Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Oh, the Places You'll Go

You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

(Written yesterday, August 27, 2012)
Today was my girl's day. Kindergarten day.

I stayed up late last night, trying to get everything organized and compartmentalized so we could be on time for this first day of school (a huge accomplishment for me, O Tardy Woman). I cut her sandwich into dolphin shapes, filled her backpack, stuck a note in her lunch, made sure her outfit rested ready and waiting in my bedroom, charged all of the camera batteries.

I was ready.

In every way but the one that really mattered: my emotional state.

In the morning, it was me who awoke with a sense of dread. Anxiety blanketed me. I hate change. I often dislike new things, good and bad. I have been known to freak out royally when my schedule gets off-kilter. This morning, it felt like a first day at a new job—exciting, and terrifying. I tried to scoop away the sludge of panic and the urge to call everything off and go back to "normal." I had to be the strong mom. I had to be a leader and show my girl new things are new adventures. Even if I didn't believe that right then. So I began the day.

As I finished braiding my girl's hair, she placed her beloved new purchase on her head. A glorious pink sequined newsboy cap. She looked beyond adorable. And about 12 years old. Throughout the car ride to school, the insane parking situation (did I really need to park about five blocks from campus? Yes, yes I did), her brother's fussiness (thanks, little man, for staying up three hours past your bedtime last night) and the blazing heat at 8:30 in the morning, my girl kept that hat securely on her head. It just melted my heart to see her looking so grown up.

Merging with other parents, we were absorbed into the tide of backpack-clad five-year-olds pouring onto campus. All I saw was my girl swallowed up by her huge backpack, her skinny legs nearly jogging to keep up with her NBA-tall daddy, the sun glinting off that pink hat. I nearly began crying right then as we rounded the corner to the kindergarten wing. But I caught myself. No time for tears! I had to be there, be positive, for my baby. She needed me.

Rushing, we got to her new kindergarten classroom and everything then happened so fast, the dreaded drop-off became a non-event—for her. The teacher bustled students inside as I snapped off a few dozen photos. My girl walked confidently in the door, then turned around to look for us. For a split second, I saw the innocent confusion on her face before it dissolved into one of anticipation as she made her way to the backpack hooks and then the reading carpet.

I kept waiting for the regression into baby talk or the leg-clinging. I had a speech prepared about how amazing this new school experience was going to be for her (if I said it enough, maybe I'd start believing it too, I figured). I pictured myself walking her to the carpet, gently disentangling my hand from hers and planting a kiss in her palm just like "The Kissing Hand" story we read at orientation.

Instead, my baby girl skipped away without another glance back. All I could see was the gleam and sparkle of her pink newsboy hat. In that minute, the teacher instructed everyone to turn and wave goodbye to the parents. And it took all I had in me not to grab the tiny art table in a death grip and threaten anyone who dared try to remove me from the premises. Thankfully, I'm too frightened of acting a fool in public, so I allowed myself to be waved out of room K-2, but not before I rushed up to my girl, asking for one more kiss, one more hug.

How did it come to pass that it was me who needed comforting? That I was the one who gently had her hand untangled, who was kissed goodbye and sent on my way with a stoic smile? How was I the one internally kicking and screaming, demanding to be taken away from this new environment and placed back where I knew the rules, where I knew I was safe? How is this first day of kindergarten harder on me than my kindergartener?

I felt so out of place and lost as I made my way outside and shut the classroom door (and I swear it sounded louder than a gunshot in my ears). I knew a few of the moms, but for the most part, I only saw strangers. I felt so much like I did back in the seventh grade. A new kid in a new school surrounded by new people who knew each other. I felt completely out of place. I didn't even know the proper method for drop-off yet much less the rules of volunteering in the classroom or participating in fundraisers.

A few moms reached out to me with friendly gestures, and for that I felt grateful. But I ached for my preschool friends, the moms who saw me in the mornings without makeup or straightened hair, who watched me gain weight and then lose it after my son was born, who knew I'd be the first one to volunteer for the fire station field trip, who would text me funny pictures of their kids.

And that brought on waves of homesickness for my old routine, the preschool building, the teachers who knew my girl so well, lazy mornings watching "Sesame Street" on PBS, even the preschool parking lot! I missed yesterday.

Last night, I thought I was so prepared, but in reality, I wasn't ready in my heart for today. My daughter was, but not me. I kept wanting to run away, run back in time, run to the familiar.

My heart officially broke when, on the way back to my car, I passed the playground. There, having her snack, was my girl. Sitting ramrod straight on the picnic bench, eating her Pirate's Booty, that pink hat gleaming.

And she was all alone.

There was another little girl across the bench from my daughter, also eating her snack. So even though they weren't facing the same way or talking, maybe they were eating together in a preschool kind of way. At least, that's what I told myself.

Before I could hurdle the fence and rush to my girl's side, she confidently got up, tossed away her trash and walked to the playground by herself, where she climbed up the ladder to the jungle gym. Her poise and self-assurance astounded me. Again, how was she so comfortable in this new skin when I felt as jittery and jumpy as a crack addict? How was it that I needed her comforting to feel confident, yet she was fine on her own? She even saw me, huddling by the fence, and did a half-baked wave and a "Hi Mom" before ignoring me.

All morning long, I fought the urge to pull her out of school and homeschool her. Why not? I worried she had no friends. I worried the teacher wasn't nurturing enough for either her or me. I feared there were too many kids in her class. I didn't think I'd ever make new friends. I hated the horrid drop-off traffic jam. I ached in every fiber of my being to just pull the plug and bunker down at home, learning what we can in a sheltered environment.

Or maybe I could still get her in Catholic school! Some tiny kindergarten taught by nuns. Her whole school would have maybe 80 kids, and we'd know all of them and like each and every one.

I knew each of these obsessive, fantasy-fueled panic attacks was nothing more than a failed attempt to stop my girl from growing up, and to stop me from reaching beyond my comfort zone and trying something new. But I couldn't grasp that at the time. All I felt was this insane desire to shove the toothpaste back in the tube.

I had worked myself into quite the frenzy by the time I went to pick her up a few hours later. Full of anxiety, I arrived on campus 20 minutes early (no New York City gridlock at pick-up time. Good to know), and felt butterflies at seeing my girl again. I wanted to make sure she knew I was there for her. Or maybe, I just wanted her to be there for me.

The minute the kindergarten door opened, my girl came out, that cap still on her head. She stopped in her tracks, looked at me and said, "Where's Daddy?"

I was not ready to be so unneeded.

"How was school, baby?" I asked, fighting the urge to pout and cry and scream "He's at work where he goes every day. But I'm here for you! I'm here! I've always been here!" "Did you have fun?"

"I played with M," she said.

So she did make a friend! A new friend! My heart lifted. I stopped whining about whether or not my girl would like her teacher or if I would get yelled at for lingering too long in class or if I would make new friends or figure out where to park my car in the morning madness. Or even if my girl needs me.

This isn't about me. It's about her, and what's best for her. My "instincts" told me this morning to pull her out and squirrel her away at home. My instincts are whack. I've always known this, and yet I listen to them daily. I'm afraid. She is not. This is all about her. What's good for her. And what she wants. Which, right now, is to go back to school. To eat her snack. To play on the playground with M. And wear her sparkly pink hat. 



As I finish up this article, it is Day 2. I am still feeling such strong desires to pull her out of school and tuck her in my Moby Wrap so I can wear my girl all day long like I did when she was a newborn. But I'm putting one foot in front of the other and fighting on.

I'm talking myself down from the ledge and giving this new normal a chance. I am allowing myself some time to meet other moms, get to know the teacher, learn how I can help my girl enhance the lessons she's learning in school. I'm letting myself get adjusted. I can always change my mind later, but for now, I have to give this new change a chance.

As Dr. Seuss said, my girl has places to go, and it's my job to hand her the tools to lead her down the path. I'm not supposed to carry her or encourage her to sit on the side of the road. Even if I want to.

Today's drop-off was much more organized, and I thought I had it all figured out. Until my girl piped up from the backseat: "It's OK, Mom. Just drop me off and I can walk to school all by myself."

Oh hell no.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Twas the Night Before Kindergarten

Tomorrow, my baby girl starts kindergarten.

I knew this date was coming. Of course I did. I had it circled in red on my calendar since June. But at the beginning of summer, it seemed so far away. Probably because I really didn't want to think about it, and I had trouble even imagining it.

For the past three years, we've spent about three days a week in her beloved preschool program, so we are not strangers to organized education. But this just feels different. Sure, it's five half-days a week instead of three, but that's not what makes it seem so unique. It's just the word "kindergarten" seems to imply such a huge step forward in the growing-up process. It feels monumental.

Throughout the all-too-short summer, I've watched the girl play, swim, draw, tumble, run and laugh. And with each passing day, she gains more skills, grows more inches (sometimes overnight!) and is too quickly taking on the sounds and shapes of a girl. Not a toddler, not a preschooler, but a school-age girl.

She is growing up, like it or not.

Frankly, I'm terrified.

And kindergarten is putting a tangible handle on my fear. It's "real" school! With homework and tardy slips and big kids on the playground. It's the big-league, folks. How did we get here? Maybe we should take a time out and evaluate this.

This morning, the girl woke up with a stuffy nose. My first instinct was to keep her home from school tomorrow. And the next day, and the next. Maybe even start her in kindergarten next year.

"She's going," said my husband, reminding me gently that I'm going a bit nutty.

Not like that's anything new. As this red-circle date approached, I became more and more open to the idea of homeschooling her. Sure, it was only about a five-minute consideration, but I still contemplated it.

Let me set the stage. I probably should be a poster child for multitasking. Now, I didn't say I would be the model multitasker. Because in all honesty, I suck at it. But I am the queen of doing it. Just not well. I have three jobs, three dogs, two kids, a dirty house, a hungry mortgage, a confusing home budget and a to-do list a mile long, filled with scores of projects I need to and want to accomplish. And yet, most days revolve around me living in the kitchen, feeding little people and big dogs, and then cleaning up the messes that result. I scramble to meet deadlines and plan lessons for the college classes I teach. I try to be social every so often, but most days that just means I touch base with someone on Facebook. I look at my Franklin Planner and I see that I've had "start baby book" on my monthly goal list for four years. Some days, the only thing that gets crossed off my to-do list is "wash dishes" or "spell-check article."

And yet, I seriously considered homeschooling the girl. I could do all the amazing things I see some of my friends do (thank you, Facebook, for both inspiring and intimidating me). I could teach her the topics I deem important, like art and writing and spiritual studies and science. We could take field trips to police stations, newspapers, hospitals and post offices to learn how things happen. We could spend an entire day in a museum and call it school! It would be awesome.

And best yet, she'd still be home with me.

That's when I caught myself. Not only do we not have near the amount of money needed to provide therapy for the girl when she's 18 and thoroughly messed up from having me as her only teacher, but I would be homeschooling her for my benefit. Not hers.

I honestly do not think I can teach her the necessary fundamentals of education better than a trained kindergarten teacher can. I can enhance those lessons with discussions about art and field trips to the museum and talks about religion and all that. But my girl needs more than me to be a success in life.

That's my goal as a parent—to help shape this perfect, amazing little soul into a beautiful, responsible, intelligent member of society who benefits her community and beyond. She deserves the best, and me trying to add schooling her to my already insane to-do list is criminally unfair to her. She needs more, and deserves more, than I can give her. My wish to keep her here with me via homeschool or by pushing kindergarten off a year is pure selfishness.

So tomorrow morning, I will send her into the care and guidance of a teacher with years of experience, and I'll close my eyes, send up a quick prayer and hope that this will all turn out for the best. When we attended kindergarten orientation, I was a bit nervous. I really had no clue about any of the school's three kindergarten teachers. I had no idea who to hope we'd get. When I checked the class roster taped on the office door (something I can remember doing with my parents before each school year began), I wasn't sure if I should be excited or not. I was going in to this school year blind.

But that changed when we walked into the classroom. Beautifully flowing stations peppered around the huge, well-lit classroom. Puppets, books galore, art projects, tiny tables with tinier chairs, carpet squares, toy kitchens, a wall with poetry and math problems. I fell in love. As did my girl, who cozied up with a book immediately.

And then the teacher! Kids gravitated to her, even my oft-shy girl. Mrs. B's warm and structured aura seemed a perfect fit for the kindergarten sect. I wanted to stay in the classroom all day. As did my girl, who was the last one to leave. I took that as a good sign.

Having been reassured through the initial visit, I am still weepy at sending my girl off to school. It feels like the first step down the waterslide. Once I jump, I'm on a one-way speed trip to high school graduation, with no stops in between. On Facebook this summer, I kept reading posts from friends who sent their children to college this month, and how it "seemed like yesterday I walked you through the door of your kindergarten class." I know time speeds by, and I also know that I can't stop it. I can't stop my girl from growing up just by not sending her to kindergarten.

So I might as well plug my nose, take that step and enjoy the ride.

We'll see how well I do tomorrow. I will keep my emotions in check by taking an obscene amount of pictures and video, obsessing about how I can capture every moment on film. But then I will come home and absorb what just happened.

A large part of me wishes I was walking her back through the doors of her preschool tomorrow. I miss that part of our lives together. I'm still homesick for them. I miss the teachers, the friends, the schedule. I miss what I knew.

Yet now it's time to change. And oh, how I hate change! Another bending. I know something is ending so something new can begin, but it's still so hard to accept. Bendings! How I hate/love thee! 

So I am trying to do what I tell her to do: look at the shiny side. We have a new school to get involved with, new friends to make, new things to learn, new adventures to be had. Homeschooling her isn't the solution. Stopping time isn't possible. Stuffing her in a tower a la Rapunzel will only earn me a well-deserved visit from CPS. So the best answer is to stop fighting the inevitable and enjoy the party.

Or at least show up. Which is what I plan to do in the morning at the ungodly hour designated by the school district as the best time to start class. I'll kiss my baby's hand, I'll wave goodbye and then I'll probably cry, eat something horrifying guilt-inducing for breakfast and procrastinate on my work as I wait the four hours until I can be rejoined with my heart again. And all the while, I'll remind myself I'm doing the best thing for her because I love her. So why do I feel so sad?