REFLECT: Off to school we go

I’m counting the days, but I’m not sure if it’s with a sense of anticipation or a sense of dread. My youngest child, the last of my babies, is starting school this week. Without a doubt, he’s excited. His uniform is washed, ironed and hanging in the cupboard – a mix of brand new items from the uniform shop, combined with a few hand-me-downs from his older brother. New shoes are polished and ready to go, although no amount of excitement will compensate for the discomfort of wearing heavy black Clarks shoes on a 35-degree day, especially after a summer of bare feet, or thongs at best. His new lunchbox is labelled and ready to be filled with healthy, sugar-free, no-nut items. This is my resolution each year, so we start in February with carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes, and go out with a bang in December, with candy canes and packets of tiny teddies. Still, I try.

We’ve had photos of his new teacher and his grade-5 buddy firmly stuck to the walls since late November. These faces, smiling out at us each day, are so familiar that they’re almost part of the family. So, as you can see, we’re well prepared. But these are the items that can easily be ticked off the to-do list. Other concerns are not so easy.

While the significant milestone of starting school is a common, shared experience for most children, they don’t all cope in the same way, and each child is embarking on their own personal journey into the big wide world – no longer safe in the sheltered harbour of family, close friends, intimate kindergartens and park plays. For new preps, school is a busy world with lots of kids – some, twice their size – and with firm rules and routines, bells, assemblies, playground politics, and more. It’s a lot to take in for the average child. And even more so for a child with an extra set of challenges, as is the case for my new preppie. Fine motor difficulties will make writing a bigger challenge, and the processing of auditory information will be burdensome. Others will be faster, smarter, more confident, more capable. And the older he gets, the more he will notice the differences. It’s easier to blend in at kinder, making mud pies and building train tracks. But at school, the competition kicks in, the race to move through reading levels, to progress from golden words to red words to blue words.

I know he’s going to a beautiful school, with a nurturing environment, caring students, a dedicated teacher, and trained support staff. And two older siblings to watch out for him. Actually, I couldn’t ask for more. But nonetheless, I know I’ll have knots in my stomach as I say goodbye for the first time; as I cross my fingers and hope for the best, trusting that the years of speech and occupational therapy have set him up for success.

At our school, there’s a thoughtful tradition of handing a poem to new prep parents, as they farewell their children on Day One. This took me unawares with our first child, and I suffered the emotional consequences. But by the second time around, I knew the ropes, and quickly hid the poem away in my bag without reading it, saving it for a time when I could shed tears alone. I remember sitting in the Coles carpark, watery-eyed, as I read the words:

I gave a reassuring smile

As you entered my room today.

For I know how hard it is to leave

When you know your child must stay.

You’ve been with them for five years now

And have been a loving guide.

But now, alas, the time has come

To leave them at my side.

Just know that as you drive away

And tears down your cheeks may flow,

I’ll guide them as I would my own,

And help them learn and grow.

So please put your mind at ease

And cry those tears no more.

For I will protect and nurture them

When you leave them at my door.

Already I’m bracing myself for Wednesday morning, when I’ll receive this year’s poem; it will be going straight into my bag, too, only to surface when I’m feeling strong enough. And with any luck, in the years to come, I’ll look back on this milestone as another treasured piece of life’s rich tapestry.

Reflection by Carmen