First days of school, a mom’s memories

At this time of year social media is filled with firsts. Preschoolers may be taking their first steps away from the security of home, kindergartners are beginning “big school,” teens are heading off to high school, and college freshmen may be settling into their first dorm rooms. Those big moments are frequently captured in photos by the front door and anxious posts by parents.

I think back on those first days for my children and how I coped with them.

Elementary school

I was able to stay home with our children when they were little so they never were enrolled in day care or preschool. Full-day public elementary school was a big change for them and for me.

Because she has a late August birthday, our oldest daughter was not yet five years old on her first day of kindergarten. I thought the fifth graders in her school looked huge and menacing compared to my daughter. I wondered if she would be able to find her way to her class. Would someone help her open her milk carton at lunch? Would she be scared?

This daughter always adjusted better if she knew what to expect, so visiting the school and meeting her teacher ahead of time were crucial. When the first day came, I tucked a note into her lunch box, gave her a hug, and sent her off with a smile and a “have a great day!” And then I cried.

Although my day was full, it felt really long. I missed her. I thought about her a lot. I even loaded my three-year-old and one-year-old daughters into their car seats and slowly drove past the kindergarten playground twice that day to see if I could see her.

She not only did fine, she thrived. And as she grew, I realized that 5th graders weren’t so scary after all.

By the time our second daughter was old enough for kindergarten two years later, I was more prepared. But as every child is unique, I had different concerns than I did with the first. Would the other children be kind to her? Because she was filled with empathy, would she find someone who needed a friend?

Now with two children in school and only one at home, I started volunteering regularly in the classrooms, taking my youngest with me. Beginning at age three and until she started kindergarten, my youngest daughter was in a classroom with me several times a week while I volunteered, so she became very comfortable at school and learned along with the older children.

To make things even easier for the youngest, our then 7-year-old daughter (who is now a teacher, by the way) played school with her almost every day the summer before she was to start kindergarten. The 7-year-old made worksheets and “homework” and quizzes and taught her “everything you need to know.” Transition to kindergarten for her seemed effortless.

One thing that helped all three of the girls was an individualized “Get Ready for Kindergarten” checklist that we kept on our refrigerator the summer before they started school. Whenever the girls completed a task (anything from “Play catch with a ball,” “Draw a picture of a rainbow,” or “Name five animals that you can see at the zoo”) they could put a sticker on the space. The chart helped build excitement for school, and seeing the stickers accumulate helped build confidence that they were ready.

Middle school

And then suddenly middle school loomed large, and my anxiety about the big kids returned. Now I’d be sending my oldest daughter to a school with preteens and teenagers, hormones, rotating classes, hall lockers, electives, and extra-curricular activities. Although unsubstantiated, I had fears of gangs and drugs and bullies.

Before the first day of middle school, “prep day” was priceless. Walking the halls to find the best route to every class in order, practicing with her locker, and making a plan for what to carry to each class helped her feel more confident. And I learned that if you choose your friends carefully, trouble generally minds its own business. Middle school band is where our oldest fell in love with the flute and began her path to become a professional musician.

Because the oldest daughter paved the way, moving from elementary school to middle school had less mystery for the other girls. They each had their own ways of adapting, but I was more relaxed, and I think they knew they’d be okay.

Another thing that really helped take the anxiety away from first days was shopping for school supplies. It was a fun outing for all three girls and me, and each daughter put a great deal of thought into choosing the cutest planner, best colors of spirals, and quality backpacks. Every year I looked forward to the annual shopping spree.

High school

Transition to high school may have been the easiest of all, almost entirely because of band. Marching band season for high schoolers begins in July, and band students develop strong friendships and school loyalty way before the academic year begins. Although it’s a lot of work and a huge time commitment, it is a surefire way to have friends before classes even begin.

High school prep day was extremely important, especially as the girls independently followed their schedules, found their classrooms, and were issued their own textbooks. If I went with them it was to write checks or sign forms, but I tried to stay in the background and let them handle their own issues. They were able to compare schedules with friends, find out who they knew in their classes, and arrive on the first day ready to learn.

College

Remember I said that our oldest daughter is a flute professional? Her passion and talent took her to a music conservatory 1700 miles from home. Because she would be flying to college and would be limited in what she could take with her on the plane, we shopped for dorm supplies online and had them shipped directly to her college address. Pillow, sheets, comforter, mattress protector, and towels would hopefully be waiting for her in the mail room when she got to her dorm. Our daughter was 17 years old and moving across country to college. Although excited about her future, that was a heart-wrenching goodbye for me. Because of the long-distance travel, she was allowed to move into her dorm during the International student move-in day, and everyone kept asking her if she was from Canada. πŸ™‚

Two years later, daughter #2 was ready to take her place in a huge university about 1 1/2 hours from home. Spending time on campus, taking tours and talking with college deans, student ambassadors, and academic advisors helped ease the transition for her. She would have tremendous opportunities and I was immensely proud of her and the merit-based scholarships she had been awarded. Still, after moving her into her dorm I was kind of a mess. Unlike waving at the airport, I had to actually walk away and leave her there. I think I pretty much cried the 1 1/2 hours back home.

And then a year later the youngest left home for school. Although in different colleges, she chose to attend the same university as her older sister, so I somehow had the assurance that the girls were safety nets for each other, and I took comfort in that. But saying goodbye to her hurt my heart. Our nest was empty. The house would be quiet. And I didn’t like it. I already missed her something fierce.

Adulthood

Now our children are all adults, blazing their own trails, touching lives, making a difference, and I am incredibly proud of them all.

People say that childhood goes by fast, and I suppose it’s true. But parenting is filled with such depth of emotions that it’s a wonder how all that love and joy and pain can be packed into one lifetime. I cherish the memories of each child and treasure the adults they have become.

Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did β€” that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.

Debra Ginsberg

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