Tuesday, August 28, 2007


A friend whose daughter is also starting Kindergarten this month told me she read somewhere that it takes about ten days for kids to start showing reluctance to go to school. After ten days, apparently, the novelty has worn off and the reality of sitting in a classroom six hours a day, five days a week, for the next thirteen years starts to sink in. That’s impossible, of course, since five-year-olds can’t even process the difference between “next month” and “when you’re in college,” so I guess I’m projecting. The point is that in this, as in so many things, Lucy is precocious. It only took her two days to start being reluctant to go to school.

Yesterday morning when I went into her room to get her up, she hid under the covers and didn’t answer my cheery “good morning!” Uh-oh. I sat on the bed.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I asked. No answer. I decided to act oblivious.

“It’s a Kindergarten morning!” I said.

That’s when I realized she was crying. About a tenth of a second later, the extremely tenuous peace with this whole Kindergarten thing that I’d spent the better part of a year constructing came crashing down around me. They’d made her cry! She was never going back.

I pulled her onto my lap, and we rocked for a few minutes. I tried not to mentally calculate the time left for my shower. “What’s wrong?” I asked again. She mumbled something into my shoulder.

“Did something happen?” I asked. She shook her head. No.

“Are you worried about something?” I asked. No again.

“So why are you crying?” She raised her head.

“Do I have to go to school?”

Crisis. In my heart, I knew I didn’t have it in me to force her to go. At the same time, in what was left of my rational mind, I knew that to allow her to skip just because she felt like it would set a dangerous precedent. So I did what politicians everywhere have done for centuries. I talked, but I didn’t answer the question.

I talked about all the things she would miss if she didn’t go, about how dull it would be staying at home, about how if she got up and dressed quickly enough, I would put the sparkly polish on her toes before breakfast. To my astonishment, it worked! She got up, she got dressed, we polished the toes. We went down to breakfast.

She started to cry again. I started to seriously consider homeschooling.

“I like everything about school except lunch,” she finally said. Ah! Something to work with!

“Why don’t you like lunch?”

“The kids are silly at lunch.”

I resisted the urge to point out that being silly at meals was something she and her brother specialized in, and something that drove her father and me to madness.

“Silly how?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, they make funny noises and stuff.”

Funny noises?

“What bothers you about it?”

“I don’t know.”

At about this point in the discussion, I remembered my wise and insightful friend Amy telling me of her belief that part of what one learns from going off to school is to stand up to, in her genteel words, “influences you don’t care for.” It occurred to me that this might be precisely what was going on here, and that learning to deal with a situation in which not everyone is acting exactly as you would wish them to might not be a terrible thing. Of course, all this was taking place only in the small rational portion of my mind. The much larger Mommy portion was still simultaneously planning the offending children’s court-martial and our enrollment in the nearest Montessouri school.

Eventually, I offered a few lame strategies for dealing with the silly lunch-eaters, which she accepted with the seriousness befitting a fatwa. She left for school, and I spent the day with that feeling in the pit of my stomach which, before I had children, I associated with the five minutes before the starting whistle blew in an important game. So it was with some trepidation that I went out to meet the afternoon bus.

She hopped off, her “I’m in Kindergarten! Bus 153” tag bouncing around her neck. I grabbed her in a big hug.

“How was your day?” I asked.


We walked in silence for a few minutes. Well, in what passes for silence in our family, which is to say that her three-year-old brother kept up a running monologue about the spider we’d seen while we waited for her bus, and what it was likely to eat for dinner. Finally, she spoke.

“The kids at lunch weren’t as silly today.”

My heart leapt as if she’d told me she’d cured cancer.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so glad to hear it! Are you glad you went to school today?”

She looked at me like I was nuts.


As in, “du-uh.”

Lesson learned. For now, anyway.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Bus Itself

The bus itself is pretty much what you would expect. Yellow, of course, with those stop signs that swing out and annoy the hell out of you before you have children. Bench seats with no seat belts. Lovely woman named Diane behind the wheel who has no doubt watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of tearful parents put their Kindergarteners on the bus for the first time, yet still smiles reassuringly and says, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of her.” You get the impression that Diane would jump in front of traffic for these kids, and maybe has. Diane is definitely my favorite thing about the yellow bus.

But let’s get back to those bench seats. Doesn’t it seem odd that, in this age of five-point harness systems and helmets on tricycle-riders, school buses still don’t have seat belts? A friend told me recently that slip ’n slides now have bumpers at the bottom, I suppose to prevent kids from slipping and sliding out into oncoming traffic. Tell me honestly – would you think to yourself, “well, normally I wouldn’t let the kids careen down the hill towards the interstate, but since that bumper is there…” I mean really. And yet it’s fine for nearly every school-aged child in the country to ride to and from school every day without the precaution that in most vehicles is required by law? Is there an actual reason for this, or is it simply that we’ve spent the money for school bus seat belts on the war in Iraq?

Here is one of the many things I love about Google: you don’t have to reduce your question to search terms, you can just ask it directly, as if this were not a computer you were talking to but an especially friendly and helpful librarian. When I asked Google “why aren’t there seat belts on school buses?” Google informed me that there are about 1,270,000 web sites that address that question. Based on my exhaustive perusal of the top three, I’d say that the reasons boil down to this: some researchers say we don’t need them. Plus, we’ve spent the money for school bus seat belts on the war in Iraq.

Luckily, Diane is behind the wheel, and I’m not worried.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The First Day

Whose heart aches more as
she clutches my hand...
we await

her first ride

on the yellow bus

- Elinor Pihl Huggett

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Kind of.

Tonight I said to Lucy, “tomorrow is the last day of no Kindergarten! Can you believe it??” And she said, “You know, kind of.”

Hard for me to believe, apparently, but not her. She’s been gearing up for days, weeks, months… since preschool ended three months ago, really. Which might as well be three years, in five-year-old time.

First, in May, we went to Kindergarten registration, where we met the principal and filled out forms listing all the tropical diseases to which she had, or had not, been exposed. Because that was, oddly, both overwhelming and incredibly dull, we then went back just for a visit. We saw the Kindergarten classrooms, the playground, the art and music rooms, the library… far from dull, but at least as overwhelming. We got a few months to digest it, and then, just when the memory had started to fade, we got the Kindergarten supplies list in the mail. Ahh, school supplies. Don’t we all pine for the days of shopping for school supplies? Well, guess what, it turns out to be one of the perks of sending your child out into the cruel world. There was no shopping in preschool, mind you. But now, shopping we went. Fat pencils, glue sticks, safety scissors, sparkly folders… they were all on the list. Well, folders were on the list, the sparkly part was optional. If I squinted my eyes and tilted my head just so, I could still believe she was three and we were just pretending to shop for school, that we would take it all home and she would use the glue sticks to glue the pencils together and the scissors to cut the folders to tiny bits that I would inexplicably find in the soap four days later.

But then, last week, the charade ended. On Friday we went to – no joke – Kindergarten orientation. Which involved – no joke – a PowerPoint presentation about Kindergarten. Which the actual Kindergarteners found – no surprise – incredibly boring. About halfway through the second slide, the Kindergarten teachers were already promising the students they had not yet even met that it would be over soon. Which, much like the five years preceding it, it was.

And now, here we are, less than thirty-six hours from liftoff. Can I believe it?

You know, kind of.

Monday, August 20, 2007

T Minus Three

So my daughter starts Kindergarten in three days. Actually, in two days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes, but who’s counting? She couldn’t be more thrilled. The fact that she’s still a little vague on the details doesn’t keep her from being excited about it: riding the big yellow bus, bringing her lunch with her, going to school every day, rather than the three mornings a week that preschool offers. She is the picture of anticipation, boldly going where virtually every five-year-old in recent history has gone before.

I, on the other hand, am freaking out.

She’s not ready! my maternal alarm system shrieks. All day is too long! it protests, Five days a week is too many! School changes everything. I know this, and it fuels my fears. I worry that my blissfully television-free child will suddenly know all about characters of whom I’ve never heard and, worse, will want to watch them. I fear that the little girl who decks herself out each morning in some bizarre and fabulous combination of clothing and jewelry will suddenly want to wear what her classmates are wearing, which is to say what their older sisters are wearing, which is to say what Ashlee Simpson is (or isn’t) wearing. And more than that, I am afraid that school will be too restrictive, too structured, too sedentary, too competitive… too different from home. We know her best, we love her most, and therefore we know what’s best for her. So goes my reasoning, if it can be called that.

What this leaves out of the equation, of course, is her.

What I have finally realized is that my apprehension about sending my firstborn off to school has a lot more to do with me than with her. It’s my job to separate from her, and to teach her to separate from me. She’s supposed to go off and do things we don’t do at home, that’s called independence. I am supposed to be a guide, not a warden, providing a safety net, not a cage. If I am afraid to let her go, what does that say to her?

If it sounds like I’m trying to convince myself, I am. This is hard! But so was giving birth, our first act of separation, and weaning, probably our second. So was letting her walk without holding my hand for the first time, and realizing that she could play in her room without me hovering over her. Actually, that last one was fantastic, but that’s not the point. The point is that motherhood, and more broadly parenthood, is at least in part about separation. A little at a time, we teach them to live without us, to blaze their own paths, and to be their own people. It’s hard, yes, but it’s necessary, and if you don’t do it, you’ve failed both your child and yourself.

A famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote likens raising a child to launching an arrow from a bow. You aim carefully, Emerson says, but when you let it fly it may still be affected by things beyond your control. This is an appealing but flawed metaphor. Children are rarely, if ever, either totally within or totally beyond their parents’ influence. At age 34 I routinely call my parents for advice on things ranging from etiquette to taxes, and of course for help raising my own children. At the same time, I remember asserting my budding independence in myriad ways beginning quite some time before I was officially launched from the bow. No, raising a child is more like exerting some kind of force – magnetic, maybe, or gravitational. The younger and closer the child is, the stronger the force. As the child grows up and moves away, the force weakens, but it’s never really broken. We still float around in the same galaxy (although I understand that during the teenage years this is questionable), and our influence is still felt. With apologies to George Lucas, trying to keep the force strong is both an exercise in futility and an invitation to disaster.

I’m still not thrilled that she gets on the bus at 7 a.m., eats lunch at 10:30, and gets only a 20-minute recess. But she’s thrilled. And, really, it’s all about her.