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Image / Editorial

The First Day Of School: The Exquisite Agony


by Ellie Balfe
31st Aug 2017
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Here’s to the first-timers. Fly, little ones, fly?

The first day at school. Such a pivotal day for both kid and parent. When it is looming, we look forward to it in the way we look forward to most milestones – excited but slightly detached, as we’ve no precedent to compare it to. But when the day comes, it bizarrely morphs into one of those emotionally overladen experiences, quite shocking in its extremity.

When my eldest daughter, now 8 and going into third class, started at school, we were so excited – the build up period consisted of talking about it endlessly, and that, coupled with the required shopping for uniforms, getting books, bags and pencil cases brought the anticipation factor too far past 10 (on the scale of 1-10!).

The night before, you lay out the uniform and have the bag packed. You’ll possibly do this a few times to get it ?just right?, and all with the strict supervision of your soon-to-be-school-goer, who will require final sign off on all elements. Don’t forget that vital bit – not only will your little one want to be playing a big part in the organisation, but you will soon see that these details represent the genesis of their independence. It’s delightful. And devastating.

The morning dawns, you may or may not have had a good sleep (highly likely, not) but whichever way, it’s happening, and the time has come to activate the roll out – it’s First Day At School Day!

The early hours prior to making the journey have an excited feel; it’s quite close to that Christmas or birthday thing, where everyone is just waiting for something to happen. Your little one is full of energy and excitement and is dying to get dressed and go. What strikes hard here is their unbelievable bravery, the bravery of such a small person to head into the unknown.

And that’s it – game over – you’re emotional. Huge lumps in throats are swallowed down as the dressing ritual takes place. If your kid has a uniform, it’s inevitably too big – bought big so they’ll grow into it, right? That’s one of the unspoken rules of parenting as far as I can see – even if they totally trash the uniform throughout the year and it’s full of holes or weird stains that won’t wash out, at least it’ll fit them some time around next June; just in time to break up for summer. Anyway, I digress?

Once they are dressed and wearing their new coat (again, probably not needed on this exact day, but worn just to mark the occasion), you begin the required photography session – grandparents may pop by to deliver kisses, neighbours may pop out to smile and remark how ?grown up? they look. Your child is bursting with pride and all you can notice is how your heart is just bursting – with a mix of glee and grief!

But you mainly notice how bloody small and young that over-sized and perfectly pressed uniform makes them look. You feel the rollercoaster begin to ride in your emotions – pride, pity, fear, worry, back to pride, back to worry?

My little school girl!

A photo posted by Ellie Balfe (@elliebalfe1) on

You arrive at the school. What strikes both you and them, is the noise. The playground is full of kids running around; shouting and playing while their parents chat and catch up on the summer news. But those are the ones who know each other. At this point in our story, I felt the little hand in mine grasp a tiny bit tighter as she registered the hugeness of it all – still excited – but holding on tight nonetheless.

The newbies are easy to spot; perfect (big) clothes, holding on to one or both parents and those parents are also glancing around looking for someone to connect and find solidarity with. My advice here? Say hello – to everyone. And smile. Also at everyone! Remember that your kids take their social cues from you, and school is nothing but a gigantic lesson in how to be social. It’s all new and big and it lasts for years, so teaching our kids to be warm and inclusive is a vital and powerful lesson.

Think back to your own first memories of school – mine are of it all feeling very, very big (even though it was only a small Montessori). I can also recall being too shy to put my hand up to ask to go to the toilet, and this causing me a lot of stress – at 5 years old. Not cool.
I know it’s all different these days, but I think there’s a lot of benefit in telling your kid that they can ask to speak to their teacher one-on-one if they need to. Talking in front of a class of possibly 30 kids could be the most intimidating thing they have experienced in their short lives so far. Be mindful of their potential struggles – don’t reduce them by saying ?you’ll be fine?.

So, you bring your child to the classroom, you all meet the teacher and they find their place to sit. I recall being told that it’s best (on everyone) to leave after about five minutes – give kisses, say how proud you are of them, and go. This makes it easier on the teacher to get started with his/her methods of miniature crowd control. Your kid will be very compliant at the start (and hopefully onwards) but it is definitely best to let everyone get on with things.

You leave the classroom, exchange some relieved banter with the other parents and then you realize – THEY ARE GONE.

Your little child, who has, more or less, been solely under your care for the past five years, has been handed over to the school and it’s programmes and plans. Your child is ?in the system?. There is no going back. The rebel in me found this oddly oppressive. What if I wanted to take time off work and whisk her away somewhere? Oh, I can’t. The beginning of school for them also represents a time for you to re-conform. Weird, but true, and you’d better get your head around it. (oh, and you’ve years more of homework ahead of you, just sayin?!).

This solo moment was The Moment for me. The moment when I was overcome with feelings, worries, questions?
So many questions – Will she make friends? Will the teacher ?get her?? Will they respect and support that my little girl doesn’t like girlie things? Will they allow her to find her way, preferring boys? things like Lego and Minecraft as she does? Will they back her up in the playground when some girls call her a tomboy? Basically, and primarily, WILL THEY MIND HER?

My rational mind knows they will. My emotional mind is crippled with concern.
My heart, however, is back to bursting, but with pure unadulterated pride now. There is almost nothing like the enormous sea swell of pride in your amazing little wonder-kid for doing something so big, so brave, and so damn brilliant.

Yes, it’s the beginning of the end. ?The end? being our children ultimately leaving us, as they will do one day. But there is security in recognising that it weirdly just feels ?right?. To everything there is a season, after all. It’s just a milestone in life, a milestone that you and your little person sailed through. Know this as you post the pics from that morning on Facebook and shed a little tear. Also read this poem by Cecil Day Lewis, entitled Walking Away, it gave me endless solace?

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day ?
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show ?
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

It’s the most twisted pleasure, to celebrate them leaving you. But it’s all part of the plan. Be happy. Celebrate. Go dancing or something!

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