I was so preoccupied with the logistics of moving into our new house that I hardly noticed the arrival of the first day of school. Perhaps I was in denial. At the parent’s orientation, at 2pm on Wednesday, I put my forehead into my palm and was suddenly asleep. This might have been a regression to my old response to school, or if it might have been a kind of narcoleptic response to the overwhelming fact that I was a father of a girl about to be released my into the wild’s of Kindergarden and beyond. But whatever the reason, it wasn’t a good sign.
It had been a tiring few days. The flight to New Orleans with the kids. The discovery that the house was nowhere near ready to be moved into. The scramble for a hotel. The many contractor conversations. The sense of disorientation that accompanies the first hours or days in a place you know well but don’t know at all. It may actually be easier to go to an entirely new city than to one you think of as home but have not seen for a while.
“My therapist says character (and healthy attachment) is revealed in arrivals and departures,” wrote a friend today, in response to a summary of our past few days. Not quite “May you live in interesting times,” but in that vicinity.
Arrivals: to New Orleans. To a New House (which is an old house). To a hotel because the New House is not ready.
Departures: From New York. From Summer vacation. From the new house, having peeked in to find the painters still working and dust everywhere.
Evangeline’s first day of school defies these two categories, or encompasses them.
Although we talked about her starting Kindergarten all summer – there had been a lot of anxiety about her getting in, and when she did we celebrated, and returned to that spirit of accomplishment often – I didn’t realize it was really happening until it was happening.
Then the day came. The hotel is in the Central Business District; it was a bit of a drive to school. We were rushing, anxious about traffic. For whatever reason my wife drove, which was unusual, and added to an oddly passive feeling I had. At one point I turned around to get a look at Evangeline and take her picture. Her hands were up against the closed window. Her face set in a somber mood of anxiety. Something about the hands and their positioning killed me.
We got to school on time, parked, joined the agglomerating crowd — it was like a dewey, morning version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Everyone drawn to the strange new ship. Parents and kids of many ages streaming into the courtyard, through the door, looking for their room. Evangeline walked beside my wife. I carried the baby. He looked around inquisitively with his big eyes.
Now we were in the bright classroom. There were lots of rectangular tables. On each were pieces of paper with a kid’s name on it. Beneath their name were two lines. They were to write their name on the first line. After that there was another task — to deliver the page to the teacher. Then a few minutes of free play. Then school would start.
The parents seemed nice. The kids seemed nice. The teachers seemed nice. Patches of sun lay here and there like blocks on the floor. The clamor level was low. The mood festive but subdued. Probably as quiet as it will be all year. Kids were posing for photographs with their parents. Evangeline took a seat around a table where kids were playing with a tub of little plastic blocks and started playing. She was familiar with these rituals – via Pre-K and summer camp – but she also knew that this was different.
I stood smiling in this serene dazed way like I had been converted to a cult. Beneath that was a dazed, disassociated feeling, like someone had tucked me beneath a warm blanket. I stood holding the baby and now and then emitted some positive, happy sound, a parental chirp everyone else was making, the better to reinforce the happy aspect of the day.
The parents fell into subsets: Those who have been through it and those who, like us, have not. Also, those who are doing it for the last time and those, like us, who were not. This may have been why I held Alexander in my arms the whole time until the end, when he ran over to Evangeline wanting to see what she was doing. Then I scooped him up again. He was a ticket to the future.
The kids, though, were now in not just the same class but, on this day, the same boat — it was the first day of school. All of them, even the most gregarious, seemed a bit solemn. Evangeline was deadly serious. She barely noticed my whispered encouragement or acknowledged it. And then we were gone.
“What are we doing,” she asked in our hotel room.
“Breakfast,” I said. We have a routine, now. They all know us in the lobby. It’s very Eloise.
“And then what?”
“Then you go to school,” I said. “That is the incredible thing about school!” I continued, suddenly very emotional. “It’s not this thing that happens once. It is something happens every day. It’s five days a week every day. It becomes part of your life!”
Like almost every parent of little kids, I had been looking forward to the start of school, to having the time and structure, but now I felt a swirl of currents within me. I said all this as though it were great news but some part of me was not convinced. Perhaps the part that had been to school. I was suddenly very sad. Her arrival was my departure. The world (i.e Twitter et al and everything linked to from there) is filled with commentary about the college ritual of separation for Freshman. About how it hardly exists anymore, with cell phones, facebook, text messages. There is no longer a moment of separation.
But talk to the Kindergarten gang. Plenty of separation there.
On day two the weather the next morning was splendid. We found a faster route from the hotel parked a couple of blocks away. We were early. I felt the soft sense of enclosure as we walked the sidewalks erupting like a fun house, thrown into the air by the roots of the very trees hanging above us. It was almost as though the landscape was trying to bring us into an embrace. The sort of hug whose meaning – hello, or goodbye? – is open to interpretation.