Among Life’s Disappointments: The Two-Day Weekend

Weekend
Weekend

On Sunday I had to break the news to Smoke that Monday would be a school day. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. So far, he hasn’t been forthcoming about his kindergarten experience. At the end of every day I’ve asked him “What was the best part of your day?” and every day he’s answered, “Recess.”

“You feel that way already?” Kellie asked him on day one. I guess we both hoped he’d say he loved learning songs in circle time, or mastering sight words during reading. But both of Smoke’s best friends go to his school, both have been assigned to different classrooms, and so recess is a twenty-minute parent-free play date. Of course that’s his favorite.

So, anyhow, I wasn’t sure if he’d be excited or disappointed to learn that Monday was imminent, and that Monday meant the beginning of the school week. We were lying sideways on the bed, and I gave it to him straight: “Tomorrow is a kindergarten day.”

“What?” he answered. His lower lip quivered. “But that’s not fair—I haven’t had enough home days!”

I understood where he was coming from. During the school year, I never feel like I’ve had enough home days. For the last two months, I’ve had the luxury of summer, where home days and work days blend together. I’ve taught one online class and paid for childcare here and there; most days I’ve graded papers through nap time or answered emails on the fly. I’ve been relieved from the Pressure To Perform during the workweek, followed by the Pressure to Do All the Shopping and Connect with All the People and Do All the Laundry and also RELAX and HAVE FUN on the weekend. Instead, I just worry about attending to one thing or another, keeping the kids happy enough, and hopefully enjoying some part of the day. I’m a little productive and a little bit restful, and the rest is just survival. That’s how it should be.

I think that’s also how it’s been for Smoke up until now. For the last several years, he’s gone to preschool two days a week, played at a friend’s house the other two, and had three days at home. So, kindergarten is actually his initiation into the American-Capitalist workweek.

And while before this week I’d been imagining that kindergarten is all fun and games, all circle time and finger painting, Smoke’s tears over home days have helped me to remember what school felt like for me as a child. School felt: Relentless. Every day I spent seven hours at the mercy of my teachers. We lined up outside the school and waited in the weather for first bell. We’d be shuffled then to homeroom, then to art or music, then to recess, then to reading groups. We moved always in single file, and every segment of the day was marked by the shrill sound of the school bell that rang through every classroom.

My teachers were kind. I admired them; I wanted to please them. But having so little agency exhausted me, and so I welcomed any break—holidays and sick days, weekends and vacations. I didn’t call them “home days,” as Smoke does, but that’s what I longed for. Days to sit in the square of sun that came through the window, days to keep my pajamas on till noon, days to meander on my bike, or play Barbies, or put my new reading skills to use. Days where home was at the center of my day, not just the place where it started and ended.

Monday came, as it always does, and Smoke woke up without my help. He dressed himself and packed his own lunch without complaining about the day ahead. But when we arrived at school it took minutes for him to settle into the kindergarten lineup, and once he had he stared off into space. He was slack jawed and just a little pale, his eyes unfocused. He looked unmistakably weary.

Weekday (one of Smoke's many selfies)
Weekday (one of Smoke’s many selfies)

Smoke is right. Two days just don’t yield enough time to recoup what the workweek has taken.

The First Days of Kindergarten: Like an Overturned Bathtub

Yesterday, the season changed to fall. We’ve had a long, dry summer, but suddenly the rain clouds have rolled in, the wind has picked up, and the sunlight—when it breaks through—is that pale yellow light that whispers “almost gone.” Last night, as I began the process of bedtimes, cold air blew through the open window. I closed it, and dug out the comforter that we had retired from the bed for July and August.

Our house is in disarray. On Monday, Smoke, Stump, and I returned from the east coast, and I still haven’t unpacked. We were gone for nearly two weeks, and Kellie used the time to remodel the bathroom; the floor underneath it had been rotting for years. But she hasn’t finished. We have a toilet, but no sink, no washer dryer, and the bathtub is upside down in our living room.

I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.

For instance: about a month ago, Smoke got a packet from his kindergarten teacher in the mail. It contained homework. We looked at the various pages at the kitchen table. Within an hour, several of the pages were spotted with pizza grease. I worry about what this says about us.

So last night, the night before the first day of kindergarten, the night of the cold wind and fading light, I brought the kids home freshly bathed. I told Smoke that he could choose a show to watch while I put Stump to sleep. He chose Caillou.

Caillou. The bald toddler who interested Smoke for about a month when he was three and hasn’t interested him since. Caillou was quickly replaced by Dinosaur Train, and then Ninjago and Spider-Man and Chima, and there was no looking back. Until now. On the night before kindergarten, my son chooses Caillou without any trace of irony. He asked me to read him the episodes, and he remembered each one like he had watched them only last week, and finally he settled on “Caillou Tells the Truth.”

After Caillou and books he fell asleep within minutes, without protest, holding his stuffed fox. This is not how our days have been.

sleep

 Our days have been full of contention. At least once every day, Smoke decides that any given limit I’ve set is proof that I am out to get him. A look crosses his face and he begins to taunt me. He’s silly at first, calling me a poop-butt or a stink-bunny, but if I react he comes after me. He’ll belt me in the gut, or kick me from behind. This is all very alarming, and the two things that keep me from running to the nearest child therapist are a) I seem to be the only recipient of these rages and b) in some weird way, he seems to have control over them. He has yet to actually hurt me, and it always seems like there’s a calmer, kinder Smoke only one layer underneath looking on in wonder.

Still, I’ve been struggling to explain his behavior to myself in any kind of satisfying way. I think perhaps that summer has bored him, or that he’s trying on his independence, or that he’s jealous of the constant attention his little brother gets, or that he’s anxious about the big changes coming his way.

This morning Smoke rose early, and I got up to find him snuggled into Kellie’s arms for the minutes before she had to leave for work.

Our morning began well, until I asked him to get dressed five times over the course of twenty minutes. He was jumping from the bathtub to the couch and could not be interrupted. His brother, for once, was eating quietly in his high chair. “I don’t know what to do with you,” I told him. “We need to go, and you’re not getting dressed.”

“You’re so mean!” he said. The look flashed across his face.

“How am I being mean?” I asked.

He stood on top of the bathtub and furrowed his brow. “I woke up excited this morning, and then you came along and hurt my feelings.”

I sat down on the couch and pulled him into me. I know that feeling so well—that feeling of bright expectation, interrupted by conflict. I knew also that I wasn’t mean, but was in that moment the container for his ambivalence, the voice that nagged about all the things that needed to be done. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I want you to be excited. Let’s both work at being nice, okay?”

Twenty minutes later he sat on the rug in his classroom while parents and siblings gathered at the edges. The teacher read a story called The Kissing Hand about a raccoon who was nervous to begin school. I held Smoke’s little brother Stump in my arms, praying he would not leap or cry out, or demand to run amok across the room. In the book, the raccoon’s mother kisses the inside of her child’s paw, and tells him he can use that kiss any time he needs some love from home. Her child returns the favor.

Once the book had ended, it was time to say goodbye and so the parents found their children one last time. Smoke looked around and had trouble spotting his brother and me. I could see him crumble just a bit. I called to him. Everyone around us was kissing hands. “Goodbye!” he offered brightly after spotting us.

“No wait,” I said. I offered the inside of Smoke’s hand to Stump, who eagerly kissed his brother, not once, but over and over. We did that all around, kissing hands until the moment passed and parents filed out. We closed the door behind us so it looked like we were gone, but many of us stole an extra moment watching through the classroom window. When I saw that the other parents were crying, a quiet sob shuddered through me. How long had it been lying in wait? All morning? All month? Since the day he was born?

That sob completed my rite of passage. Leaving Smoke behind us, I walked Stump home in the stroller, sniffling, now the mother of a school-aged child.

Kindergarten Journal, Episode 1: I Worry

smoke in disguise

My son Smoke starts kindergarten in less than a week. I should be ready for this. Because he has an October birthday, he’s had to wait until he’s nearly six to start. His friends with March birthdays and August birthdays have, in his eyes, beat him to it and ever since he turned five, I’ve been answering the question “When does kindergarten start?”

Smoke was still in diapers when I learned about the official cutoff dates, and at the time I thought it was a shame that he would have to start so late. I knew that many parents these days were holding off on kindergarten, intentionally waiting until their kids were older, or as they called it “ready.” At the time, I saw this practice as overprotective. For some reason, I was eager to begin my son’s formal education, to watch him learn to read and write, to forge his own way in the world. Also, I’ll just say it: I was looking forward to free childcare.

But over the past year, the year that would have been my son’s first year of kindergarten if I had petitioned for early entrance, I’ve come to question all of my assumptions about his readiness. Now that he’s nearly six, and should be more than ready, I wonder if he’s ready at all.

I wonder if he’s ready for a class of twenty-two students.

My son has gone to preschool since he was two and for a long time I assumed that this meant he’d be amply prepared for kindergarten. Then one day it hit me—his preschool had pretty much the same cast of eight kids for three years. In kindergarten, he’ll share a room with twenty-two kids. For six hours every day. That sounds emotionally exhausting to me, and I guess I should know. I teach groups of 28 college students for two hours at a time, and when I come home my brain is fried. I can barely form a coherent sentence. Sharing one space with that many personalities is work.

I wonder if he’s ready to follow instructions.

I know I’m biased, but I find my son brilliant. He uses big words, tells elaborate stories, and spends hours focused on building tiny sculptures out of Legos. For a while I took for granted that my son’s intelligence guaranteed that his school experience would go smoothly, but I’m no longer sure. Smoke likes to do what he likes to do. His brilliance lies in his ability to concentrate. But this ability, paired with his constant insistence on following his own agenda, will likely be at odds with his ability to learn at school. He’s not so interested in pleasing adults.

I wonder if he’s strong enough and kind enough.

I worry about the pecking order in kindergarten, about the small groups that form, the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that shift and evolved. I wonder how my son will fare. I worry of course that someone might be cruel to my son, but I worry more that my son might participate in cruelty. I picture those smaller kids, those genuine five-year-olds, the ones with snot bubbles in their noses, or the one who pees his pants on the first day. I sure hope he’s kind to them.

*This post kicks off a new series on Goodnight Already that tracks my son’s transition into kindergarten. I’d love to hear from other parents who are entering the same era. Please consider sharing and commenting if you are so inspired.