Separation Anxiety 

Agony at the classroom door

Agony at the classroom door

At our house the baby milestones keep hailing down upon us: first tooth (very late), first uninterrupted night’s sleep (even later), first careening steps across the linoleum. Our 5-year-old is hitting milestones too, but they tend not to be the sort a parent might wish to record in the family Bible. No preprinted baby book includes a space for First Bald-Faced Lie, First Public Act of Graffiti, or First Deliberate Peek at the Opposite Gender’s Genitalia During a Game of “Doctor.”

Somehow I’ve managed to survive these more worldly firsts with a degree of equanimity. A 5-year-old, after all, does not dissemble with any real grace, does not have access to the most destructive means of defacement (spray paint, power tools), and can hardly be blamed for curiosity about the normally covered parts of the female body, especially when he does not have a sister to study in the bathtub.

But what actually did send me plummeting into the black depths of gloom was the milestone I’ve seen coming since before my son was even born. It’s one thing to explain to a child the importance of truth, privacy, and respect for other people’s belongings. It’s another thing altogether to send him out into the world, without the comfort of a parent, for seven hours every day, to present him for evaluation by a series of strangers who won’t think the way the back of his neck smells is the most intoxicating scent in the world, who won’t find the laughter that begins deep in his throat more heart-lifting than the “Hallelujah” chorus, who won’t—in short—be stunned every day by the absolute miracle of his smiling, luminous eyes.

Last week, nevertheless, the long-dreaded milestone finally arrived. We packed a favorite beanie baby, a few snack crackers, and a particularly fine fossil of a crinoid into his bright yellow backpack and carried him off to kindergarten. That sweaty little hand gripping mine as I tugged open the heavy doors of the school building just about broke my heart.

It’s not that I’m against formal education. I’ve spent 30 of my 35 years in schools, and with very few exceptions I’ve loved everything about school life. I like the smell of chalk and freshly sharpened pencils. I like the cheerful clatter of stainless-steel cutlery on cafeteria trays. I like the way sunlight through a wall of windows seems to set fire to every particle of dust that floats in the rustling classroom air. Most of all I like the people—the eager, hopeful teachers and the nervous, hopeful pupils—who begin every new school year full of promise.

But in many ways my son is not much like me. He is a person who positively hates puzzles and coloring books and little worksheets. His attention to quiet indoor activities can be measured in minutes; whereas outdoors he can spend a full hour squatting and studying the inhabitants of an anthill. He finds the company of a single playmate vastly preferable to group games. School, I knew, would be a difficult adjustment for a person who spent most of his own birthday party in tears.

I did my best to inspire enthusiasm. We bought new shoes and a new lunchbox and a special first-day-of-school T-shirt with snap-on plastic fish in a brightly painted ocean. “You’re going to love kindergarten,” I assured him as the big day approached. “Daddy and I both loved school so much we didn’t ever want to leave it; that’s why we became teachers.”

“I wish you were a geologist. I don’t think being a teacher is a very good job.”

“And in kindergarten you’re going to make a bunch of new friends,” I continued, ignoring this attack on my profession.

“I have plenty of friends already.”

“You can’t ever have too many friends, honey.”

“Oh yes you can have too many friends. You can have so many friends you don’t have enough days in the week to invite them all over.” He had a point.

Saving his best point, however, for the very first day, he climbed into our bed and snuggled between us long before it was time to get up. “I’ve decided not to go to kindergarten after all,” he announced in the dark. “I think I’ll miss my parents too much.”

Over his head his father and I looked at each other. My husband coughed a little. “We’ll miss you too, buddy,” he finally said, “but you’re going to be too busy having fun to miss us for long.”

Later, walking down the long hallway crowded with supply carts and hundreds of children wearing new shoes, my little boy held tightly to my hand. When we reached his classroom, we saw, in the back of the room, a little girl he’s known all his life. While I stopped just inside the door to fill out some forms for the teacher, my son went to join his friend and her mother. When I glanced up a moment later, he was laughing.

By the time I had filled out three forms, found his name tag, and made my way through two dozen kindergartners and their milling families, my son had discovered a science display on the counter under the window. He was picking through a box of seashells when he noticed a huge pickle jar, filled with yellowing formaldehyde, shoved into the corner of the cabinet. Floating peacefully in a coil at the bottom of the jar lay a dead cornsnake.

My child, the budding naturalist, was ecstatic. He and another little boy began speculating enthusiastically about the possible cause of the snake’s demise. “He isn’t smushed, so he couldn’t have been hit by a car,” the other little boy offered. “There aren’t any fang marks on him, so I don’t think a wolf got him,” my child mused. “How do you know it’s a he?” wondered a little girl nearby. I started to edge away. The children closed ranks around the pickle jar. My brand-new schoolboy and his brand-new friends all seemed fine. There’s nothing like a dead snake to cheer up a nervous kid on the first day of kindergarten.

When the teacher blinked the lights to signal parents it was time to leave, my son gave me a distracted kiss, his eyes eagerly watching his new teacher with the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy earrings. I herded out with everyone else but tiptoed back a moment later and lurked briefly in the doorway. Not a single child was crying. They were all sitting around the edge of a bright rug. A little boy was whispering something in my son’s ear. The teacher smiled beatifically, unperturbed by all the nudging and snickering. Raggedy Ann and Andy bobbed up and down as she spoke.

Meanwhile, standing out in the hall, I felt my face flush and my throat tighten. All of a sudden I was crying like a baby—the baby my boy would never be again.

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