The Second Day of Kindergarten
I am standing, face pressed to the fence, watching my daughter in the Kindergarten yard after morning drop-off. It is the second day of school. Yesterday parents were invited into the classroom. Not today. Will she remember where her class lines up? Oh good, she finds the white painted stripe with her room number at the top. Her classmates have left their backpacks along the line to swarm the play structure until the bell rings. But my daughter doesn’t take hers off. She looks small under the bulk of it. She stands stock still for what seems a long time. I try to get her attention, to give her a reassuring wave or smile, but she is too far away to hear me call her name. She does not know I am still standing there, watching her. Her chin drops, and I know what comes next. Tears, the slow, silent kind that can only be cried on the second day of school in a play yard swarming with children she does not know. I grip the fence, wanting to cry too. Her little shoulders shudder beneath thick pink straps. The scene lasts less than a minute, but in my helplessness it feels like an eternity. Where is the damn teacher? Why is the bell taking so long?
Finally, the bell rings and her classmates line up in front of her. None notice her tears, the heartless little punks. The teacher appears and leads them inside. My daughter’s pink backpack disappears around the corner of the building. I stand at the gate a few more seconds, staring at the empty yard. When I turn to go, I see them: eight or nine other parents, standing in their own private bubbles of heartache and love–one with fingertips pressed to her lips–staring at the space where their children used to be.
At the end of the day, my daughter has mixed experiences report. She learned a class dance, and that was fun. But in the cafeteria line, a boy in her class pretended to punch her several times, stopping at the last second to “hit” her in slow motion. It upset her and she didn’t know what to say or do. This is not what a mother wants to hear on the second day of Kindergarten. We email the teacher, and have our daughter practice asserting herself: “It’s not okay to touch me. If you do it again I’ll get the teacher.”
That night, I find myself thinking about the fence around the Kindergarten yard. Never in her five years of life have my daughter and I been separated by a physical barrier. It feels like she is largely “theirs” now, a steward of the institution that will inevitably mold and shape her in ways I cannot fully know or control. I accept it. I have confidence in the school’s leadership and I know it’s time for her to discover a sense of independence. But I also find myself in shock at the reality that I can no longer protect her, whether from boys with less than benign intent, from feeling lonely in a crowd, or any other pain the world has the power to inflict.
And so it begins. We fortify our kids with as much love as possible, and then we send them out. It is not the first time I will stand alone, watching my daughter disappear into her independent life. In my heart I sense she will be fine. She will weather the tears and the dicey situations, she will make her way, she will thrive. And I will stand, hand to heart, watching her with helplessness, hope and pride, and no few slow, silent tears of my own.
Bonner Odell is an Arts & Culture writer in the SF Bay Area. She has written extensively about the performing arts for publications including The SF Weekly, East Bay Express, East Bay Monthly, and Dance Studio Life Magazine. She is former editor of San Francisco’s In Dance.