My son loves James and the Giant Peach. We have read it approximately 35 times. However, in my version I make one minor edit. James does not lose his parents to death by rhino-stampede, but instead, in my rendering, his parents went on vacation and entrusted him with aunts who turned out not to be good guardians. For better or worse, it’s what I do as a parent. I try to protect him from certain realities. And yet, how long can I protect? A friend of mine shared a quote with me a few weeks ago that I can’t seem to find now but that essentially said we must not simply protect our children from the world, we must prepare them for the world.
It’s really stuck with me particularly as kindergarten looms. As some know, the decision to home school or private school weighed heavily on us, but given that the kiddo is adamant about not being home schooled, and private school is just not financially in the cards for us for all our children at this point in time [and you can’t very well send one and not the other] we are sending him to the local highly adored but highly populated public school.
It has given me no shortage of anxiety.
Today I took him to school to register him. I learned that the principal who I had heard from so many people was absolutely a rock star, who I had long conversations with about education and the crowded school situation just a week earlier, and who most importantly swore to me his school did not teach to the test, is gone. Other than a shrug by the school secretary, I got no explanation.
I sat down and signed a mountain of papers, was given a school supply list and told about upcoming mingling events that conflict with commitments we already made. It’s okay, I told myself, if he misses one optional event. It’s okay the principal who convinced you this school might be okay is gone, the new one will be fine. And yet, suddenly I felt seized by fear.
It’s not just that it’s hard to let your kid go. It’s not just that kindergarten is momentous. It’s because of my own baggage that I bring to the elementary school equation. I have no good memories of elementary school. Because I knew nothing else of a schooling experience, I thought it was normal. But looking back as an adult at the child I once was I shudder for all she had to endure. No one should have to endure that. No one. My childhood is why I became an educator. My childhood is why I became an attorney who represented marginalized children in the school system. My elementary years have in truth shaped my entire life. In the case of being an advocate for children it has been good. I had to watch out for the marginalized in a way no one ever watched out for me. I wanted to make sure no child under my watch dealt with anything I ever did. But my elementary years also had negative lasting impacts too that I only began to untangle in adulthood.
And now its my child’s turn to enter the fray.
I realize not all children had such harrowing primary years. I realize some children love school. They make friends and sing songs and have lunch room chats and enjoy it. I know this is what is actually normal. I try to remind myself this and that just because I see so much of myself in him and his love for books and his gentle nature that his disposition does not predict his fate. But just last week an older child teased my son for being a baby for liking a certain show. My son simply blinked, the insult flew over his head. But I watched the encounter [and interceded before it got worse] and wondered when it no longer would fly over his head. When barbs and slights begin to chip away and shape the person you think you are.
As a teacher I was in the messy huddle of children. I was hands on and there and vigilant. But as a parent I have to drop my child off and I have to let him go. I have to make peace with the fact that starting soon, he will for those hours in his day, be on his own. And that I cannot physically protect him from it. The only thing I can do is prepare him for it, to help him have the self-esteem and the tools to deal with it. I can keep an eye out and volunteer in the classroom and I can tell him it’s never okay to experience cruelty. And yet aren’t our children like our hearts walking around outside our body? I can tell myself all of this, but the knowledge of reality hurts nonetheless.
In a few weeks my son will start kindergarten. I can no longer completely and fully protect him, but I pray with every thing that I am that I can prepare him as best as I know how.