Last fall, my morning commute was slowed by a yellow school bus that had stopped to pick up students for their first day of school. Watching the little ones with their freshly scrubbed faces, new backpacks, and swinging lunch boxes begin a new school year, I smiled at the children’s eagerness to start a new adventure. And I understood the looks on the faces of the parents — a mixture of anxiety and hope.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since I walked my firstborn to kindergarten. On that day, Kerry — in Buster Brown shoes, a plaid jumper, and a headband with a green bow — tightly clutched her new Minnie Mouse backpack. We made a huge production of the morning sendoff , taking photos of her with relatives and friends who’d come to celebrate her first two-and-a-half hour school day. By the time we had recovered, it was almost time to pick her up.
She went off happily with a kind and good teacher, but I wanted so much to be a fly on the
wall in the classroom. I wanted to hover there and make sure that everyone was nice to her and appreciated her gifts, and to make sure she didn’t get stuck with a bad snack.
I needn’t have worried, however, as Kerry skipped home with her eyes filled with delight.
“There’s a bulletin board in school and it says ‘Fall in Love with Fall.’ Isn’t that funny?” she said to me as she began to uncover the joy of reading and the meaning of words. That should have been my first clue that she would, years later, find delight in her assignments as an English major — though her tastes grew to include not just bulletin boards, but great Catholic authors like Flannery O’Connor.
When Matthew, now 23, went to kindergarten, we made another fuss. But with Matthew, I found it was actually harder on his first day of high school. We rolled up next to the school in our minivan, and as he edged out of the car, he stopped and turned to me. “I am so scared,” he said. Matthew was already 6 feet tall (he’s now 6-foot-4), but I still saw in him that little boy who went off to kindergarten
with a crisp shirt, clip-on tie, and name tag. I nodded. “Of course you are.”
There was not much else I could say or do. No high school freshman wants his mother walking him into school. There was no name tag to attach or clip-on tie to straighten. I knew that he would have to go through this day on his own. All I could do was pray and hope that all would be well as he entered a world of lockers, advanced math, and upperclassmen with cars. Each day the halls grew less scary, and today part of Matthew’s work involves organizing events to welcome new college freshmen, who often have fears of their own.
When I took Elizabeth, now 19, off to kindergarten, I should have been used to these goodbyes. But by then, kindergarten was an all-day affair, and it seemed like a lot of time for her to be gone from home. Letting go of Elizabeth’s hand that day was so difficult. She was not one of those children who skipped off merrily to cut and paste. She sniffled at nap time. We gave her a special, hand-knitted “mommy blanket” to hold. Her father gave her his saint medal to wear. None of it helped. We tried to assure Elizabeth that things would get better. She had evidence of it — she’d watched her sister receive her First Communion, win spelling bees, and join the safety patrol. She had seen her brother’s excitement over alphabet bingo and altar-serving. Eventually she made her own way with her own victories. And she grew to love school. But I still felt that twinge when we dropped her at her college dorm room for the first time last year. And as much as I would have liked to, I didn’t show up on campus on her first day of classes to take her picture. Still, she calls home most days and talks with excitement about everything from
Aquinas to calculus, and tells us of all she’s learned.
As my children have grown, I’ve come to see that I no longer can chaperone them wherever they go. My husband and I have waved goodbye to Kerry as she headed off to study abroad in England, to Matthew as he flew down to Mississippi as a volunteer, and to Elizabeth as she traveled to Spain on spring break. Somehow, these journeys seemed so serious, yet so full of adventure. They were new beginnings filled with hope.
ï»¿Now, when I see the school buses pass by, I’m reminded that my years of sending children off to school are almost over. This year, Elizabeth will be a sophomore at Providence College in Rhode Island, which means my husband and I still have a few more years of lugging the television, refrigerator, and clothes in and out of her dormitory.
Still, even a few years from now when the last box is packed, I expect that when fall rolls around it will continue to fill me with hope. It is a time of fresh paper and sharp pencils. It’s a reminder to open one’s mind and heart to learning and encountering new experiences. And as the buses rumble down the roads again this fall, a part of me will miss the send-off .
But my children are still moving forward. And though at times letting go was hard, I’m glad I did, as my children already have traveled farther than I ever could have imagined. CD