I love all the first day of school signs on Facebook. Just like that great time you had white-water rafting down the Colorado River, it’s a lie. Damn lie. I tried to get Alex, our 5-year old, to take a photo with the more accurate sign I made for him, “First day of school, I’m scared and I want to stay home,” but he was so nervous I couldn’t get him to stand still. I’m kidding…well, about the sign anyway.
In fact, you didn’t see a first day of school photo on Facebook from me, or my wife, because I didn’t want to make him stand and fake a smile. It felt…disingenuous… even by Facebook standards. He has plenty of time to learn how to fake things. I wanted, instead, for him to have free range to show all of his emotions – and have me validate them – without making him pose for a photo. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all, even remotely, suggesting that your kids don’t love the first day of school, but mine doesn’t. Neither did I.
I can still feel the dread. First, the first day of school means summer was over. And summer was always awesome. At least it was when I went to school. Camp, sports, swimming, make-your-own sundaes at Zips (that’s a Staten Island thing), staying out late. I loved the smell of summer and waking up to the sounds of lawn mowers, sprinklers (when they were above ground) and of course, someone cutting wood with a circular saw (is that just a Staten Island thing? Or just me?).
Second, you had to start all over. New kids to meet, new teachers, new classes. Sure, it was easy when you were just moving up a grade within the same school, but starting at a new school – like Alex is doing – scared the crap out of me. I remember the first day of high school and feeling so scared that I would get lost walking to whatever wing my class was in, or all the warnings that freshmen get initiated on the first day either by getting egged or harassed in some way. It didn’t happen. But I still spent weeks worrying about it (by now you’ve figured out I wasn’t very cool).
And I still remember the first day at Cornell. I was so stressed out that I got a terrible cold. And for some reason I thought I would look cool wearing black jeans, black sneakers and a tight yellow t-shirt. I looked like a nervous, Jewish guido bumble bee (who by the way was so nervous that he lost his room key during the first hour of unpacking, now that’s embarrassing).
Enough about me. But boy did that feel good to get off my chest. So I was ready when we talked to Alex about his first day of school:
“Alex, tomorrow is the first day of school.”
“Are you going to stay with me?”
“Well, just for the first few minutes while you meet the other kids, but then I’m going to leave.”
“But you have to stay with me!”
“I can’t buddy, don’t worry, you’ll be ok. Remember we met Teacher Sandy last week and she was really nice.”
“But I don’t want to go to school. I’m going to get lost” (Not sure where that came from but seems like a reasonable fear of a new place.)
“You’re not going to get lost. You’re going to have a great time.”
“I’m so scared. I just want to stay home with kitty.” (Kitty is his name, ironically, for our dog.)
“I used to be scared too on the first day of school, and it’s ok to be scared but it will be great and you’ll make lots of new friends.”
And don’t think for a second that this conversation just happened once. It happened during his bath, he fell asleep talking about it and all the way until we walked into his new classroom. As a parent, your brain knows everything is going to be ok, of course it is. But your heart aches seeing your kid so scared, unfounded or not.
We walk into his new classroom and it’s already buzzing. One little girl looks to be as upset as Alex, but the rest of the kids are playing (jerks!). I look down at Alex and he’s quietly shedding a tear, maybe more than one and standing really close to me. I’m no rookie at this anymore so I was ready. Plus Amy always gives me a pre-game pep talk about how “he’ll be ok, and don’t worry if the other parents are looking.” I introduce him to a few of his new classmates while we say hi to his teacher. Tears are quietly streaming, but I can already tell he’s going to be fine, he knows the drill, and this is just his process. I tell the teacher it will only last three days.
I get down on my knees and tell him I’m going to leave, but I’ll back before he knows it. The teacher leans in and tells him that he’s going to love the playground. He protests slightly but he knows. I lean in to give him a hug and he gives me a real – not your usual 5-year old please stop hugging me hug – and squeezes me.
I walk out the door and turn around but he’s already starting to play with the kids next to him.
Three hours later, I’m at the door to pick him up. The teacher gives me a thumbs up. Alex runs to me and gives me a hug and yells “Daddy!” It’s so nice to breathe again.
We walk out.
“Can I watch your phone?” he asks.
“Sure buddy, what do you want to watch?”
“Freight trains” he says, as I get out my phone for the short car ride home.
“Ok, how was school? What did you do?, Did you play with new friends?” firing questions at him.
“I was brave.”