As I’ve written before, though we celebrate a child’s birthday, that doesn’t mean that the kid suddenly reaches a new step in their development. Our view of the child may change, and the world may expect different things from a four year old then it does from a three year old, but that doesn’t mean that they see themselves in a new light.
I’ve noticed this especially in regard to school. Now more than ever, when Felix tells people that he’s four, they ask if he goes to pre-K. He is on his way there in September, but he’s not really, or successfully, been in school before (which I’ve also discussed), and he’s become aware that this is unusual. “Why do you tell people I’m taking a break from school?” he asked me recently. “Why do they want to know that?”
So ever since the beginning of summer he’s been anticipating his “big boy garden class,” as he’s come to call the short program we enrolled him in at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Anticipating with excitement or nervousness? Sometimes my wife and I couldn’t tell. This morning he (and therefore all of us) slept late, an unusual move for the early, active riser. His mom had to run off to work, leaving the two of us to have breakfast at a cafe. He didn’t eat much, and at one point laid his head on my lap. “I’m just spacing out, Dad,” he said. “Looking out the window.”
I stroked his hair and wondered: was this the calm before the storm? I’ve seen him melt down before on the threshold to saying goodbye many times. Even when leaving him with a beloved sitter he sometimes begs me not to go. And though it’s been over a year, the experiences of dropping him off at a toddler program made a deep, dark hole of an impression on me. The tears, the clinging to my leg, the lashing out at other kids, the sense I was pushing him too hard too fast, and the associative guilt and anxiety that went along with it — I worried that I’d witness a repeat performance today. Obviously Felix had things on his mind too. He triked over to the garden mostly in silence, and he seemed to be extra attuned to the many kids we passed wearing backpacks.
At the gates of the Children’s Garden, where I’ve brought him before for parent-kid classes, he held my hand and waited patiently till it was his turn to enter. Once checked in by the administrator, his teacher smiled and offered him a name tag. To accept it Felix would have to pass through the gate, to enter the class space. There was a moment of hesitation on both of our parts. Do I accompany him? Let him go alone? The administrator smiled and gently said, “It’s ok if you want to go with him.”
So I asked him. Go with daddy, or kiss daddy goodbye here? Felix choose the latter, and passed from my hand to the teacher and then into the hands of a young teacher’s assistant. They walked together into the garden house, and I took off before he could see me and change his mind.
Holy crap, I thought, as I enjoyed a quick stroll in the sunshine before settling down with work. He did it. Went off to class, by himself. He really is getting to be a big boy!
My nervousness swelled again at the end, but instead of meeting me with tears or stories of classroom drama, Felix stood straight and calm in line with the other kids until his name was called for dismissal. “I had a good class and was nice to all my friends,” he told me when he came out.
I spent the rest of the day swelling with pride for both Felix and myself, for whatever role I played in his maturity. Certainly I encouraged him, and tried to bolster his confidence that he could go to class on his own and be a good, participating member of the classroom community. Even if that’s all I did, and the rest came from within him — which is what I tend to believe — then that’s enough.
Mostly, though, I felt proud of the little guy. The kid brave enough to go to class on his own, and mature enough to behave himself there.
Of course, there will be other bumps to contend with in the future, both school related and otherwise. Not long ago I left him and my wife at home in the midst of some blow out, a tantrum spiraling into an all-out meltdown. I ran away before it could cast a shadow on my shine! I want to be here for just a little longer, thinking not about the hiccups or challenges of growing up, but about the successes and the triumphs. It’s not often we have solid proof of a child growing up right.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing my son walk off on his own, his floppy sun hat bouncing with his excited stride, ready to be big boy and a student. Good job, kid. Your dad’s gonna rest a little easier tonight.