Scores of moms and dads clung to the fence surrounding the kindergarten building shouting, amid tears, last-minute advice and terms of endearment.
“I love you, honey!”
“Be good, my little one!”
“Listen and learn, baby!”
“Don’t cry, sweetie! I promise to pick you up after school!”
The teachers lined their charges up effortlessly using their sweetest singsong voices. Hypnotically, most of the five-year olds followed their leaders obediently, carrying their shiny new, oversized princess and superhero backpacks as their symbol of newly achieved maturity and independence. A few, caught up in the commotion at the fence, began to cry as well. Their teachers consoled these children the best they could while urging the masses beyond the fence to trust them – and to leave.
Early in my career as a school administrator, I would look from afar at the spectacle of hysterical kindergarten parents on the first day of school and roll my eyes. Why don’t they just get in their cars and go home? I thought. It’s not like the kids are going away forever!
Even when my daughter was moving from infancy to toddlerhood, I laughed at the adults weeping and fretting at the fence. Be strong, I wanted to tell them. Your kids will be safe here. It’s only for six hours, for goodness sake!
Before I knew it, my little girl was all dressed up in her pretty new dress and shiny new shoes and walking up the sidewalk with her own princess backpack toward the start of her grade school career. And I crumbled, melted, disintegrated right there on the outskirts of the building. I could not fathom how she would ever be able to cope without me by her side. She looked at me and whimpered, and I ran to the fence wiping away my own tears, feeling the full force of separation anxiety for the first time. I clung to the chain link until her teacher gracefully, yet a bit perturbed, approached me. “Why don’t you leave now, Mr. Ramsey? She’ll be fine. Really, it’s time for you to leave.”
I don’t roll my eyes any more at weeping parents.
There were no major breakdowns this first day of school. A few parents wiggled their way through the gate and stood as unobtrusively as possible at the back of their children’s classrooms. They looked like giants among the tiny children on tiny chairs at tiny tables. Some took pictures with their cell phones. Others sniffed away their sadness in silence.
The teachers spoke sweetly and angelically before their little pupils thanking them for taking their seats and for being a part of their new happy family of learners. One by one each parent began to sneak out, either totally assured of his child’s well-being or no longer able to endure the sugar-coated welcome. At last, the teachers could finally get down to the business of teaching.
Our school offered parents a choice of either half-day or full-day kindergarten for their children. The state supported and would only pay for half a day of school for this grade. If parents wanted their students to stay the full six hours, they needed to pay for the extra time. Those who could not or did not want to pay the “tuition,” placed their children in either the morning or afternoon half-day classes. The morning kids left around 11:30. Their parents scooped them up and smothered them with kisses. Their teacher bolted down her lunch, went to the restroom, picked up her mail, and then rushed back to greet the afternoon bunch – and their sobbing parents as well. Expertly, she helped everyone adjust and started her day once again.
I had just finished wolfing down my own lunch when I noticed two classroom aides struggling in front of the school with an unhappy five-year old who was unwilling to accept the fact that she was soon to be a full-fledged student (even if she was only in attendance half-day). She crumpled to the sidewalk crying as her mother drove away (no doubt sobbing as well). I hustled outside and lifted little Lexie to my shoulder, supported her in the crook of one arm and patted her on the back, all the while walking through the office, down the hall and out the back door that led to the kindergarten building.
“Mama!” she wailed.
“Your mama has to go home now, honey. You’ll be fine. We have to get to class. You’re going to love it. “
“Mama!” she sobbed into my neck.
“There, there baby. You are going to have a good day. Mama loves you. She’ll be back soon. Let’s get to the classroom so you can see all the fun things the other kids are doing. You are going to have a great time.” I continued to pat her on the back, talking in my own singsong voice as I had done long ago with my own little girl.
I had turned into a kindergarten teacher.
Once inside the classroom, I set Lexie on the carpet with a group of children playing with building blocks. I knelt down with the children, and she stood close to me with her hand locked onto my shoulder. She separated for a second or two to stack a few blocks and then grabbed onto me again for safety. The classroom aides wonderfully attempted to distract her, but she refused to let me out of her sight or out of her reach. Amazing the strength of a kindergartener!
One of the ladies handed Lexie a View Master hoping she would become entranced with the pictures of Wonder Woman, Batman and other superheroes floating within. This tactic was successful for a few minutes. I stood up ready to sneak out, but she was too quick for me and grabbed hold of my leg. I sat down again and fiddled with a puzzle encouraging her to join me. She knelt beside me clamping her hand a little more tightly on my shoulder than before while she picked up and looked at the oddly shaped pieces of cardboard.
Finally, the aides surrounded her, each offering a different puzzle piece to the little girl. She was distracted long enough for me to escape. I did so – quickly – feeling a bit guilty, but refusing to look back for fear of undoing all the hard work of the classroom assistants. They were wonderful, truly magical in their work.
As I fled the building and headed to my office to rest a minute, I heard the P.E. teacher calling my name. I hurried to where he stood outside the cafeteria with yet another crying kindergartener. Connor clung to the retaining wall near the building and refused to budge.
Coach Rivera looked at me, his eyes pleading for help. “We were all going inside the cafeteria today because it is so hot outside, and this little one started weeping. I can’t get him to move. He wants his mom.”
“Come on, kid,” I cajoled. “It’s 110 degrees out here, and we need to get inside and start feeling that AC.” His fingers remained locked on the wall.
I pried him free and scooped him up in my arms. He howled and squirmed vigorously in my grasp. Coach Rivera opened the door as I entered with my bundle. I carried Connor up the steps leading to the stage where the rest of the class waited patiently for class to begin.
The children looked at me and my screaming partner wondering if I was friend or foe – just what is this assistant principal person anyway? I sat down on the floor, pulling Connor down next to me. I put my arm around him and held him tightly against me as he yowled. “Shh,” I whispered. “We have to listen now. Coach is about to tell us what we are going to do. You’re going to be fine. Come on now, buddy. We are going to have fun.” He bawled louder and tried to wriggle from my embrace.
Coach took attendance – quite a chore with five-year-olds, most of whom have yet to learn their last names. All the while, Connor moaned and moved about while my tiring arm held him closer to my side.
He moaned as the coach explained his classroom rules. He moaned as the coach led the class through some basic exercises. He moaned as the coach talked of all the fun the class was going to have during the school year. I pulled the little boy closer, patting him on the arm and leaning my chin lightly on his head. “Look, Connor,” I spoke softly. “You can just sit here and relax if you want to. You don’t have anything to worry about. Just relax, buddy.”
The little boy’s whimpering subsided into a series of sniffles. He yawned, and his head began to droop. Soon he was asleep! I relaxed my tired arm but kept it around his tiny frame allowing him to enjoy his afternoon nap while the rest of the kids moved around him in the game Coach Rivera was directing.
Soon it was time to head back to class. I roused Connor from his slumber and helped him to his feet. “Time to go back, little one,” I announced. “Only a couple more hours until you get to go home. He smiled at me, reached out and grabbed my hand. He led me down the steps from the stage to the door where his classroom teacher waited. I patted him on the head and told him to be good. Smiling, he hurried along willing to continue with his first day of school.
Contentedly, I did the same.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey.