For eight years I stood at the classroom door eagerly greeting my darling first graders as they approached our room. I imagine my smile was over-the-top, but I can assure you, it was genuine. Like so many teachers, I'd spent weeks preparing every nook and cranny of my room - mailboxes were labeled, bulletin boards were decorated, books were organized. This kind of extreme devotion was easy because I had no other responsibilities at home; a kid-free home meant all the time in the world to give to my first graders, and I was happy to do it.
"Hi there! I'm Mrs. Becker!" I'd say as I bent down to meet their nervous eyes. "I'm so glad you're here!"
Most of them came with their parents, but to tell you the truth, I don't remember the parents. I didn't notice if a parent was nervous or hesitant or fighting back tears. I never considered that dropping their child off at my door for a new school year was anything more than an item on the to-do list for that day. It didn't occur to me that these moms and dads would be worried about their child being picked on or left out or sitting alone in the lunchroom. Were they nervous their child would learn something on the playground they were "too young to know about?" I didn't realize they were entrusting me with such a precious gift, assuming I would teach their child to read and write, but mostly hoping I'd teach them to be kind and brave and confident.
Parents surrounded me, bombarding me with questions and information regarding their child's allergies and bathroom schedule and who they should or shouldn't sit near.
“He can't eat mangoes. Are you planning any activities with mangoes?"
"Will you help her find the afternoon bus? She's never been on the bus before."
"Sometimes her stomach hurts when she's nervous."
"He's been doing puzzles since he was 9 months. I think he might be gifted."
"Every other Tuesday his Nana will pick him up. That's Nana - not Grandma. Grandma should never pick him up. If she tries to, you need to call me right away. Oh, and on the third Friday of the month, our neighbor will pick him up."
"Please let her go to the bathroom whenever she asks."
"He is pretty shy. Who will he sit by?"
"Will you call me if he cries?"
"What's the first math unit? Will there be homework?"
I'd chuckle at the parent who needed one more hug, and I'd roll my eyes at the one who needed to tell me again to let her daughter go to the bathroom whenever she asked. And eventually, I grew frustrated with the ones who just wouldn't leave. I was relieved when our principal came on the intercom, inviting parents to say their final good-byes and head to the library for a PTO sponsored coffee break.
We would be fine, and I was excited to get started. I had been at this long enough to know we'd all find the bus and the lunchroom and that our room full of strangers would soon become friends. I knew the nervous butterflies would be gone by the time we gathered on the rug to vote for a class mascot. I knew that bumps along the way would build character and problem-solving skills in my little six-year-olds. I wasn't worried; they'd all be great. In fact, I thought I had the hard job. I was the one about to be left alone with 24 children. All mom and dad had to do was wave good-bye. Weren't they celebrating the freedom? Perhaps heading out to brunch and clinking mimosa glasses?
I was such a fool.
Tomorrow morning, Stephen and I will walk Charlotte to her classroom. She's been there three times already and knows exactly where to go; she'll probably lead the way. We will watch as her sweet smiling teacher greets her and tells her it is going to be a great year. I know her teacher will have a hundred things on her mind so I'll fight the urge to tell her that Charlotte loves to draw and will want to know where the blank paper is right away. I know this isn't the time for questions, so I'll hold my tongue instead of asking if they have snack time. Wait, was I supposed to pack a snack? Charlotte ate breakfast at 7, and lunch isn't until 12:30. That's a really long time. Charlotte will probably get cranky. I didn't read anything about snack time. Did I miss it?
I wonder if her sweet teacher will notice I'm fighting back tears. Does she know that for years we've been able to get up and go to the zoo any morning we want to? What if we want to eat pancakes in our pjs and read books all morning? Surely there's a park we still need to explore or a play date we might miss. The thought of life now dictated by a school schedule makes me want to grab Charlotte's little hand and run out of there. School? Sorry, maybe next year. We have a story time at the library to get to.
I know Charlotte will love it. In fact, I'm confident she won't even look back. She won't need one more hug, and she won't have any interest in taking another picture. She'll adore her teacher, make friends quickly, and soak in knowledge like a thirsty little sponge. But school is a long time. Did you know that after kindergarten they go to first grade? And then second grade? And they keep going. FOREVER. There really is no way to back up and do it again.
I am such a fan of school. I loved it as a child and even more as a teacher. But I know kids can and will be brutal, and there are times when she'll be left out and put down. Even worse, she will do her own share of leaving out and putting down. School will likely be where she learns her first cuss word, and I'm practicing my "stay calm" face for the day she comes home asking about sex. School is her first glimpse into a broken world - a world ready to lie to her, saying she isn't good enough, or thin enough, or pretty enough. School will expose weaknesses, causing her to doubt herself and her abilities. But school will also reveal her strengths, not just academically, but also in character. She will be constantly presented with opportunities to love fiercely in word and in deed. To be brave enough to speak truth when it is easier to stay silent. To care more what God thinks than what others think.
School will become her life, and in my rational grown-up moments I know that life is a mix of cruelty and beauty. I know she will fall and fly just like my students did, and I don't actually want her to stay little forever. I want her to follow her curiosity and find her passions. I want her to struggle through the challenges of school because it will teach her to do hard things. I want her to be face-to-face with hatred and choose kindness instead. I want her to discovery the thrill of following Jesus.
But I also want to go to the zoo on Tuesdays and eat pancakes in our pjs til 10 in the morning.