Editor’s note: In this personal essay, Executive Editor Anne Tallent shares a parent’s experience of sending a child off to school for the first time.
I was dutifully filling out the “first day of school” chalkboard a little after 9 Sunday night when I heard deep breathing coming from down the hall.
I knew those sounds were not my husband’s. Was my sweet 5-year-old really doing breathing exercises in bed to calm his nerves before the first day of kindergarten?
Yes. Yes, he was.
In fact, it wasn’t until around 11 that night that Thomas finally fell asleep, after a bathroom trip, a chat, a foray in the grownups’ bed and another round of breathing exercises.
We had done all the prep: attended the PTA play date, the kindergarten orientation and the school open house; bought the supplies and mascot shirts; packed the lunch and snack; joined the PTA; downloaded the ClassDojo app; enrolled in Montgomery County Public Schools’ ParentVue website and loaded money into the cafeteria account.
My husband and I had already fought about school. The PTA is supremely organized, helpful and welcoming. But I had observed a dearth of men signed up to be classroom parents and to bring items to a staff appreciation luncheon. When I chalked up the discrepancy to sexism, Pat and I had the biggest argument we’ve had in many months. We ultimately had a candid conversation about parental insecurity, and I caught myself before I raised the issue in the PTA Facebook group.
There is a lot of emotion for all of us as we enter this new stage of life. My husband has been reflecting happily on the friends he made in high school, while I have reverted to some of my middle school nerd anxiety. Yesterday’s newborn is now a student, embarking on what will likely be a 13-year relationship with MCPS. We ask with bewilderment, “How did this happen?” much as my colleague, whose son is a high school senior, asks, “Where did the time go?”
Thomas had been a little nervous but mostly excited—and mostly about the fact that there are no nap times in kindergarten.
He was excited Monday morning, too, until he saw that I had filled in the chalkboard by myself. He was almost teary as he explained he had wanted us to do it “together.” So I let him redo some parts and coached him through spelling “paleontologist” for his career goal.
He beamed as we photographed him with the board in front of our rose bushes, images we would text to family and friends.
But then we needed to hurry – we were getting a late start. Ugh, I forgot to take a family photo. Parental failure!
For the first day of school, we took two cars. Though I’m Drop-off Mom, Pat needed to witness the moment as Thomas officially started his first day. (If Thomas took the bus, Pat freely admits he’d be the kind of dad who follows behind to make sure our kid gets to school.)
I was beating myself up about forgetting the family photo as I pulled into the drop-off spot. The morning bell was ringing. This was it! An aide helped Thomas unbuckle his car seat, and he was able to recite the names of his teachers. The school mascot was there to greet him and Dad was going to walk him in!
(Note to self: Next time, make sure to give goodbye hugs and kisses before we get to school.)
As I was chastising myself yet again, aides and administrators were motioning me to move along. But I had to get a picture of Thomas, Pat and the red fox mascot! “I want a photo!” I screeched. Seeing (and possibly fearing) my zeal, they did not deny me.
Pat said it was traumatic watching Thomas enter this large institution with a complex logistical configuration—too much like the Army days he remembered. But then he offered this comforting thought: Unlike basic training, people at school are generally nice to newbies.
By early afternoon, when we saw a picture from the classroom and learned that Thomas had earned plaudits on ClassDojo for hard work and a positive attitude, Pat’s sense of trauma had mellowed.
Honestly, our nervousness for our son is not about Day 1. It’s not even about academics – I’m confident in his curiosity and his teachers’ ability to nurture it. It’s about navigating social environments, developing a sense of belonging and maintaining peace of mind – those skills that can lead to a happy life.
But if he’s already mastered breathing exercises, I think he’s on the right path.
Anne Tallent is the executive editor of Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine.