Monday, October 26, 2009
I’m with T.S. Eliot: April is the cruelest month, forcing us back out of our cocoons like that, stirring us from our cozy hibernation. But I love, love, how October gathers us up and folds us in from the cold. Spring may be all about blooming and rebirth, but there’s incredible sensuality in the autumnal withdrawing and turning inward, too, yes, absolutely there is. Fall is my time of year, and I’ll take butternut squash over a damn peach any day of the week.
For a student, fall is the real time of rebirth and renewal. Summer was your hibernation – drawing back into your nuclear family, replacing poetry classes with minimum-wage jobs, sorting out what went wrong over the past school year and how to improve it. And (unless you’re one of the fortunate ones who got to spend the summer traipsing all over Europe or something) it’s September that draws you back out into your larger world of peers, relationships, and challenges. September can be shaky, but by the time October comes around you’re just managing to get your footing in the new context – just in time for that burst of fall color and crisper, colder air, which somehow heightens the whole “You’re gonna make it after all” sentiment. I don’t know how. It just does.
It’s strange how, as a parent, I find myself living in this school-year paradigm again. Although honestly I don’t think I ever stopped. Nearly every 12-month lease in every single-girl apartment I ever had began in September, and I’d unload my books and Urban Outfitters knick knacks from their boxes with fresh optimistic resolve. As the weather got colder and darker, on some level I’d be telling myself “Okay, this is where I’m going to stay for a while,” and I’d seek small comforts as if storing them away for the winter.
In Binghamton I used to take long walks through the old part of town by myself, past all the junk shops, sometimes stopping at one of the glorious old-school diners for a grilled corn muffin and no-frills diner coffee. In Philly I’d wander from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, pausing in shops to gather Suddenly Tammy CDs or cozy sweaters before strolling home, wet yellow leaves under my feet (and ginkgo berries. Oh how I don’t miss those one little bit).
Fall can be a bit more heartbreaking in Seattle, since it heralds the next nine months of rain. But there’s a kind of beauty and optimism there, too. We seem to spend our summers anywhere but home – visiting my family on the east coast, exploring the northwest mountains or beaches, spending all day at the wading pool. Fall summons us back to the comforts of home and routine. And fall means the start of a new school year for the kids.
Up until now they’ve always attended cooperative preschool, and the transitions have been pretty much seamless. Preschool meets only a few half-days a week, one of which is my day to work in the classroom. Separation happens in small, manageable doses. You get to see your child in action among their peers (for better or for worse!), and the teachers are so incredibly generous with their time. But this year, things are a little different.
Last month I dropped The Boy off for his first day of full-day kindergarten at the big public K-8 school. I’m not sure I was completely aware of it at the time, but I was an absolute wreck those first few weeks. I couldn’t focus on anything. I could barely even eat. I don’t know what was so unnerving about it, exactly. Maybe just the feeling that Something Big Has Changed. He belongs just a little bit less to me now, and a little bit more to this imperfect world. Which is terrifying.
But I found some comfort in the faces of every other parent and child in that schoolyard every morning, because each one of them looked every bit as shell-shocked as me. Some kids clung to their parents. One mom stood outside her daughter’s classroom window until a teacher’s aide came out and asked her to leave. A girl clutched her teacher’s arm and wept steadily, while a particularly clever boy decided to just make a break for it and ran out of the school building after the final bell. And there was The Boy, taking it in and swallowing it down, trying so hard to hang in there.
“He’s doing fine,” his teacher reassured me, looking weary after her first full week with the newbies. She showed me his special chair where he knows to sit if he needs a break. She acknowledged that he gets upset sometimes. But she said he’s been so good at knowing how to calm himself down, and so good at articulating his feelings.
I like this teacher. She’s warm, smart, and positively fearless about feeding frozen mice to the class’s pet corn snake. Best of all . . . she truly doesn’t see my son as a problem. Her attitude has been so refreshingly positive and welcoming. She speaks openly with a bright and helpful tone, rather than in the hushed and worried tones of some other teachers he’s had.
And I can see The Boy responding. Not only is he making friends and learning new things at school, but he’s excited and actually proud to be a part of his class in a way I’ve never seen before. He seems to feel safe there. He seems to feel like he belongs. It’s a little sad, but a little wonderful, too, to see how positively he’s responded to a teacher who knows what the hell to do with him. What a difference a bigger pond makes.
And now it’s October. The fall color on the school playground has been positively stunning this week. The Boy used to insist on going straight home after school, but now he and his sister love to stay and play for another hour or so. Looking up at all those vibrant reds and yellows on the trees, I have the strangest sense of school-year déjà vu. This could be my old college campus; those old waves of anxiety, peace, and delight have barely changed even when I’m not the student anymore.
And as I said before, October is that time of year when the new context is just becoming joyfully familiar. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we’re there. Oh yes, there will be challenges upon challenges ahead of us, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that we’re on a good path.