School is an actual, legitimate rite of passage. There is just something that feels so immediately grown up about tossing your child into the deep end of public school: putting them in the hands of a stranger, telling them to make friends, telling them how to sit still. You buy the lunchbox, the backpack, the new shoes, and the socks that aren’t brown on the bottom. You trade the tattered jeans for intact ones. You get their hair cut. You talk to them about rules and listening. And then you let them go.
Or you try.
In just about a month, Ella, number four of my five babies, will celebrate five trips around the sun. Five years of life on this planet. Five years of seven-layer birthday cakes, trips to the beach, snuggles in our family bed, scraped knees, and knock-knock jokes. She’s learned to write her name, to swim, and to ride a bike. There have been a lot of firsts for the baby book that I never made for her (she’s my fourth child, after all).
And now, school.
We are fortunate: the public school is a short walk from our house. The staff is kind. The campus is clean. The district where we live isn’t excellent — in fact, it’s sort of awful — but it’s safe education, which I recognize not everyone has access to. We weren’t sure homeschool would work for our family, so we decided to send her there.
Today was finally orientation. We’ve been rehearsing it for weeks.
Today we picked a dress. I tied her new pink Converse and tamed her unruly curls into a long braid down her back. And we walked to school.
I expected Ella to be shy. This experience isn’t a new one. She’s very slow to warm up to new adults and often won’t warm up at all. We’ve exposed her to other “class” settings — gymnastics, art, et cetera — but the fear remains.
Today was Kindergarten orientation. When it came time today for us (her dad, her brother Max, and me) to walk away — leaving Ella with her classmates and teacher — she was not staying. When I say not staying, I mean the probability that I’d be leaving that room without her was zero. So we were offered the option of essentially throwing her, crying, in the classroom and locking the door, or taking her with us to the parents portion of the day and hoping the first day of school is better.
School starts next week. We cannot stay in class. We cannot even walk her to class. We can’t volunteer in her class for at month or more. And when the school is full of the remaining 499 or so kids, do you think she will stay in class? No.
We decided, amidst chaos and tears, that one of us should try to ease her into the class. There was some volleying as to who would stay and I lost (or won, depending). Matt (Dad) left with Max and I stood with Ella.
I gave her a nudge toward the classroom. She would not be moved.
Each time I tried to pry her off my leg, I was met with greater resistance. With every attempt she sunk lower and lower, first reaching under my skirt to grip my thigh, then moving south to my calf, and finally landing on my ankle.
I tried to gently push her toward the door. More crying. I tried to enlist the teacher. More crying. I tried to convince her that the other children would play with her. More crying. I offered a number of after-orientation activities. Let’s just finish this and we can go swimming. We can finish up and go play. The is going to be so fun! You can tell your brothers all about it! We can go get french fries! More crying.
We stood there for a good solid eternity or so (in actuality, 15 minutes), her gripping my ankle and me gripping the door handle. I feigned my excitement. I felt dread.
Her crying. Me crying. Eventually, her silent. Me silent.
My heart broke for her in that moment. The sheer terror of the unknown. The desperate need for security. The simple wish. Please, mommy. Do not leave me here in fear.
I bent down and quietly said, “Ella do you want to go home?” And with a tiny nod, she answered, “Yes.”
And we left.
The me of five kids and 20 years ago might not have walked away. That version of me would probably have looked around and thought, these administrators are going to think I don’t value education. They’re going to think that I let my kids “get away with anything.” They are going to think I’m a pushover who enables her children. They are thinking my children will grow up maladjusted because I did not force them to stay, crying, in a strange place.
Why would I have considered all of that over my child? Because this is the world we’re raising children in. This world values sacrifice of self; the harder you work, the more miserable you are, the more successful you are perceived to be. If you want to lose 60 pounds and you lose yourself in the process, you are a success. If you stay in a career you hate, you have dedication. If you work your fingers to the bone, at least you didn’t quit. If you cry but persevere, congratulations, you’ve succeeded, regardless of the cost.
Today when the world said leave her crying, she’ll get over it, I said, no. No. I will honor her and her fear, and I will find another way.
Now, on the other side of those tears, I write.
What does walking away teach a child? Does abandoning something that makes them miserable communicate the message that they don’t have to carry things to completion? And does the notion of persistence despite pain, if it is what we aim to convey, really teach dedication? Or does it teach that success equals self-sacrifice, regardless of pain? Where is the line between success and misery finally drawn?
Pain and sadness are not parenting triumphs for me. There is no lesson there, only the message that when I needed you, you left.
Ella is unfazed by the start of school and her absence from it. There is no sorrow, no remorse from loss of experience. She’s terrified, she doesn’t want to go. I honor that. And I don’t yet know what’s next for us. We — our family, our nanny, our friends — press on with our own homeschool curriculum for now and give Ella space — to grow, to change, to mature.
She may warm up to school, or not. Regardless, we will not leave her when she needs us.