Friday, September 3, 2004
Counting down to kindergarten Watching my son's future unfold in an uncannily familiar setting
It was a weekday evening early last spring and my husband and I were perched on undersized plastic chairs in the school library. Surrounding us were several dozen other Carlisle parents who, like us, have a child who will be starting kindergarten this fall. Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson welcomed us to Introduction to Kindergarten Night with a "raise-your-hand-if" question.
"How many of you already have a child who has been a kindergartner here?" she asked. About half the adults in the room raised their hands. Davida offered her next question. "How many of you have more than one child who has been a kindergartner here?" I sat still, since I was there on behalf of my firstborn, but I was ready to raise my hand for the question I imagined would be next: "How many of you were a child who has been a kindergartner here?" She never got to that question, so I was left mulling it over on my own: I am in the rare though certainly not unique situation of sending my child to school on the exact same campus where my own schooling began, thirty-three years ago.
It is clear to me as Tim counts down his last days before school starts that he has no idea of the magnitude of this milestone. For his part, he's looking forward to kindergarten with unmitigated enthusiasm: he's determined to learn to read and delighted by the fact that the playground is so much bigger than the one at his preschool. But what he can't possibly understand is that the first day of kindergarten isn't just the beginning of a school year; it is in many ways the brink of the rest of his life. Starting next week, he'll meet people who will be part of his daily existence for the next nine years. A few of them might remain his friends well into adulthood, and many will work their way into his subconscious forever. What makes Carlisle a small town, far more than its geography or its population, is the simple fact that there is only one school for grades kindergarten through eight. Conceivably, every kid encounters every single other kid in his or her own age group at some point during the educational process.
Nothing drove this point home to me more than the speeches delivered by last spring's eighth-grade graduation speakers, fourteen-year-olds who referred to those early days when the halls seemed enormous, the bus scary, the middle schoolers worldly. Looking back, they noted that it was in kindergarten that it all began; but on the other side of the continuum, heading off to kindergarten, Tim can't possibly appreciate the significance of that fact. To him, the important factors are the most tangible ones: new kids to meet, a new set of classroom rules to master, and the anticipated thrill of walking to school along the new Bedford Road footpath, thanks to the recent labors of the DPW. He certainly doesn't see himself as embarking upon the formative experiences that might permanently affect his feelings about education.
Last week, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Carlisle Schools. I quickly realized that although the exteriors of most of the buildings look the same, on the inside nearly every segment of the campus appears almost unrecognizable compared to my years there. The classroom Tim will enter for kindergarten was the cafeteria when I was a student; where once there were steam tables full of spaghetti now sprawls a cozily cushioned reading nook. The structure that now serves as a cafeteria (but, as I learned on the tour, is called a "dining room") looks to me more like a downtown bistro. Back home, I called a friend I've known since I was six to tell her about the experience, describing to her how only when we entered the central corridor of the "middle school"—in my adolescence we called it junior high — did I really have butterflies in my stomach. "I just kept expecting the school bully to barrel around a corner and beat me up," I said, except that with her I referred to the bully by name, something that wouldn't be good manners in a small-town newspaper. "Yes, and from what I hear, he does that same kind of thing professionally these days," she quipped.
Even though the temptation to wax nostalgic about my own years of schooling in Carlisle is irresistible, I've come to realize in the past few weeks that the déja vu aspect is somewhat irrelevant. Essentially, I'm going through the same milestone that parents all over town are facing: sending a child off to kindergarten. What it means to me isn't particularly different from what it means to anyone else. We all went to kindergarten ourselves a long time ago, and we all approach the situation with certain assumptions and concerns, associations both positive and negative, regardless of the geographical region where we spent our own childhoods. Tim doesn't need to understand right now what a big deal September 7 is in his life. He needs only to see that something new is beginning: new backpack, new clothes, new teacher. The ways in which it's the beginning of a new life will become clear to him only with time. And my role right now is not to try to explain the meaning of milestones to him or even to keep reminiscing about where the music room was when I was his age — a habit which he will no doubt become weary of within a few weeks — but just to enjoy the process as it unfolds, now and for years and years to come.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito