Today was Justin’s first day at his new school. We’ve done everything we could to prepare him – he attended an after-school class there last spring and an art camp last July. But still, it was our choice for Justin to change schools, not his, and he is bereft.
Last night he went to sleep crying for his old school. “I’m homesick for my old school. There were all those kids I only played with on the playground,” he wept. “Now I’ll never see them again. At my old school, I could choose my work. I could do math all day if I wanted to! I won’t be able to do that now. I’m going to hate it!” He pounds his pillow, then sobs dramatically. “I’m going to stay up all night and then I won’t go!”
“You need to sleep, Justin,” I tell him. “Your body is tired and you need your rest.”
He cries for a few minutes more, then falls into an exhausted sleep. In the morning, I wake him up with a chapter of The Phantom Tollbooth, an old familiar favorite. Willingly, he eats breakfast and gets halfway dressed, but then he hides under the couch pillows, yelling, “I’m not going. You can’t make me! I won’t go!”
I want to say something to comfort him, tell him the perfect parable that will lift his sense of apprehension and calm his fears. But nothing comes to mind. I feel like I’m failing him. I can’t think of anything helpful to say.
“I know I’m going to hate it!” Justin says. “There are mean kids there.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I met them this summer.”
“You never mentioned them before.”
“I just KNOW there are going to be mean kids.”
Justin’s other mom is a schoolteacher. I try to reassure him, “Every year, right before Joan starts school, she feels anxious and upset. But the very first day, things feel better. A lot of times our expectations are a whole lot worse than the real thing.”
Justin glares at me. “Yeah? But Mama Joan isn’t going to a whole new school! I just know I’m going to hate it. My new school is going to be minus a million googleplex!”
My heart is breaking. I’m doing this to him. I’m sending him off into this new world and he’s the one who’s going to have to face it. I can’t be with him. Joan can’t be with him. Not even Emily can be with him. She’s too young. This first day is something he has to face alone.
When it’s time to leave, Justin refuses. I insist. He comes reluctantly, burying his face in a Calvin and Hobbes comic. We drop Emily off first. I turn to her preschool teacher, Betty Lou, for help, “It’s Justin’s first day. He doesn’t want to go. He’s miserable. I’m miserable. I feel like I should be able to come up with just the right moral tale that will lift his spirit and reassure him. But I can’t think of anything to say.”
“Vicky,” she says, “there isn’t always anything to say. Sometimes we just get to be the wall they bounce off of.”
I take comfort in her words. She’s right. I can’t fix this for Justin. I can’t take away his fear or give him the courage he will need. But I can listen. I can let him spill out all of his jumbled, terrible feelings and keep on loving him.
Back in the car, I tell him, “I have faith in you Justin. I know you can do this.” We drive the rest of the way in silence.
When we get there, Justin reluctantly gets out of the car. I help him find a cubby, and then he asks permission to climb the giant redwood tree that was his pride and joy all summer. When I see him wiggling the tallest branches, so far up that I can’t even see him, I know in my heart he will be okay. He is smiling when he comes down, still shy with the other kids, but slowly easing away from me.
I stay for morning circle. The kids are asked to say their name and favorite ice cream. Then they’re separated into classes. Justin waves goodbye, then runs off with the rest of the third graders. The flock of parents wheels and walks away.
All day at work, I am anxious, praying that Justin has a good day. And fortunately, he does. “It was a two thumbs up day,” he reports. “I climbed the tree. I made a new friend. I folded a paper crane. And Mama Vicky, that was a great lunch. Can you make that again tomorrow?”
The relief I feel is palpable. It’s going to be okay.
Starting a new school is one of the myriad passages in life we must make alone: starting a job, facing an interview, asking someone out on a date, traveling in a foreign land. Our children, like all of us, will all face change, again and again. Like Justin, they will feel fear and dread and uncertainty, and like Justin, they will have to take those steps alone. As parents, we can’t take the journey with them, but we can be the solid wall that listens—the place they come home to, the place they call home.