Not Just the First Day

(originally published in The Western Star, Corner Brook, NL Sept. 04, 2013)

This week I bring my youngest son to his first day of school.

My eldest is entering the Elementary grades, and my little princess will be twirling her way through grade two.

It seems too fast and long awaited all at once.

I’m looking forward to a bit of quiet to do my work in, but I’m not looking forward to no longer being able to spontaneously go on daytrips or outings without working around the school schedule, homework, and the everlasting “we need groceries – you’re out of school snacks!” concern.

It’s stressful, for sure. For them and us. Like, kids who refuse to get out of bed, making everyone late. Somehow your employer can understand this better than their schools can. And the field trip forms that never make it home for some reason (thank God their new school uses email for important things). And always, the constant need for supplies of one kind or another…

But it’s also exciting. Especially the firsts! This first day in Kindergarten will be my last. And then there’s all the firsts my eldest has already accomplished. For some reason I suspect that “first time solving a calculus problem” is not going to seem so monumental as his “first time understanding multiplication.”

It should though.

For older children, the excitement wears off and all that stays is the stress. And there’s more stress in Junior High and High School. The assignments are harder, the extracurriculars more competitive, the supplies more expensive.

But the things they learn! Their first time reading Steinbeck and Hemmingway (for God’s sake, please look at their reading lists and make sure they read The Red Pony before The Pearl and ANYTHING by Hemmingway before The Old Man and The Sea). And the first time they truly understand a quote from Shakespeare – strange English and all.

There’s the calculus and the stoichiometry. The first electrical circuit they’ll build in Physics. Their first real exams and the first time they’ll get cut from a team because they’re just not as good as their peers.
There’s their first heartbreak too.

For some reason, as parents, we let the excitement wear away each year. Their first day of Kindergarten is a nerve-wrackingly proud moment equalled only by their last day of Grade 12. And all that’s in between gets lost somehow into a routine of packed lunches and transportation arrangements.

Grade four is the first year my son has been asked to bring pens to school as his supplies. Pens! That means that he is now expected to write tidily (he can’t) and to know enough not to make constant mistakes. Pens! The trust his teachers have put in him to use ink on paper is a monumental thing. Most adults don’t even do that anymore, tapping away at our word processing programs and using spellcheck. By the end of this year he’ll have created more handwritten output than I have in the past five, I’m sure.

My daughter started to make best friends last year. And over the summer a girl at daycamp became her first real bosom buddy. This school year: perhaps her first best friend for the rest of her life? The social life flourishes so much this year. And if all runs according to how it did for her brother, this will be her first year reading and reporting on a chapter book for school. Up until now, they’ve concentrated on building the actual skills to read and write, this is the year it starts to gel together into reading and formally responding.

How can these firsts be any less important or monumental than the first time my youngest walks through a classroom door with the dedication to stay and play and work there every year for the next thirteen?

If teens today are like myself and my friends were, they’re playing it cool for you but they’re worried senseless that they’ve picked the wrong school clothes. They’re secretly skimming through their school supplies, pretending to check that they’ve put their name on them, but actually wondering which colour binder will be best for their first year doing Physics and in which class they’ll meet the boy or girl whose name they’re going to write all over the cover of that binder in hearts.

They’re worried and excited, just like my five-year-old and, well, you should be too. The worry is always there, I know, but encourage them to share their excitement. Talk to them of your high school firsts. Let them know it’s okay to be worried, but even more so, let them know it’s okay to be excited.

They’ve made it so far, accomplished so much, and now their goals and accomplishments are so much larger that they should be even more exciting, not less so, than all those early firsts.

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