first day
12 September 2004

This past Friday was Damian's first real day of school. The real test. I brought him to kindercare in the morning. Thought I'd give it the old college try. Tried. Didn't much like. Damian agreed. An activity, free play, more free play, not-terribly-involved staff, kids playing on their own, then lunch and then time to go to class.

Damian wanted me to walk in to the classroom with him, wanted me to wait a while until he got comfortable, wanted me to stay. I've always done this at his various preschools, stayed a day or three days or - in one case - three months. Let him acclimate with the comfort of Mommy lurking in the background. But this is different. This is elementary school. Big kid's school. And he's a big kid himself at age six. And if he's ready, he's ready. I told him I had to say goodbye at the kindergarten gate, same as all the other parents.

We stood outside the gate, us parents, while the children lined up to go in. Still a few steps away from each other, not divided yet by a fence, still within arm's reach and voice response. I looked away for a moment, looked at other children waiting patiently. Looked back at Damian standing at the end of the line. Crying.

Oh man. I hurried over, hugged him, talked to him, told him I'd come back at the end of class, that his shadow teacher would be there inside, that the main teacher was so nice and kind (she is) and that he already knew some of the other kids from that morning. And once again, that I'd be back for him at the end of class. That it was okay to be scared, it was normal to be scared, but that he'd do great.

The line started moving. Damian moved too, albeit with a, "Goodbye, Mommy," said in such a shaky little tear-stained voice. And as he filed inside the gate into the kindergarten yard, he waved goodbye, said goodbye again, blew me a kiss, said goodbye again, blew me another kiss, and cried some more. Hard. So hard. His little heart breaking. Torn away from comfort and home, stepping into the big unknown. Quivering.

I watched as long as he was visible, as long as he kept checking back for me, his face a small worried oval. I saw the teacher put her arm around his back as he disappeared inside. I walked away, trying not to cry myself. I know this is hard. I know full well why and how. I have tried to protect him the past six years, help boost his fragile independence and confidence, tried to give him support and strength, but there comes a time when you have to see, if only for a few hours, whether it's true, what you think, whether your child has more strength than he himself knows.

The walk from kindergarten down that tree-lined street to my parked car felt so surreal. Leaving him behind. Back home, an empty house, fully alone for the firs time in three weeks. I ate lunch, exercised, watched the clock. What are they doing now in that little classroom? How is he doing? What does he think of it all? I wanted to head back at 1pm, then 1:30, finally left at 2:20 for the ten minute drive. I thought I'd stand at the gate, maybe peek into the kindergarten yard, get a glimpse of Damian's new life. Entirely forgetting about elementary school pickup time traffic. Traffic jam! Badly double parked cars! Squeeze past and hope you leave no scratches!

I ran up the block. God, the first day, can't let him wait and fret about Mommy abandoning him, not for a minute. But only three other parents stood gazing into the yard and the gate was still locked.

Damian sat with the other children at two long benches, the snack tables. Waiting to leave. When he saw me, he lit up. Shouted out across the fence. "Mommy, I was watching for you!" (Is this a good sign or a bad one?) "Mommy! I had a LOT OF FUN in kindergarten!"

When he came out, the teacher touched base with me for a brief moment: "He had a great day!" And the shadow nodded, confirming it. He didn't need her there, it seemed. (The teacher said she could use the shadow for a few other children, though… Heh.) He paid attention, did all the work, didn't fidget or fall out.

He held up his first day's work: a monkey cut out of construction paper (adult cutting, clearly), pants and shirt colored in with a child's hand. I made some comment about the monkey and he launched into an explanation about the book they'd read about a boy afraid of starting kindergarten and how he'd brought his monkey for comfort and that's why they had monkey art projects today. And oh my god, I remember so clearly how much I longed for this three years ago, this easy conversation about his day in school, sharing his excitement with me, articulating it. How impossible this seemed back then. We've worked so hard toward this very day, toward kindergarten in a regular class. The big looming transition which is here, which is now. Which seems to be a success.

As we walked down the street to the car, Damian told me that his class was like one long circle time. He said, "You found a good kindergarten for me, Mommy," and added, "You didn't think I'd get used to kindergarten so fast! I got used to it in one day!" He was very proud of himself.

Me too. Oh, me too.

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copyright 2004 Tamar