Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Tree Doesn't Lie

Written June 12, 2013

Many times during the week, I go for a walk after dropping my girl off at her classroom. Down the street from the school is an amazing, awe-inspiring tree. Towering over the single-story blue house, the tree is proof of what I don't want to know.

Time is passing.

Throughout the months of this school year, I have seen the tree in all of its lush green glory of summer, its bejeweled red of autumn, the stark beauty of leafless limbs in winter. And now, lush green glory once again. Full circle.

The school year is over. We've made it through the year. And now, it's time to move on. Like it or not. Deny it or not. The tree doesn't lie.


Today was the last day of school. I could smell it in the air. It's like students and teachers emit some kind of summer pheromone or something. It changes the way the school looks, the way the students act, the way teachers behave. It's something that has not changed since I was in school. Even without a calendar, I would know it was the last day.

As I walked in the door of K2, I saw the kids all curled up on the reading carpet, watching a movie. "Mary Poppins." And immediately, I remembered the summer all those years ago I sat in our local movie theater parking lot, watching an outdoor screening of "Mary Poppins" as my girl, still with a few months of growth time left before she was born, kicked and jabbed my ribs.

And now, about 20 minutes later, here she is, on the last day of kindergarten, watching the beloved classic. How did that happen so quickly?

I'm living a cliché right now. I cannot bear to say or hear  "it goes by so fast" or "blink and they're in college" one more time. I may smack them—or me—across the face with a wet sock if it doesn't stop. How can kindergarten be past-tense? How can I have a first-grade student? How is it possible it was just yesterday (cliché!) I walked her in the door that first day? How can it be over? 

This stunned sense of time speeding up is nothing novel to anyone, and especially not for parents. I once heard that as we age, there's a part of our brains that stops functioning properly when it comes to processing the passing of time. It actually does seem like time goes faster as we get older. My sister and I have birthdays three weeks apart. The time between her day and mine seemed to last three years when I was a kid. Now? I can barely get a "happy birthday" out of my mouth before it's my turn to receive such well-wishes.

Having children taught me to be in the moment much more than I ever have before. Babies force you to do that. There aren't many things you can do when nursing a newborn, or changing a diaper, or bathing a toddler. You have to focus on the task at hand. For a perpetual multi-tasker like me, the shift to present tense was welcomed, and rough, all at once.

But now, I'm glad I learned such a lesson. This year went so fast, my only consolation was to remember the times I dialed in and paid attention to what was happening. And even with that tool in my arsenal, I still felt shocked and unprepared on the last day of school. I fought the urge to bumble around campus, grabbing any parent I could see and screaming "Where did the time go?! How did my baby grow up so fast?! Someone hit me before I continue spouting off clichés! Here's my sock!"

As the final bell rang and a red-eyed teacher came out of K2 bidding her students goodbye, I looked at all of them and wondered where we would be next year. I hoped my girl would be with some of her good friends. I hoped we'd have a good teacher who would really  inspire a love of books and reading in my firstborn. I mourned the daily routine of kinder drop off (didn't I curse that chaos every day since September?), the faces I wouldn't see every day in the classroom next year, the beautiful simplicity of kindergarten and all of its glitter/paint/glue/crayon glory.

But as I wrote at the start of the year, today's ending is tomorrow's beginning. If we never left preschool, we would have missed out on this amazing, growth-filled year. The good friends we have today would have been missed, as would the lessons we learned, the skills we acquired (counting to 300! Writing! Reading a handful of big words! The ability to memorize the fact that seahorse daddies carry the babies in a pouch!). If my girl stays in kinder, she will miss all of the glorious gifts awaiting her in first grade.

And she can't wait to open them all. Summer already is something she must get through in order to FINALLY land in first grade. I bite my tongue when I feel an Eeyore moment coming on. "Oh, I really miss kindergarten" is more apt to come out of my mouth than hers. The last thing I want to do is create a child with my sentimentality issues and inability to painlessly embrace change. But I'm so good at it!

So on this last day of school, I gleefully greeted my girl, mirrored her excitement that she gets to move on to the next grade and then drowned my sorrows in our traditional ice cream date to celebrate the last day of school.

I have the whole summer to enjoy my kid. I can deal with her being a first grader in August. For now, she will be a kindergartner. And she will, like it or not, always be that sweet baby who jabbed me continuously through my first viewing of  "Mary Poppins."

Kindergarten Graduation, With Bob and Frank

Written  June 10, 2013

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.