As of last week, school is in session here in Northern Virginia. With my only child starting her third year in college, I’m no longer directly involved in the much-ado about back-to-school.
But until I’m deaf, I’ll be well aware of the start of the new school year. Once again, on weekday mornings beginning around 6:30 AM, the school buses make their loud, laborious way down the side street below our bedroom windows. There are so many buses. They swoosh, they roar, they sigh, they creak. They emit piercing back-up beeping sounds for extended periods. We discovered, when we moved here nearly twenty years ago, that we had settled in a pivotal juncture in Fairfax County, a dividing line between two school districts. If we moved across the street, our daughter would have to change schools. There are buses for elementary, middle and high school students for both districts, as well as those for several magnet schools. There used to be a special Kindergarten bus in the afternoon, before the all-day program arrived. Some buses are picking up or dropping off; others turn around, having reached the end of their routes.
The clamor and commotion of the school buses every fall brings back the conflicting and powerful emotions I felt on our daughter’s first-ever school day. The day she started Kindergarten, when we sent her off, parentless, on one of those enormous, monstrous, heaving, yellow-orange vehicles.
Our five-year old put on a brave face that memorable day. My husband and I watched and waved, smiling with forced cheer, trying not to grimace, until we could no longer see her dear little blonde head peering from the window. Then we turned away, avoiding other parents, fighting back tears. H quickly jumped in his car and followed the bus to school. At a distance, he waited until she was safely inside the building. All that morning I wondered: What is she doing now? And now? Is her class lining up to come home yet? Just a few hours later, around 12:30, the Kindergarten bus dropped her off at the end of our driveway. When our girl emerged happy, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The after-school photo I took of her, sitting in our doorway, shows her confidence, her triumph.
Last week I looked back at that photo and compared it with the first-day images preceding it in the morning. They told a different story. The group photos struck me as especially poignant. My daughter, like the other younger children, tries to express a sense of ease, but her anxiety and trepidation show through. The bulky backpacks contribute to the littlest ones’ slightly awkward postures. No one’s clothes seem quite right. Wasn’t our daughter hot in that fall sweater? All the other kids wear tee shirts. And within the group, each child is a little island unto itself. Even the older ones who appear more self-assured, even they look isolated and alone. At least they do to me. Maybe, in a fit of nostalgia, I’m reading too much into these snapshots from fifteen years ago. But I don’t think so.
During the morning dog walk with the pack, I heard the first-day stories from friends who still have kids in school. Later, I saw the photos on Facebook. There are the little ones summoning their courage as they hold up hand-lettered “first day of” signs. There are the older ones glaring sullenly, attempting to shoot poison dart rays at a parent who insists they pose uncomfortably in the gray light of dawn.
Several of my friends are dreading the college send-off that looms in the future. I understand, and I remember. But I will tell them this: it will probably be less painful than that off-to-Kindergarten day.
And it will be here before you know it.