Daily, I pass by the fence gating the kindergarten playground as I make my way back to the car after morning drop-off. And more times than not, I remember peeking along the edge of the fence on the first day of school, watching my daughter sitting alone yet totally confident, eating her snack, her pink sequined hat shimmering in the sun. My heart broke a bit as I saw my baby girl on that first day of kindergarten just nine short months ago. On some days, I can feel that first day as if it just happened. On others, I would bet money it occurred a lifetime ago. Most days, I can recall with diamond clarity how everlasting this kindergarten year appeared at its inception, how graduation seemed decades in the future and how, once I settled in to the new school and routine, I never wanted it to end.
And yet now, it's done.
Tonight was kindergarten graduation.
While I know graduating from preschool into kindergarten was a much, much bigger leap for me and my daughter than is this milestone, this is still a change. And you all know how well I stumble over those. It took me until Thanksgiving at least—OK, Christmas—to wrap my head and actions around the fact that this was not preschool. I had to adjust to new drop-off practices, new standards of behavior inside the classroom (yes, I'm talking about me, not my kid), new expectations, new faces. My girl didn't break stride transitioning from preschool to kinder. And yet I took my own sweet time getting to where she stood.
But I did it. Finally. I fell in with the kindergarten rhythm, I made friends of my own and a work routine that meshed well with the school schedule, I adored my girl's teacher. My girl loved school and never once did she beg not to go. I volunteered as much as possible in the classroom, but especially in the third trimester. I knew all of the students, helped them tie their shoes and put Band-Aids on their cuts, even read a story to the class a time or two (oh, how I loved that!). As the calendar pages ticked off, the more I found myself helping out in class. I knew I was holding on to every precious moment I could. I knew my frantic efforts to stop time were comical at best. But I didn't care. I didn't want it all to be over.
All along, I told myself that kindergarten graduation is just a great little ceremony, nothing more. But of course I was wrong.
In October, at the school's annual festival, I won the silent auction raffle for the front row seats at tonight's event. That may go down as the best use of $35 ever. My family staked claim to these seats in the packed auditorium as my girl, adorned in a lopsided graduation cap, walked across the stage and stood right in front of us. All 28 students lined up, looking so proud and pinchably adorable. I wanted to burst out laughing and sobbing all at the same time. I could see how, in about 10 minutes, I would be watching these same faces walk across a stage at their high-school graduation ceremony. I think I had some minor tachycardia at the thought.
Tonight, instead of a quickie production with the teacher saying something nice about each student, handing him or her a diploma and calling it a day, the class launched into a series of musical numbers, complete with choreography. When my girl belted out Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," but with the lyrics changed to "First Grade First Grade," I honestly understood that cliché "bursting with pride." Up in the top row stood my girl, taller than any girl and 99 percent of the boys in her class, throwing her hands up in the air, singing at the top of her lungs, ignoring her ever-falling-off cap. This, the same child who had to be coaxed into saying hi to anyone not that long ago. Now, she was performing in front of a live audience:
Yet it was the sight of nearly 30 kindergarteners swaying to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" that cemented the moment in my soul.
Back when I was about six months pregnant with my girl, my husband and I took a "babymoon" vacation to the Bahamas. For a week, I slathered my belly with sun block, lounged on the sand, floated in the warm ocean and felt nothing but joy for this tiny creature growing inside of me. We listened constantly to Bob Marley on that trip, eating these addicting curly fries and drinking virgin pina coladas. I was unquestionably, insanely happy. No worries, just joy.
Nearly seven years later, I hear that song again, but out of the mouths of babes. My babe. The one who seemed to weave some sort of magical spell over me even while in the womb. I suppose that's what all babies do to their mothers. But it's magical nonetheless when it happens to you. Seeing my girl coming into her own—growing up!—as she sang the song that linked me to my pregnancy and my joy brought me to tears. Happy tears, yes. But tears.
Things change. I couldn't stay pregnant forever. My girl could not be a baby forever. And she can't be in kindergarten forever. This is all good, all normal. Don't worry. Every little thing is going to be all right. So I repeated to myself over and over.
The graduation ceremony, including the Broadway-worthy tunes, lasted well shy of an hour. And yet it felt like so much had changed! This year, the year I entered with such anxiety and anticipation, was done. It's on to the big-kid playground, full days of instruction and a new teacher. First Grade, First Grade! Nothing monumental really, but somehow, very significant.
After a reception of cookies and milk on the playground (how can it be that she won't be spending recess here anymore?), we took too many photos to count and then gathered up the team and headed to a local restaurant for a celebratory dinner. All the while, I kept stealing glances at my girl. Yes, she physically grew inches this kindergarten year. She blossomed into an independent and self-confident person. But most of all, she began tasting what this big, huge world can offer her. And I think she likes it.
With this graduation, she dipped her toe in the water, sensing what awaits her as she steps into the deep end. With this graduation, I see her stepping away from me. Little by little, each milestone brings her closer to herself, and further away from me. That's what we want as parents, isn't it? To create these beautiful creatures who go out into the world and make it better. We help our children grow up, and out. Yet why do these milestones feel like tiny little heartbreaks? The heartbreaks of parenting are so intertwined with the joyful milestones, it's often hard to tell them apart. Maybe that's why tears at events such as tonight's are tears of joy, and sorrow. Tears for what is gained and what is lost. It's hard to pry these things apart.
But then again, don't worry. Be happy. Every little thing is going to be all right.
That's the choice we can make. Focus on the heartbreak of the little girl growing up, up and away, or be happy she's able to grow up and you can play witness to it. And pray she won't go far away, and that every little thing really will be all right after all.