My son just started junior high school, but to me it felt like he was heading off to Mars. I had butterflies tickling my nerves last night and bats thrashing my innards this morning. I’m not typically the clingy apron-string type—I don’t even own an apron. I’m usually the one shaking my head and tutting at the moms who cry the first day of Kindergarten, and won’t leave the schoolyard, the moms who rush hysterically onto the field when their kid gets hit with a ball, the moms who meet every school performance or graduation ceremony with flowers and tears.
I didn’t cry when William started kindergarten, although I did peek in the cafeteria window to see him cry. I’ve never rushed the soccer field to comfort my ball-whacked son, favoring instead a “bounce back up!” yell from the sideline. I don’t cry at school performances—I laugh—and I’m usually feeling too confused by the loud music, flashing cameras, and forced pomp of graduation ceremonies, to ever feel sad that my son is moving from one class to another.
But this morning, while the other moms were slapping each other high fives, waving dry-eyed goodbyes to their backpacked kids, and racing off to the hair salon to celebrate the end of summer, I was dying.
This was big school and he wasn’t big enough. My son tried to shake me off his oversized new bag so that he could walk through a crowd of thug-like hooligans and hot girls to join the other shivering sixth graders assembling by the door. I released his bag and tried to latch onto his leg. I wanted to bawl and scream, “Don’t leave me here!” but I knew that would be as deadly to his school cred as hugging him. I let go of his leg, flashed him an awkward thumbs up sign, slapped him on the back, and released him to the hooligans and hot girls.
William was eager to get moving, get this first day down and done. We’d gotten there early—forty-five minutes early—because I had allotted extra time for bus delays, postal drivers, and natural disasters. It was a very undramatic ride in the end. The bus came on time, the driver didn’t shoot anyone, and the weather stayed calm. It took us nine minutes, which was really not enough time to create an accurate profile of the potential kidnappers, pushers, and pedophiles riding along with us. We rode in silence, lost in our own first-day thoughts: me wondering why in the name of God we had picked this school, him wondering if the Yankees could still make the wildcard.
As we walked to the side entrance, I felt the overwhelming need to talk to William about school bullies—not that there’d be any or anything—but if anyone tried to steal his two dollars, flush his head down the toilet, or borrow his pens without asking, I wanted to be sure he knew to tell me. I wanted to be sure he knew I had his back. I even offered (slapping fisted punch to open palm) to take care of the hypothetical bullies quietly.
As he made his way, away from me, I wondered if he was wearing the “right” shoes, if we’d bought him the “right” backpack, if two sharpened pencils were enough, if his cell phone was charged … if cell phones were even allowed. I ran into the yard to tell him where we’d meet at the end of the day. I might have given a brief presentation called “Why William’s Cool” to the other sixth graders, but the security guard heavied me back to the gate, shaking his head as though he knew my “type.” I wanted to assure him that I never cried when my kid started Kindergarten, but he may as well have already written my ticket and told me to take it to the judge.
“He’s great at sports,” I whispered through the fence, “and he plays electric guitar. He’ll make you laugh and he’ll spend his two dollars to keep you hydrated.” I wanted to tell the teachers that he’s a good kid and listens, but they knew better than to make a schoolyard appearance on day one. I wanted to tell the crossing guard that his last school’s crossing guard had cried to see William leave. She said he was the most polite kid in the school who always said good morning and thank-you. I wanted her to love my kid immediately, to skip over the scary get-to-know-you stage.
My four-year-old tugged on my hand to go, but I couldn’t move. William might come back out.
Quinn tugged again, or rather yanked, and we left … left William to figure it out for himself.