School Daze: Remember Their FIRST First Day of School?

What happens when your kid lets go first

Posted Aug 25, 2013

Backpack. Check.

Crazy expensive cool lunch-carrying purse-looking-bag. Check.

Right shoes. Check. Killer first-day-of-school outfit. Check.

Instagram updated every millisecond. Check.

All of the back-to-school talk always reminds me of my daughter's first official first day of school. She was 3. It was pre-school, not even kindergarten. But it was the biggest day ever for us. And I have not sent her off to any of her first days of school since then without remembering in exquisite detail her very first first day.

My daughter, Leah, was counting the days, waiting, waiting, waiting for her new life her new school-world to reveal itself.

I wrote an essay about that first day that appeared in Chicago Parent magazine in 2004. It's funny to read it now, as we prepare again, to go back to school. Here is some of what I wrote back then:

Finally, it was the night before. I couldn't sleep. "It's the day for school!" she sang. "I'm crazy for school!" I packed her Dr. Seuss backpack with all the goodies the school requested: disposable camera, change of clothes, two pictures of the kid, one family picture, box of tissues (for mom?).

She's up well before the sun. We read her favorite book, When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry, three times. She picks her outfit: green cargo shorts and purple/pink flowered T-shirt and she gathers a small army of comfort objects: her two small bears named Phil and Peaches; two plastic avocados; six straws plus her yellow plastic alligator.

"We're ready to roll!" Leah sing-songs, galloping to the front door.

I notice I am bereft.

Her backpack is strapped on and her pink socks and big-girl sandals and my achy heart collapse under the weight of the unspeakably cruel central job of motherhood: letting go. I flash back to our first ultrasound and the midwife's wise, cruel words ... "start letting go now, Mom."

Leah stands there in the elevator, leaning into the wall from the weight of her backpack, and the power of her moment, feeling so big and strong. She races down the sidewalk into the school. At first she wants me to hold her a bit. My body cleaves to hers and I hold her too tight. Not for long. Never long enough. Bonnie, her magical new teacher, comes out and Leah leaps off me like a flying squirrel off a tree branch.

Big girl growing up

Suddenly, I do not exist. I see it happen, like in time-lapse photography it comes over her; I watch my baby get her total school groove on and transform into a big kid. I am lost. And giddy. This is supposed to happen. This is good. All the clichés of parenting are true. It's too fast and too slow. It's more love than your heart knows what to do with. It's harder and more wonderful and humbling and all of it, all of it, all of it. I can't think straight for the rush of it all.


I hear sobs. YES! I knew it! Step Away From The Child. Only I Can Fix This. I AM THE MOTHER. I whip around to the anguished sound. It's somebody else's kid. Leah is patting her on the back. "It's OK. Don't be sad. School is good," Leah coos. Another boy collapses into his mother's tie-dyed T-shirt. My heart pushes at my ribs like it's trying to escape.

On the playground, Leah has gathered a huge handful of grass, sticks, flowers, acorns and dirt and is sitting inside the toddler-sized plastic house "selling" her wares to a huge, snaking line of kids-apparently her customers.

I know it's time to go.

I go outside to say my official goodbye, barely able to keep it together. Leah digs into a pile and hands me a tiny bouquet of white flowers. "Mommy, go home now," she says. How did a child like this come out of somebody like me?

Back to school, again

Her first day of school is coming fast. She will not rise gleefully before dawn. Waking up early will be a groggy, slow shock to her tweenaged system. There will be no snuggling, no reading her once-favorite book: When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry. In fact, my darling daughter may be the grouchy one, or even the one who gets really, really angry. Pre-adolescent mood changes keep parents guessing. She will not happily gobble down a smoked salmon, tofu cream cheese sandwich for breakfast like she did the morning before her first, first day. She will organize her own backpack and will be responsible for knowing what she needs to bring. I will ask if she needs help and she'll say (with an annoyed eye roll) No Mom, I'm on it.....just let me get ready....

Not everything will be different. I will have no say in what she wears, which has always been the case. I take odd comfort in that.

But this I know: There will be a moment during this mad-dash morning of annoyance and independence, where she will she will look at me and crack the smallest 'oh, Mom,'- smile, or she'll ask me a question we both know she already knows the answer to...'does this go with that shirt?' ... reminding us both, ever so quietly, that she's still in there, my baby girl, offering me a handful of tiny white flowers, telling me, again, it's time to let go, again, and that we're both going to be just fine.


About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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