Last year, on a warm morning in early September, I stood in the parking lot of my local elementary school and watched a child tumble out of a school bus.
He was a tiny, bespectacled boy, maybe 5 years old. Burdened by a backpack the size of an Aqua-Lung, he started down the bus steps, lost his balance and fell all the way to the pavement. Helped up by a teacher, he brushed himself off, clearly shaken but just as clearly trying to pretend he wasn't hurt, or scared, or about to cry.
It was, after all, the first day of school, the first day, literally, of the next 12 years of his life.
Standing on the nearby blacktop, those of us who lived close enough to accompany our children for their first day looked on in horrified sympathy. What had just happened to that child was exactly the sort of thing we feared would happen to ours in the six hours daily they would spend, unseen to us, in the care of the state: some unforeseen hardship, some mortifying mishap, and us not around to pick them up. To parents of kindergartners the scene was even more affecting: My husband and I were there with our own 5-year-old, and suddenly a process about which we were only mildly nervous seemed full of unexpected peril. Nor did things improve when we were ushered inside: In the "multipurpose room" the principal informed us that when they entered school each day, our kids would not proceed directly to their rooms but instead would gather here in rows until 9 o'clock, when they would be told to stand, file out and find their own way to class.
To children who stand anywhere from 38 to 48 inches high, a school building is as large and labyrinthine as the State Department. Sure enough, within days there were tales of kindergartners wandering into fourth-grade classrooms, into the library, into the teacher's lounge. Soon the principal modified the ritual so that a teacher met the youngest children and led them to class.
All of which served as a valuable introduction to modern school life: In one day alone we learned that some old-fashioned schoolgoing dangers, like getting off the bus, remain, and are now exacerbated by the gear kids carry.
Even easy things are, in today's public schools, hard and complicated and multi-step; processes like walking to class involve mysterious rituals devised by secret bureaucratic teams.This year, at the very least, we will know where to go.
At least my daughter will. One thing that happened last year is that Anna, now 6, became much more familiar with the school than I am, visiting places, like the computer lab, where I have yet to set foot. As with computers, school is an environment that kids navigate more easily than grown-ups; the modern, complex schoolgoing world is the only schoolgoing world my daughter knows, and it never occurs to her that she is making her way through a day a hundred times more complex than the one I made my own way through. When I was growing up -- attending kindergarten in a neighbor's house, then proceeding to elementary school, which in those days began with first grade-- I remember bringing home the odd permission slip for field trips. Now, back-to-school -- I know this much -- means emergency contact forms to fill out, PTA notices, reminders about school concerts, sign-up sheets for after-school soccer practice, school newsletters, papers that will wash through our house all year, sometimes accumulating on the dining room table, sometimes falling behind the radiator, sometimes disappearing altogether. To me, these papers are excessive, relentless. To my daughter, they are what school is.
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