Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Last First Day of Kindergarten

He looked up at me with blue eyes. They seemed to know who I was even before I introduced myself. I was struck by how bright blue his eyes were, even more so than his brother and sister. When I looked back into the blue eyes that were neither scared nor sad, he found his way right into my heart forever.

He is my third child, the one we never planned to have but came anyway. And the child that completed our family in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then.

I remembered that moment as we stood in the crowded line on the sandy asphalt outside his classroom. He was watching the door, the sharp rays of the early sun making him squint on this warm August morning. He was holding my hand—my actual hand, unlike just a few short months ago when all he could manage was to hold two of my fingers. He had his new canvas bag over his shoulder packed with a snack and his headphones. The lights on his brand new shoes dormant as he stood still and quiet by my side, waiting patiently and confidently for the bell.

His classmates were lined up patiently, too, accompanied by the loving throng of parents, caregivers, and grandparents that had shepherded them to this moment. He waved to his friend, the one he introduced himself to yesterday at orientation. His friend waved back and smiled. In spite of the growing dread in my belly, I smiled at his mom. The other mom returned a tight smile, seeming nervous, absently resting her hand on her pregnant belly, no doubt wondering how she got here today and how the little kicking being that was still sleeping inside her womb just yesterday could now be waiting to start the first day of Kindergarten today.

Our teacher invited us in the classroom. She had instructions for all of us, like where to hang our student’s tote bags and where to put the snack for recess. We diligently complied. It was crowded and noisy, but we all managed the tasks at hand.

I helped my son get his snack in his cubby and hang his bag. Then, when this official business was complete, he turned to me and hugged my legs before he let me go and made his way to the rainbow rug, where he plopped down crisscross applesauce in an orange square. He looked around at his classmates already on the carpet and then turned to me with a thumbs up. He would be okay. I might not. My throat tightened, and my eyes brimmed with tears of pride and dismay. 

He was a Kindergartner now. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I made my way to the back of the classroom behind the other parents to get some photos. Some of them were experiencing this wonderful/terrible experience for the first time; the joy of participating in such a significant milestone while shouldering the heartbreak of letting their child go, even if it’s just a little. I took photos and tried to hide my tears. I wanted to set a good example.

To be honest, I find it a little silly that I felt wrecked by this important rite of passage. After all, I have stood here before, watching my two other little babies take their leave of me.  I know he will return to me in just a few short hours, all smiles and gleeful cries of “Mommy!” Not 15 minutes after our reunion later, when he’s already wearing me out, I will wonder why I ever felt crushed about the idea of leaving him on his first day of school. I will return to my grouchy musings about whose bright idea it was to start school on an early dismissal day. Or why on earth there are still so many weeks off of school. I will resume my furious searches online to discover just exactly what is the point of a “minimum day.”

After roll call, his teacher read a story about the first day of school and the exquisite pain of separation. It ended with the main character learning the sign for “I love you.” She taught the class how to make the sign with their chubby little hands and encouraged them to show it to us in the throng of anxious and doting faces that surrounded them. He found me and smiled with his whole face, proud to hold up the sign, his first lesson in “big boy” school.

It was time to leave. The teacher reassured us all that she would take wonderful care of our little babies. The air was thick with mixed emotions, both smothering me and thwarting my efforts to keep it together.

As I reached the door, I looked back once more at my baby, my last baby, happily taking in this moment. I felt overwhelmed with pride and love. But the tears came anyway as I left, mourning the loss of these years when he was my little buddy, my constant companion, my lunch date, and my Costco-run partner.

Now he is my kindergartner, my school-aged child, and the last of my tribe to enjoy a significant landmark on his journey to independence that started years ago, even if I didn’t notice it until today. It was the last first day of Kindergarten, beautiful, if tragic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.