“It’s a new beginning!” I tell my grandson at the schoolhouse door. “Kindergarten! You’ll learn new things and make new friends. It’s going to be great.”
Joe isn’t buying it. Three older kids whirl by, shrieking, and he shrinks back against the wall. A few feet away, a little girl with French braids does too.
“What’s your name?” I ask her. I get a miserable “Celia” in response. “What a pretty name,” I say. “Celia, this is my grandson, Joe. It’s his first day at school. Is it your first day too?” Celia nods and sidles away from me.
A smartly dressed little blond approaches. “I’m Anna,” she tells me. “Joe’s in my class. Hi, Joe!”
“Hi,” Joe says, suddenly preoccupied with an inventory of his backpack.
A third-grader with his hair in stiff spikes intervenes. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he snarls, his fists on his hips. “You can’t stand by the wall. You have to stand on your animal.”
Oh, buzz off, my inner child wants to say, but I cling to adulthood. “Our animal? What animal?”
“They’re over there,” Spike growls, pointing to the tarmac. “You line up by your teacher’s animal. You can’t stand by the wall.”
It’s the best advice I’m getting in this confusion of swirling, shrieking older kids, so I grab Joe’s hand and beckon to Anna and Celia. We go to an area where other adults are positioning their kids into something that approximates a line. I find the right animal and shepherd my three charges behind it.
Just in time: a loud bell of the type you only hear in schools signals that the time for parting has come. Parents and grandparents hug their kindergarteners and fade away like sad, shrinking ghosts. Some children cry. Some adults do too.
“‘’Bye, Joe,” I say, perky as pie. “Have fun!”
“’Bye, Grandma Mary,” he responds, his voice as hollow as his eyes. Then his teacher ushers him and his line into the school.
First days at school are always hard, but this one is especially so. Joe’s not the only one facing a new beginning. It’s a new day for his mom, too … a new job in a new town. In the new economy, she and her husband have been unable to sell their house, so he remains working in their old hometown while Joe starts school in their new one. They’ve joined the ranks of fractured families doing what they have to do to ensure that a new beginning leads to a happier ending.
At least their separation is temporary. Statistics aren’t re-assuring for children in one-parent homes. They’re more likely to have academic, emotional, and health problems; less likely to succeed. Those outcomes can be mitigated or negated by the significant involvement of just one other caring adult -- and the more, the merrier. My husband and I are taking turns being that adult.
Stewing over hollow little Joe last weekend, I was reminded of another child starting school while his mother made a new beginning. Her siblings swooped in to fill the gaps – a brother and sister took turns getting him home from school. On nights when his mom worked late, another sister fed him, bathed him, and put him to bed. He liked to be talked to sleep, so she would lie there with him looking out the window, commenting on the moon and the stars and the strange ways of cattle and leprechauns.
One night, he turned to her and mused, “My mom sure is smart.”
“She sure is,” his aunt cooed.
“She knows everything but three things,” the boy continued.
“Oh?” his aunt said, intrigued. “Which three?”
“That’s the hard part,” he replied. “She doesn’t know yet. But once she does, she’ll know everything.”
Then he rolled over and sank into sleep, content that his mother was just three mysteries short of perfection. His aunt listened to his soft breathing and marveled over the stretched-thin woman who could still plant this seed of contentment in her child, chuckling in anticipation of the day it would blossom into laughter.
That boy beat back the statistical disadvantage. Today he’s got a college degree, great health, and a heart of gold. Last weekend, he got married and set out on a new beginning he couldn’t be more excited about.
Next week, I’ll go back to caring for Joe again. When I pick him up from school, maybe Spike will still be snarling. Maybe Celia will still be sidling miserably away. Maybe Anna, so poised in the morning, will still be having meltdowns after school. But happiness is just a thing called Joe. I’m going to scoop him up, feed him, bathe him, and put him to bed. And sometime during that process, I’m going to tell him a story that begins this way:
“Your mom sure is smart.”
This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired, but still advocating for public schools and the children in them.