August arrives and another school year begins.
The hallway outside my university office is filled to bursting with dreams.
Emotions barely contained within that space are tangible. Seventeen and eighteen year olds, not yet grown into adulthood but so close to the brink of it, are nervous, some giddy, some tentative, others confident.
Parents shepherd them, hovering and guiding, encouraging and instructing; their brimming tears hidden behind forced smiles, shallow breaths suppressing aching hearts.
Each of them in busy distraction from the too-soon-to-happen final hug, last brave smile, the moment of goodbye; freshmen college students launching into the building blocks of their future, parents recognizing the time has come to release the grasp on their greatest treasure.
Our stories are marked by first days and last days. One of those days remains in the shadowed corners of memory from an August many years ago…Kirstyn’s first day of kindergarten.
When it was time to leave the house, I remember sunshine, and it was probably a warm, maybe even a hot morning, which would be typical in Fort Worth Texas that time of year. The school was some distance from our home, so we loaded up into the mini-van, securing little sister Kalyn into the car seat and Kirstyn into her booster seat. Having gone to the open house a few nights before to meet the teacher and view the classroom, we were familiar with the route. It was our habit to listen to children’s music and sing kid songs every time we drove somewhere, whether across town or across the state, so we sang our way to the school. In spite of those melodies in my voice, bittersweet sadness enveloped me, a feeling that would well up again inside this sentimental mother many times in the years to come upon her children’s ‘firsts’. Protective of my girls, and knowing that Kirstyn is sensitive to my emotions, I forced a level of cheerfulness to prevent causing her any unease; a five year old could not know or begin to understand the silent ache I was hiding.
I could also see that Kirstyn was nervous. She was quiet and observant of our turns and stops on the drive, her eyes watchful, apprehensive. When we parked among all the other moms and kids, she climbed out of her seat and collected her lunchbox and backpack, while I placed Kalyn in her umbrella stroller. I glanced to make sure we had all her belongings and in a light pretense of a happy voice, reassured her of the fun she was going to have, reiterating the new friends she would make, and how proud of her I was. I remember hugging that little girl on the sidewalk by our minivan, looking into those wary blue eyes. We didn’t linger there because we needed to continue into the building, find her classroom, put her personal things in place and say goodbye for the day. So we headed the few yards down the sidewalk to the crosswalk guard and waited to cross with other parents and their children who were all spit-shined and hair-slicked for their first big day of school.
Then the unexpected happened: Kirstyn turned to me and said goodbye right there on the sidewalk. In all my planning and preparation, I had forgotten to enlighten her ahead of time that she could expect me to go with her into the school, help her find her class and put her things away on the first day. I quietly explained that to her in reassuring tones as the crossing guard led the way across the street. But that small elfin face, those nervous blue eyes, with those tiny feet shaking in their boots, looked up at me with barely-mustered-up courage and she said resolutely, “No, mommy, I will go by myself.”
That which I had not planned for, nor prepared my heart for….she had decided to proceed alone. There are times in a mother’s life when a decision about her child’s best interest must be made in a blink of the eye. This was one of those times.
If the crossing guard were watching and listening to me and my child she would have seen a calm mother quietly asking her child, “Are you sure, honey? I want to go in with you!”, to which the child replied, “Yes, mommy, I’m a big girl and I will go by myself.” That crossing guard would have seen the mother stand stock still, rooted in place, release the child’s hand as the child solemnly crossed the street, walked down the sidewalk past the flag pole, past the bicycle racks, turn and enter through the open double doors in the front of the school to disappear inside with the other children. That little girl never turned around, never looked back toward her mother and baby sister as she went. The guard would have witnessed the young mom watch over the child’s progress, turn calmly after the child was safely inside the building, and walk back to her minivan, departing as if it were an activity accomplished through years of routine.
Ah perspective, it is everything, isn’t it?
The crossing guard, the baby sister, and the walking-away Kirstyn had no recognition of what actually occurred in those few minutes when mother and daughter hands parted at the crosswalk and Kirstyn stepped away. I carefully maintained the outward appearance of calm, but oh, what alarm! My heart sped and thudded in my ears and drummed against my ribs; my breath heaved in long gulps to prevent the rising wail that wanted to escape. A cacophony of panicked questions were ricocheting through my mind as I desperately wrestled over what was best for my girl. Seeing Kirstyn so nervous and simultaneously so resolved to face her fears, I weighed split-second options: Do I dare let her go alone? It seems so important to her to do this for herself! She decided to do this, did she need to do this for her own budding self-confidence? Should I follow her? Maybe I can just follow at a distance? If I follow and she sees me, will it destroy her wavering self-assurance? If I don’t follow and she gets lost in the building, will someone help her? Will she be able to find her room? Will the teacher be kind to her? What if she looks back at me, and I start to cry? What if she doesn’t look back at me and I start to cry? Oh my, if I cry, will she think something is wrong? How can I let her go alone? How can I let her go? How can I? HOW?
In those few steps down the sidewalk on the first day of kindergarten, a monumental shift occurred in her life, in mine. This was Kirstyn’s first day of meeting the world on her own terms, without my constant, present guidance. And it was the last day I could consider our home and family to be her small, warm, safe cocoon, sheltering her from that world. She was developing wings; they would take many seasons to form and strengthen, but wings she would have, and they would fly her away someday.
That revelation blindsided me in those moments, standing on the edge of the unknown, launching my treasure through a schoolyard.