School Launches

An antsy three-year-old stood at the door, ready for her first day of school. Armed with a new lunch box (well, snack box if you’re a stickler for accuracy; when you’re fashion-wise enough to carry accessories that give you the look of a first grader, you try to keep some details on the down-low), she had her first official nap-free afternoon ahead and a buffet of new friends just waiting to be had.

Hand-in-hand, she and her mom began the trek to school, conveniently housed in the church across the street. They covered school rules one last time:

  • Be nice to everyone.
  • Please and thank-you.
  • Listen to your teachers.
  • Have fun.

They joined the gaggle of kids and moms at the classroom door bidding their good-byes; some weepy and clingy (kids too), some pulling like leashed Labradors to get to the great stuff waiting just beyond the door.

As her mom let go of her hand to bend down for a hug and a kiss, she mistook it for The Big Release and ran at full speed to where she wanted to be. Left empty-armed in a half-squat, her mom was hit with a harsh realization: her baby had dashed through the door into the world of Big Kids and would return as One of Them.

How in the world had that happened?

She wasn’t prepared for this turn of events; she’d been focused on how she was going to spend her lottery win of two-and-half kid-free hours. The choking lump in her throat and the excessive moisture suddenly pooling just above her lower eyelashes made her wonder if she was suffering from some freak hormone imbalance.

“Are you kidding me? It’s preschool!” she scolded herself under her breath. “For Pete’s sake; what’s going to happen when she leaves for college?”

An impatient 12-year-old stood at the door, making it clear that she was so over the annual first-day-of-school picture. Armed with a box of tissues and decked out in the latest Aeropostale-wear, new Nikes and a backpack overloaded with freshly-sharpened pencils, pristine, carefully-chosen folders, and last year’s “perfectly good” scissors, ruler and colored pencils, her posse was waiting and this tradition was in the way.

She’d worked hard to get to this day, putting in her time for six years. She was now officially Hot Snot, having properly earned the cachet that comes with being at the top of the elementary school food chain. She was ready to revel in her position.

She was the kind of student teachers liked: not the suck-up brown-noser that kids hated, but the polite, dependable, good worker, friend-to-all. The sixth grade social scene was the center of her life. She’d seemingly dodged the vortex of preteen girl drama, though her mom wasn’t stupid, knowing it’s part of the female DNA to on occasion, get sucked in.

They joined the neighborhood two-block parade to school, moms conducting a mobile coffee klatch, kids skipping and walking in a way that wouldn’t be seen again until the return trip on the last day of school. She pulled ahead of the pack, shielding herself from the embarrassment of being seen with her mom and younger siblings.

Experience had taught her mom to plant the good-bye kiss, along with her directives to “do your best and make it a great day” at home, behind closed doors; no PDA for this girl. That left her mom to watch her from the end of the sidewalk, as she walked through the doorway to where she really wanted to be.

And suddenly that overused cliché made perfect sense: she’d blinked.

It was just yesterday that she and her kindergartner had walked up that same sidewalk together. So how could they possibly be here, her last, first day at this school? As if on cue, again with the annual emotional heave: throat thickening, eye flooding. PDA wasn’t an issue for her; having children had taken care of that.

“Really? Tears?” What was she thinking? She still had a first- and third-grader in the rotation. By the time she had her last first day here, General Mills would be erecting a giant pair of scissors in the school’s entry, honoring her as the program’s longest-running Box Top chairperson.

“Nip it!” she hissed to herself. “It’s not as if you’re taking her to college.”

A calm, cool and confident 19-year-old stood at the door, more than ready to begin her longest trek yet to her first day of school. Armed with her pillow, her blanket and the love-worn bear she’d hugged to sleep every night for 19 years, she settled in to the Suburban packed with all the necessities and trappings of a college freshman, looking forward to napping her way out of one phase of her life and into the next.

It was a transition approach that fit. There wasn’t much she got worked up about. At least it appeared that way to the outside world. She’d come through the middle and high school years fairly unscathed, learning that lights didn’t flash and alarms didn’t sound when you couldn’t remember your locker combination or find Room 211 in the flash of the two minutes between classes.

She’d learned how to juggle the pressures of homework, practices, ballgames, to party or not to party, being inside the inner circle, being outside the inner circle.

Her inner circle was still the center of her life, but over time (thanks in part to Girl Drama Fatigue and a boyfriend) it had tightened, leaving her blessed with a posse who’d proven they knew how and when to show up.

She’d learned to live with the injustice of having parents who insisted she get a job, pay for her own cell phone and gas, and most embarrassing of all, called other parents to make sure everyone was on the same page about their teens’ plans for the night.

That morning as they gathered, packed and loaded, her mom faced the realization that all previous first days had been mere child’s play. She warned her husband that “this could be bad,” having struggled for the last few days with repeated flash flooding as they worked their way through all the “lasts”, toward the final launch.

And then there they were, along with hundreds of other families preparing to launch, waiting and sweating in the natural, coolant-free air, introducing their daughter to her first reality of higher education: lines. Exiting off the interstate. In the parking lot. At the registration table. Waiting for an elevator.

Three floors up, in a cement-block room that clearly held heat well, her mom was gradually  losing her focus on the emptiness that was waiting for her at home. Maybe it was the sweat running down her legs and back as she fought with the Barbie-sized screwdriver to put together the $15 piece of crap bookshelf. Maybe it was balancing one foot on the loft ladder and the other on the desk’s top shelf to make the bed. Maybe it was remembering that all fans really do is just stir existing thick, hot air.

Or maybe it was hearing the chatter of the friends her daughter hadn’t met yet give life to the hallway and rooms. Maybe it was remembering how she felt at this moment, over 30 years ago, so ready to step out on her own. Maybe it was remembering that despite the heat, tile floor, institutional bed, dresser and desk, she had been right where she wanted to be. Maybe it was remembering that despite feeling like a total geek, she had made herself go door-to-door to meet new people, many of whom had become old friends. Maybe it was remembering that despite the minor inconveniences of classes, homework and exams, those four years had earned a spot near the top of her life’s “Great Times” list.

And then there they stood with shirts sweat-pasted to their backs, pictures placed, closet, drawers and refrigerator filled, and a 19-year-old without saying a word, letting them know it was time to go.

Silently she thanked God that her memory wasn’t totally shot. Because here she was after 16 years of first days, living the Mother of First Days. Thanks to her stroll down memory lane to one of her own, she walked out the door of her daughter’s new home, dry-eyed and content, knowing her girl was right where she was supposed to be.

9 Responses to “School Launches”

  1. Jerry Nerl says:


  2. Becky Sherer says:

    Gotta admit, I teared up a bit. Maybe I was saved the trauma, as I wasn’t even allowed to make the trip to Georgia for my son’s first day at SCAD. I think he knew I might publicly blubber!

  3. Janice Crago says:

    Don’t you think by this time they’d be used to it?

  4. Janice Crago says:

    Even with her nose to the academic grindstone!

  5. Nancy Chinworth says:

    My favorite phrases: lottery win of two-and-half kid free hours, mobile coffee klatch, and Girl Drama Fatigue. Keep this up and before long you’ll have a book ready for publishing. It will be a mom’s version of The American Experience.

  6. Janice Crago says:

    I believe you’d have your share of contributions!

  7. Just want to say what a good blog you got here! I’ve been around for quite plenty of time, but now decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Kind regards

  8. Dee Stone says:

    Beautiful Janice. I teared up at your daughter’s going off–what will it be like for mine?

  9. Janice Crago says:

    You might be surprised why you’re weeping : )

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