First Day of School: Stepping Away
By Wendy Rhein
I’m not sure what happened, or really, when it happened. In June I had two little boys -7 and 2 -and now, I have one little boy and one Big Boy. It all started innocently enough. He wanted to make his own breakfast. He wanted to help me chop vegetables for dinner with the serious chef’s knife. And then it grew. He asked for his own music in the car instead of the ‘kid’ music his brother likes to sing; his own MP3 player would be the best option for everyone, he claimed. And then he asked to pick out his own school clothes since I may not get what he wanted. Including a sports coat because that’s what older boys wear if they need to be dressed up. He wanted to run into the drug store by himself to get a gallon of milk. He stopped wearing a shirt to bed.
All of this was fine with me – cute even. Until last week.
School started last week for us and we were all atwitter for the first day of second grade. I drove Nate to school because we had missed the orientation day and didn’t have a classroom number. He insisted that I needed to walk him all the way to class to be sure he was settled. My baby, my eldest, still needed me.
As we walked up the sidewalk teeming with happy parents and shiny-backpacked little ones, Nate suddenly stopped walking, turned and grabbed me around the waist, enveloping me in a tight hug that seemed to surprise us both. It brought an immediate and intimate smile to my face, thinking he needed the reassurance and the closeness that a hug from Mama can bring.
And then he let go.
I walked him into the melee of the entry hall of school with the vice principal loudly and unsuccessfully encouraging parents to drop off their little ones and let them make their own way to classes on the first day. I tried to hold Nate’s hand in the crowd so we could make our way through the now familiar halls. He wouldn’t hold mine. I resigned myself to putting a hand on his shoulder as we nudged our way passed crying mothers looking at the backs of their new kindergarteners for the first time. Out of the crowd, Nate walked in front of me, not next to me, pointing out the music room, the art room, stopping to say a fast hi to friends as they drifted off into different rooms. First day anxiety running high – will he have friends in this new class? Would he (we) like the teacher? Did she (me) pack a snack for the bus?
And finally we land in his classroom at the end of a long hallway. He walked in, one of a handful of kids in the room, and walked right up to the teacher and stuck out his hand. I swelled with pride. That’s my boy! Shaking his teacher’s hand and introducing himself! She welcomed him and told him he could find his desk and put his supplies away. And he was gone. Not a look, not a lean, not a glance back at me. He put his things away, said hi to a couple of kids, put his new pencil box and Star Wars composition book away, and started to work on the welcome form on his desk. I stood there, feeling like the awkward one, waiting for him to run over, give me a hug and ask if I’ll be at the bus stop that afternoon (a request he makes daily that I daily have to refuse) but he never did. After a couple of painful minutes, I walked over and leaned down and quietly said “Ok honey, I’m going to go now. Have a great day.” He would hug me now, I thought. He always hugs me when I take him to school.
“Bye Mom. See ya later.”
That’s it. That’s all I got. I’m not even sure he made eye contact. I walked out of the room with stinging eyes, feeling both proud and sad. My baby was gone. This big kid, who didn’t want to be seen hugging his mother, had surpassed the bear-clutching, sweet-faced boy who had so care-freely leaned into me with the full confidence that I’d be there to hold him up, because I always was. I knew this day was coming and once I could get beyond my own loss I cheered him for his independence and self confidence. He is growing up the way I wanted him to, the way I had worked so hard for him to, despite my own doubts of raising boys on my own. We really are doing fine, more than fine, we’re doing well. But time marches on. It is time for us both to let go a little more. Another inch here, another step away there.
At bedtime he was once again on my lap, telling me all about his day, snuggling his bristly-haired head under my chin, arms wrapped around my shoulders. I told him how proud I was of him for striding into second grade and he said he was a little scared because he didn’t know the kids in his class. We agreed to develop a secret handshake to say goodbye at school that will translate into I Love You, but just to us. I’d tell you about it but it is our secret, my big boy and me.