Firsts and lasts - FamilyEducation

Firsts and lasts

August 26,2008

A milestone will be passed in schools around my city this week, because yesterday was the first day of school for the rest of the public school kids, and Tuesday and Wednesday will be staggered entry days for the brand-new kindergarteners. At the pool yesterday, moms and dads were abuzz with discussions of school-supply lists and first days and teachers' names. I felt a little like an outsider, since L. has been in school for almost three weeks now. But it also felt good to have our first day of third grade over and done with, and the school routine settling down a bit for us. Yesterday was also the first day of kindergarten for my little nephew, who isn't so little anymore. And my husband's nephew starts this week, too, and one of my favorite dad bloggers is struggling with the thought of a first day for his daughter, and his post made me decidedly teary. I get teary when I contemplate first days, when I imagine kids donning backpacks and heading through the doors of the place that will keep and (hopefully) nurture them for years to come.

T.'s own first day is looming in the near future, too. She has her preschool orientation on Thursday, and next Tuesday she'll pass through the white doors of her school building on her last first day of preschool--forever. I try not to think about how that day will be a day of lasts--to focus on the firsts instead: the first day of the fours class, the first day as a "senior" at her preschool--but still the "lasts" intrude. I love her preschool, and for six years now it's been a part of our lives in big ways and small ones, too. This time next year she'll be a kindergartener, and we'll say good-bye to the preschool days forever.

It doesn't matter how you sugarcoat it--the first time your child sets foot into a school--preschool or elementary school--it's the beginning of an end, in many ways. It's the first definitive act of letting go that you do as a parent. When I left L. at preschool for the first time, when he was three, my knees shook as I walked out. I sat in the van in the parking lot, feeling that heavy, dreadful sense of having lost something, and not being able to remember where I left it. For the first time in our three years together, L. would have a few hours of separate experiences from me--he would come home and talk about things that we hadn't shared. I felt the same way with T., and she started preschool at the tender age of 19 months. I would pick her up and she'd babble and talk about stories and songs I didn't know. I'd sit and listen to her, and try to capture the threads of her experiences--to weave them into a pattern I could recognize.

I always tell this anecdote about L.'s first full day of preschool five years ago, to show other parents--and to remind myself--that it's really the parents who suffer the most from this milestone. When I picked L. up at 12:30 that day, I was desperate for information from him about his morning. What had he done? What did the teacher read? What did he eat for snack? I leaped at the tidbits I dragged out of him like a person thirsty for water.

"Did you like school?" I asked him.

There was a long, long pause from the backseat of the van.

"Did you like it?" I asked again.

"Well..." he said. "I liked it except for the part about going to the strange man's house."

I froze in the front seat of the van, a dreadful, icy feeling of horror gripping me. The road swirled around in front of me. I think I even had to pull over."What strange man?" I asked him casually, trying to keep the OH MY GOD WHAT STRANGE MAN out of my voice.

"You know, Mama. That strange man named God."

And then I had to laugh hysterically, relief washing over me like a wave. God's house. The Chapel. Of course. They took him to the Chapel. I felt so foolish after that--had I really thought his licensed, nurturing, caring preschool had shipped him off to some strange man's house for the morning? But being a parent--if you haven't noticed yet--does strange things to your mind.

This is all to say that they will be okay. Your kids will be okay when they head off to school. It's the parents who suffer the most--the ones left behind outside the school doors. The ones who have to heal that split-apart feeling they get when they leave their child in the hands of others and walk away, chin held high, knees trembling, sick feeling in their stomach, knowing that it's the beginning of the end, really--a necessary loss, but a terrible and sweet one all the same.