She let go of my hand with a slight hesitation and took three big steps up. Her eyes peeked over the seat, her legs stretching to give her a view of the road ahead. As the door began to shut, she turned and gave me a smile, part cautious, part awestruck.
She was sitting on the big yellow bus that would take her to kindergarten. For months, she had imagined the day that she would be 5, and she would be in elementary school, and she would say good-bye to me at the end of our driveway. She was delighted to think she was growing up, proud to show her little brother what it meant to be independent of mommy.
She had dreamt of the day for so long, and we had talked about it so much, that when the sun finally dawned on the first day of school, she was continuously pinching herself. Just as it would be overwhelming for Snow White to knock on the door and suggest a play date, so too did she become wide-eyed as she slipped on her new dress, slid her arms through the straps of her backpack, and posed for pictures with that duly-impressed little brother. Even 5-year-olds can appreciate the momentousness of fantasy becoming reality.
It is fair to say that I am not an overly sentimental mother. My children’s “firsts” are documented in my brain; there are no baby books with notes of milestones or locks of hair. Unless the drawing is signed, dated, and identifiable, it has been safely tucked away in the recycling bin.
I have also entrusted my children to the care of others from the time they were infants. I returned to work when my daughter was 4 months old; since then, she has spent more time during the work week with a nanny or at day care than with me. I think it is annoying when she is clingy at drop-off.
And yet, the first day of school – the first day of kindergarten – loomed as large for me as it did for her. I understood that she was both excited and scared, because I was both excited and scared. I envied her the loving teacher and the afternoon rest that would help make her transition more comfortable.
When she was with a nanny or at day care, she was in an environment I had selected for her. I knew what she did during the day, who she did it with, and when she didn’t nap well afterwards. The hand-off was always direct: from me and then back to me, with plenty of time to explain why she might be cranky or where we’d left her new favorite book.
Now, there is an intermediary. The closest I will get to her day is the threshold of a squeaky bus door. I’d met her teacher and I’d seen the 18 impossibly small chairs she would choose among, but I couldn’t help her hang up her coat in the morning or check her mailbox at the end of the day.
What if she gets lost in the hallway? What if she forgets which pocket has her snack? What if she falls off the monkey bars and rips her pants and has to spend the rest of the day wearing a skirt made of paper towels because “change of clothes” was not on the list of things to bring to school? What then?
Did I spend too much time talking about the rules for the bus? Did I spend too little time explaining the difference between hot lunch and cold lunch? Did I really suggest that she just hum in the bathroom if she thinks the automatic flusher is too scary? Did she listen to any of it?
Kindergarten is the frontier of Variables I Cannot Control. It is the beginning of friends I don’t know and stories I won’t hear. It is the end of putting my initials underneath her name every school day as proof of our successful playground good-bye.
My little girl is more girl, less little. Her childhood will always be my fantasy, but her growing up is now my reality. Exciting, but also scary.