At a recent back-to-school event at our local elementary, I watched my 9-year-old twins scatter across the playground, spewing stories of vacations and camping trips to friends they haven’t seen since June. My youngest, who is starting kindergarten this fall, clung to my leg until she saw a few familiar faces from preschool and began to timidly play. My oldest son, though, is entering sixth grade this fall. He also hung on the fringes of the group with a small crew of buddies. They’re now too cool to jump into the fray of sidewalk chalk and free helmets from the fire department, but they still want to be here.
It’s my son’s last year in this school, and it’s clear this building that has held his successes (and tears) for the last six years is chafing around the edges a bit. They aren’t teens, but they aren’t the same kids who entered kindergarten what feels like only moments ago. And I’m not sure either one of us is ready for this transition.
I know my son is having a hard time with this — and the truth is, so am I. When we walked him up those steps for kindergarten with a backpack bigger than his entire torso, middle school seemed eons away. He had such a hard time parting with me that first day that two aides had to help calm him down. Group photos of that day show lots of smiley kids and his red, puffy, tear-stained face.
Now, as the oldest in the school, his class will be responsible for helping with younger kids as safety patrols, school ambassadors, and other tasks with big responsibilities. He hops out of the car with barely a kiss most mornings and definitely doesn’t have a hard time saying goodbye to mom anymore. He would prefer if no one actually witnesses him talk to me at all, actually. Cringe.
While each year of parenting unlocks some new achievement, from independent butt wiping to learning to read, each year of parenting can feel like a little loss as well. We lose some control, we lose some sway over their choices, and we lose a little bit of our window into their lives and friends.
Knowing it’s developmentally typical doesn’t always make it easy, either. I’ve been a room mom every year since he began school. I love planning the games and crafts, but it was clear this past year the fifth graders thought our games were a bit “extra.” I’ve heard a terrifying rumor from older parents that the sixth graders prefer unstructured hangout time to parent-led parties, so penguin bowling and wrapping each other in toilet paper might already be in his rearview mirror.
If it’s hard for me, it’s got to be hard for him, too. I asked my son what he’s thinking about this final year. As kings and queens of the school, he told me he is gearing up for what he hopes will be an epic finale.
He tells me he’s both excited and sad about this transition. “I love the elementary school building, but I think I will love the middle/high school too,” he said. More than the rooms and hallways and murals, he’s worried about the connections he will lose. “I will miss the teachers, and the person I will miss most is the principal.” (We do have a great one, who is not allowed to retire, ever.) He rattles off a list of teachers who have touched his life in some way and I smile at how closely it aligns with my mental list of adults I trust inherently with my children. I’ll have to find new adults to trust next year, too. Terrifying.
My son’s biggest fear is about going from a small building where he’s the oldest to become — in his eyes — a lowly peon once again. I remember ducking and dodging bigger kids during my first year in middle school. I let him know that his fears are valid, but assure him that he will find his way. I hope this is true. I also remind him how quickly these past six years have gone and joke that he will be a senior in the blink of an eye.
I smile when I say it to him, but I can’t even type that without crying. I try not to buy into the “savor every moment” content that influencers love to push, while being painfully aware the years do zip by at a record pace.
His eyes light up, though, when he talks about the rumors he’s heard about middle school. Wild, fantastical rumors, he says! A giant art room where you can choose your own project — there’s even a pottery wheel. A cafeteria without assigned seats, a wood shop, vocational-technical classes, and maybe even an overnight field trip. He’s itching for autonomy and independence, which is a feeling I remember so very well.
I myself have plenty of years left in the familiar brick building he’s fast outgrowing. By the time my youngest moves on to middle school, field days and science fairs and class parties and PTO meetings will have played a major role in my parenting journey for 12 years. These years have been a foundational part of my motherhood journey. In some ways, watching my oldest say goodbye to this building — and elementary school as a whole — prepares me to say goodbye in the not-too-distant future, too.
Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.