SAN DIEGO — My youngest child is finally in kindergarten.
He clutched my hand tightly as we walked across the playground toward the bungalow where he will spend his school days until June. He already knew his teacher's name and had been rehearsing it all weekend, but he only moved closer to me and held on more tightly as his teacher, an enthusiastic, gentle young man, tried to put him at ease.
It feels very different to be walking with my youngest child to the beginning of his elementary school years than it felt to walk my first baby, also a boy, through the same school door six years ago. I remember watching him, his serious face focused on the teacher, a kindly little dynamo lady who had stood in the same spot thirty times before. His shoulders were set bravely, his new button-down shirt looked so grown up. Even now as I write, tears well up in my eyes as I remember his courage, and my lack of it. My baby was in kindergarten, such a milestone in both our lives. I remember thinking that until now I had carefully monitored every influence in the life of this precious child, but now he would be subject to forces beyond my control. All I could do was hope for the best.
How wrong that turned out to be. Parenting hardly ends at the kindergarten door. I don't think it really ever ends, just changes along with the changing needs of children.
Our neighborhood school is an old one. Some of my first son's classmates' parents had attended the same institution when they were in kindergarten. But then it looked new and foreboding to me. This September, two children later, the school seems cozy and familiar, full of friendly faces and kind, caring teachers and staff. It's easier to peel a reluctant, tearful boy off my leg and onto his teacher's knowing that he will be well cared for between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
On the first day of school, the PTA sponsored a coffee for parents after they had delivered their progeny to their classrooms. A variety of emotions flowed on that sunny September Monday. There were many happy parents celebrating the end of summer vacation. Some moms cried unashamedly, mostly those belonging to first children starting kindergarten. "He was so blase," one mom lamented. She admitted freely that it was harder for her to let him go than it was for him to be left. "I felt like he was impatient for me to leave," she said, envying my son's reluctance.
I was beaming, ready to tackle a new stage in my life now that my three children are all in school. Well, I admit I did send a friend to peek in the window of my little son's classroom before I left for the day. Her report that he looked comfortable put me at ease. Now I can take advantage of well-deserved time to write and develop skills that have been hibernating for 11 years, alive, but dormant. The house seems quiet and peaceful.
I can still remember vividly 32 years ago when I walked across the playground with my mother to the kindergarten of Burbank Boulevard Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley. The fenced-in kindergarten area was segregated from the "big kids' playground" and looked disappointingly tame to my adventurous soul. My courage crumbled quickly, however, when a boy named Daryl punched me in the stomach as we were lining up to go inside. It took all my 5-year-old resolve not to cry since there was no way on earth I could tolerate the shameful accusation "kindergarten baby, born in the Navy," that was chanted in those days.
Now I think of my little kindergartener in his wild, brightly-colored pants, his Ghostbuster lunch box tucked away in his blue backpack. After one week, he still hangs back and becomes subdued as we take the long march across the schoolyard. He still holds my hand tightly, trying to delay my inevitable departure. But I know he'll be just fine.
A sign on his classroom door the first day, printed out in large computer graphics greeted us with the message, "Welcome, Class of 2000!" Children beginning kindergarten in the fall of this year will be graduating from high school at the turn of the century. Now that's a sobering thought. But watching this new crop of 5-year-olds make the trek across the schoolyard clutching the hands of their parents, even if the clutching hands belong to the parents and not the kids, it's hard not to be filled with optimism and a sense of life's endless, exciting possibilities.