growth and loss and change.
As my gorgeous boy with the solemn eyes steps off the bus, I am reminded that I stepped off a bus once, too, unsure of where I was going and full of infinite possibilities and monstrous fears. I was him. He is me. There are other children, other parents, stretching behind and before us through the years. And now, right now, I am in a moment in time. At a crossroads. A step forward takes us away from where we’ve been, away from childhood and toward the mysteries of adulthood, which will not seem so mysterious once we get there. There is a magic in childhood that we leave behind when we trade security for flight, blanket fortresses for bank accounts and wild imagination for practicality. It’s so poignant, so bittersweet, this reminder that I was Peter Pan once, too.
This is what I want to say to my child:
I love you. I don’t care if you learn one freaking thing about addition or the alphabet or what tadpoles turn into. Because I know you’ll learn. Your hungry little mind would learn if you lived in a shoebox. My prayer for you is that there will be certain things you will never learn. I know I can’t keep you from pain and suffering, because those things are as much a part of the fabric of this life as breathing. But I want you to hang on to wonder and delight, to sheer exuberance. Never get so cool that you forget how to give yourself up to un-self-conscious joy. Remember what it felt like to run naked around the back yard, rejoicing in the warmth of the sun on your skin. Wear orange plaid shorts with a red shirt, because you love them. Giggle. You were right when you were five–Princess Leia can wear a Viking helmet and fight Darth Vader. Remember this whenever you meet a princess. Eat a bowl of honey, cinnamon, and vanilla because they taste good. And try not to think so much. Everything won’t always be okay, but it will be bearable because you are loved, and you are strong, and you are blessed with an Imagination. The world is beautiful. Go and claim your birthright. And don’t forget to hug your mama. I was you once.