The Dread of Watching Your Kid Start School
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images
I hated school — despised it, really. The homework, the expectation of sitting still for hours on end, the false pretense that I was going to use this complicated math ever again … I disliked all of it, but it was the whole socializing thing that really got me. I felt woefully out of touch with what everyone else was doing, awkward in my own body and my own mind.
Other kids knew the rules to certain games, had a shared language around play, that, as a recent immigrant, I had to play catch-up on. I felt like someone who was just figuring out life while others were far ahead. Like they’d handed out the guidebook for how to be a person in kindergarten and I missed it because my parents always dropped me off at school super-late. Even in high school, I struggled to make sense of who I was inside my own forged-together friend group, always wondering if I really fit in.
As a young adult, I did eventually settle into a version of myself that was less insecure and nervous, and I enjoyed a rich (and sordid) social life. I gleefully left all those years of primary- and high-school discomfort long behind me. Then I got older and had kids.
Now that my 4-year-old son has started kindergarten, I am flooded with memories of those years, some incredibly visceral and overwhelming. The time when I was 8 that I finally made it to school in the appropriate outfit for whatever special-color day it happened to be and my classmate Frances vomited all over me as soon as the national anthem started and I had to walk all the way home by myself to change into the only clean shirt I could find, which of course didn’t fit the theme. Some are silly, like when, coming out of the bathroom during recess in third grade, my skirt was accidentally tucked into my tights and a group of older girls laughingly pointed it out. I’m almost 40 now, but I still check my skirts and dresses diligently when I leave a toilet stall — silly and haunting. Others are more pointy. Thinking about the depression that hit me at 16 and alienated me from most of my friend group still makes me feel like I could lose my friendships any time I start to show vulnerability, like a spell of bad fortune or injury could mean those closest to me will simply move on. These things embed in you, shape you in tiny yet permanent ways, leaving you just a little bit changed forever.
The thought of those little indignities, those small, sharp pains already shaping my son, kills me.
In some ways, we’re both going back to school. He’s learning to exist in a new social sphere, and so am I. Every morning we each face the gauntlet of new people, people who will be in our lives for the next eight years. As I watch my child struggle to integrate into the pack, I worry he gets his shyness and reserve from me, like I’ve passed on something faulty. (Did I mention that parent cliques are already forming? A social hierarchy is taking place, and I’ve returned to a state of awkward adolescence I thought I’d abandoned almost 30 years ago.)
The daily school drop-off has become a kind of ritualistic torture for me, gawking at my child and hanging around just a little too long as he walks into the playground, full of nerves, tearfully waving at us from the other side. I’m aware that part of what I’m feeling is my own bruised recollection of wanting to belong, of longing for something you think other people already intrinsically understand, something you feel like you will never grasp. A social master key you just never got. I know acutely what it is to feel those feelings I think he’s feeling. I also know that much of what I’m feeling is my own projection.
But isn’t it just a little bit heartbreaking that after years of protecting and nurturing and teaching this person how to be alive in the world, I’m simply sending him off to be molded by strangers? I can’t be there, the way I was for those first years of his life, to prevent anything bad from happening or kiss his literal boo-boos as they swell and form. Now I’m merely imagining his days instead of living them together with him, which is both freeing and incredibly painful. Some days he comes home exuberant, delighted and exhausted by everything he did that day. Other days he says he was lonely or nervous. I can’t help but obsess over what it means for such big, important feelings to be felt by such a tiny little person. The total crush of remembering those feelings is nothing compared to the thought of him feeling them, too.
There are so many important things about school that are changing him for the better too, building an independence that is surprising and endearing and inspiring. Still, nothing really prepared me for how this part of it would feel, for how much it seems like I’m suddenly parenting myself, or rather a younger version of me, healing old wounds and trying to prevent new ones.
I have to constantly remind myself that there is another side and I’m standing on it, scathed but fine, happy in fact. It still doesn’t change how strange and sometimes sad it is to watch someone else go through many of the same things you did in what often feels like slow motion. Because it’s not happening to me, it’s happening to someone I love intensely, each wound, each rejection feels as though it’s occuring twice. Knowing I can’t stop it or really change what’s going to happen to him inside that school building has been the hardest part of parenting so far. The best I can do is wait for pick-up and hope he’ll tell me something good about his day. Today, he said he and a new friend were “playing puppy dogs.” His glee was infectious, and I finally let myself relax, just a little.