A few days ago, I toured my first local public elementary school for the big hurry-up-and-freak-out-about-where-your-kid-is-going-to-go-to-school Fest that apparently happens each year as parents all over my city tromp through the schools, hoping to at least not hate what they see. My son is old enough to be in kindergarten this fall, but we have the luxury of keeping him at his Montessori preschool for his kindergarten year, if we so choose. So I thought that I would have a safety net on this school tour thing and not have to really imagine my son in elementary school quite yet. I was sorely wrong.
Stepping through those heavy doors felt like I was in a time warp. If there had been a video of it, I bet you could literally see me shrink down to my elementary school size, like a big Mario or Luigi getting hit with a fireball. WOMP Womp womp. The other parents all pretended to be sophisticated and mature, but I could see them for what they were — kids, just older.
The principal led us on the tour — a sweet woman with a mushroom-shaped haircut and soothing monotone voice. We started with the kindergarten. Ooooh, here’s where my little man would possibly be spending his delicious kindergarten days! Wait, why are there so many desks? The entire room is made up of desks (panic setting in). Where are the activity centers with sensorial objects? Where are the big windows? Where is the rug for circle time with friends? I had to look away. The reality was too… well, real. We were not in preschool anymore.
And so began my breakdown. As we kept moving — onto the older grades, the library and the auditorium, I felt sick. I couldn’t even feign a glance into these rooms. And it wasn’t because of the school, so to speak. Aside from the lack of fun and rainbows I felt from the kindergarten, the rest of it was fine — nice, in fact and one of the “Distinguished” schools in the district. But all I could see was the setting in which my precious, brilliant son’s light might be dimmed. In these halls, dreams are crushed, names are called and innocence is lost. On one of the walls were New Year’s resolutions that the third graders had written. I stopped in my tracks at this one written by a little girl, “I will not eat red meat. I will eat more veggies and fruits. I won’t eat as much dessert. I will exercise more.” Here, in these halls, real life was unfolding. Things like eating disorders and much more were blossoming right in front of our very eyes. Was anyone noticing?
I don’t know that my intense reaction had much to do with this particular school — but more with school in general. This rite of passage that we send our kids through and we were once sent through, our parents praying that we made it to the other side as unscathed at possible. The real delineation of baby vs. kid. Protected vs. unprotected. Innocence vs. knowing.
It hit me like a ton of Boxcar Children books that my son would not be my baby forever. That my husband and I would become gray — probably soon — maybe even tonight. That being a parent, the days do feel long and the years short. That there will be moments in these halls and classrooms that my son will carry with him forever. Stories he’ll tell his own kids about when he was “little.” How many will be tales of wounding and how many won’t be?
The part of my son’s story that doesn’t involve me has not been written yet and this gives me great anxiety. When I’m not there, in these halls, who will be his best friend? Who will betray him? Who will kick him when he’s down? Who will be his crush? His first kiss? And will he tell me any of this? Who will see his brilliance like I do? Will anyone?
I like to think that we have raised our son to be compassionate, confident, resilient, flexible, resourceful, peaceful and able to see the humor in things (other than just in poop). In his preschool, these qualities are supported, if not harvested — disagreements are talked through using kind words, teachers give a hug and say “I love you,” and everyone is referred to as “friends.” But we all know that the halls of elementary schools are where these qualities are put to the ultimate test. Insert visual of crash test dummies whirling towards walls.
From my attitude here, you would think that I had a traumatic school experience, but funny enough, I am one of the few people I know who didn’t. But that wasn’t because the horror wasn’t happening. I saw it all around me. It was because of something inside me that knew how to cope with the horror. And I have no idea what my parents did (or what I was born with) to help me in this capacity.
Thanks to my genetics, I was probably the skinniest and shortest kid for most of my academic career. Really picture that for a minute — not skinny and tall, skinny and short. It defied all laws of biology. And the cruel irony is that my last name sounded like the word “miniature.” Brandy Miniature. I vividly remember standing near a wall at recess in fourth grade and a boy came up to me and said, “You’re so flat, you’re jealous of the wall!” And something magical happened. Instead of internalizing those hurtful words and/or bursting into tears, which would’ve been a totally valid response, from the depths of my tiny being, I uttered, “Yes, I’m flat. What would you suggest I do to change that?” and just like that, I had coped without spewing hurtful words back and without letting that boy’s words dim my light. He walked off and I went back to whatever I was doing by that flat wall.
If there is one skill that I hope to pass down to my son, it is this one. I cannot change what his elementary school experience will be (and I cannot even think for one second about middle school — the place where lives are truly destroyed), but perhaps I can help him learn to cope and to love himself so he comes out like I did, in one piece. I want to protect him. I want him to never be broken by any words or actions. And it kills me that I can’t keep him in the rainbow bubble of preschool forever. But this is his story, his life and I have to let him live it. My job from conception day one has been to help him grow.
After I left the school tour, thankful that I hadn’t woken up in fetal position in the corner of the library, I texted my husband:
Me: The tour made me feel really confused and sad. Sad that A will be such a big guy.
Husband: Wow, yeah, I can’t wait to hear all about it. Makes me really nervous. He’s so special and sensitive. I just don’t want to lose that.
Me: While touring the school, I just saw the minutes turn into days, the days turn into years and our kids being old and grown and us dying and that school just stays there year after year.
Husband: OH GOD that is so depressing.
Me: Yeah, no kidding and the lunch tables were the same as my lunch tables as a kid and I saw my whole life flash before my eyes and it made me just want to keep A home forever and ever. I’m trying to motivate to go to the grocery store, but I really just want to cry and sleep and then do more of both, all while snuggling A.
That is the reality of where I’m at. I am holding two cups at once — one cup contains my feelings of trust and knowing that I have to let my son grow up and that he will be okay and I will be there to comfort him when he’s not. And the other, larger cup is full of wanting to cling so tightly to this amazing little person and never wanting to let him out of my loving grasp.
I do realize that just as these halls have the possibility of dimming my son’s light, they also have the possibility — and actually the intention of — brightening my son’s light and of giving him confidence, coping skills and pleasant memories. That he will make friends that will comfort him, pull him up when’s he down and make him laugh. Maybe someone will even think he’s cute. I know it doesn’t have to be so grim and so damn real. But honestly, I’m not quite there yet. Those other parents on the tour probably are — the ones who weren’t hyperventilating like I was. In fact, that optimism and trust is probably what is getting them through this process and is the very thing that will allow them to let go of their children on that first day of elementary school. When that day comes for my son, I will probably be leaning heavily on it too – it may even be the only thing that keeps me up, allowing me to walk away and… let go. And then go cry my eyes out.
When my son was an infant, I used to ask my friends with older kids if parenting got any easier — fully expecting that they would say yes, yes it does. After all the nursing and the diapers and the sleeplessness and the tantrums, it gets easier. How could it not? But they never said that. They always said that it actually gets harder. And now I know what they were talking about.