Back To School: I Went To Eight Schools In 12 Years. Talk About First-Day Jitters…
A new school year always puts me in mind of the sweet, toxic smell of freshly sharpened pencil lead; the stiff feel of new jeans freshly creased by my mother’s iron (a popularity magnet – thanks, Mom); and the joy of a brand-new pencil case complete with retractor set. (Have I ever used a retractor in my adult life? Nope. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember what it’s actually for.)
My son, almost six, enters first grade this fall, and it’s a milestone indeed. Kindergarten was half-days, which, let’s face it, means 2.5 hours including snack and recess, which is slightly less demanding than your average preschool session.
This year he has a big-boy knapsack and a big-boy lunchbox to hold lunches that he will take to the school cafeteria (gulp) and eat with his friends. Do I feel he’s ready for the dangerous social territory of a lunchroom? Absolutely not: This is a kid who still yells, “Look at me!” at the top of his lungs when he does anything he thinks is worth remarking on. He is a little ball of socially unaware jelly desperately in need of a shell, which he will only gain through painful experience.
Seeing him at this age and stage gives me a whole different perspective on my own childhood. My parents (who were loving and solidly middle-class, so don’t cry for me, Argentina) moved my brother and me around from pillar to post; I went to eight schools in 12 years, and moved between four cities, though we always returned to my hometown in southwestern Ontario.
I remember some less-than-ideal first days. In kindergarten in Chicago, where I was (terrifyingly) bussed to school, I left in the morning with white patent-leather shoes. By the time I returned I had polished them black. In fourth grade in Ottawa, my first day of class I arrived a few minutes late to find all the seats taken and so I was seated at the large art table at the back. The teacher murdered my name during roll call, leading to a year-long nickname I’d rather forget. Then, after lunch, I threw up explosively all over the art table. I haven’t been able to enjoy carrots since.
I have, though, always attributed my ability to adapt to my peripatetic childhood. Being thrust into new environments gave me an appreciation for change and the knowledge that there’s a certain freedom in being able to reinvent yourself at the next new place.
My brother, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. Moving heightened his natural anxiety; he craved stability, not risk, and that characteristic has defined his choices as an adult, not always for the better.
Looking at my own kids, I wonder anew at the decisions my parents made for us. My mother sacrificed her own early career and stability for my dad’s job opportunities, which were always a matter of choice, not financial necessity. I realize now, with two kids, how hard it must have been for her to pick up and move to a rental house in an unknown place, with sole responsibility for establishing a sense of community and security for her and her kids.
I realize now how disruptive it was for everyone concerned. I think about how destabilizing it would be for my son, who’s a bit shy and anxious at the best of times, to be moved across the country for the sake of a career opportunity. And I know that, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll make different decisions than my parents did — not necessarily better, but different.