Today is Yeshumnesh’s first day of school. She’s nervous. It’s the first day in a new school, in a new state, in a new grade, in a new everything. She’s very nervous.
I’m pretty anxious as well. As parents we haven’t done the whole first day of school thing before, and now we’re jumping straight into middle school. We’ve met teachers and toured the school and found lockers and all the rest, but we can’t help feeling like we’re forgetting something or we haven’t done everything we can to prepare Yeshumnesh. And I hate to keep asking about things and just bring up more to worry about: When is lunch? Do you want to bring a snack? Do you have a house key? Do you remember our address? Should you bring gym clothes?
It all gives me flashbacks to my own first days of school… (cue nostalgic rambling)
It starts with my first day of kindergarten. I rode the school bus to Scotch Elementary School with my older brother, then an experienced second grader. I remember watching out the window as our bus picked up the other children.
When we got to school I stepped off the bus and had no idea where to go. So I followed my brother. My older, smarter, more confident brother. He knew everything. And I knew him. So I followed him.
He told me to go to my class. Then he turned around and walked away.
And I was alone.
I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. The only person I knew abandoned me. I started wandering down a hallway and eventually poked my tear-stained face in a doorway to ask for help. A gray-haired art teacher took pity on me and took me by the hand, leading me to my class. She walked me around the school and past a row of kindergartners lined up against the wall. I had to walk past the entire line of them with tears still streaming down my face and sit down at the end of the line. I sat there wiping away tears wondering how all those other kids knew where to go.
I don’t remember much about the first day of first grade or anything about the first day of second grade.
But I remember the first day of third grade. I was the more experienced third grader. I was older, smarter and more confident. I knew it all. And when I stepped off the bus to go to class, the kid from down the street who was starting kindergarten followed me.
I told him to go to his class. Then I turned around and walked away.
And I left him alone.
And he cried.
At my school we went to our classes from the previous year and there they divided us into our new classes and marched us to our new classroom. As my class of newly-christened third graders strode down the hall to Mrs. Ferguson’s class I noticed the school secretary down on one knee next to a teary-eyed kindergartner. She was asking him if he recognized any of these kids as his friend.
It was the kid from down the street. I was the friend he was looking for.
And I kept walking.
Later that morning someone knocked on Mrs. Ferguson’s door. I didn’t think anything of it until Mrs. Ferguson called me over to the door. My stomach flipped when I saw the school secretary and my friend from down the street standing in the doorway.
He looked at me and his eyes were lost and scared, full of betrayal.
The secretary asked me if I knew who he was and I nodded. She asked me if I knew his last name and I honestly didn’t. Maybe I knew it somewhere in the recesses of my brain, but it wasn’t coming to me in that moment of need. I couldn’t help. I wanted to get back to the safety of my own desk in my class and I couldn’t understand why they could track me down but couldn’t figure out where this kid was supposed to be.
That night at home my parents lectured me about watching out for the younger kid down the street.
The first day of school is never easy. Looking back, only the really traumatic moments stand out. I can’t even remember the easy first days of school, if there were any. I think that says something about me. And that low moment on the first day of third grade says something else about me. Thankfully we can change.
This morning I did everything I could to make Yeshumnesh’s first day of sixth grade a little better. I made biscuits. I reassured her (but not too much). I offered to walk with her (surprise, surprise, she didn’t want her dorky dad and little brother and sister accompanying her). I took the traditional first day of school picture (OK, that probably didn’t make the day much better, but she’ll thank me someday. Maybe. Thanks Mom).
But as she walked out the front door with her overloaded backpack and her hood pulled down low against the wind, there was little more I could do. Lexi and Milo watched her go from the window. She reached the street and then turned around and ran back to the door. She forgot something.
A second chance.
“Be strong,” I said as she walked out the door once more. I watched her cross the street and walk down the sidewalk. I followed Lexi and Milo to another window and watched as she crossed another street and walked out of sight.
And that’s it. I know she’s strong and she’ll make it. But she still has to face her fears and anxiety, she has to grit her teeth and tighten her muscles and just get through the trauma. That’s what everyone has to do. And all I can do is watch. The spectator role of parenthood is a little hard to get used to. And the first day of school never changes.