A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Smoke’s best friend in his kindergarten class moved away suddenly. The week after he left, I talked to Smoke about it indirectly, by asking him each evening who he played with at recess. He seemed to be coping by reconnecting with old friends, and making a few new ones, though none of his recess friends were in his classroom.
By the end of week two, I figured we were over the hump. I figured that, but I didn’t want to push too hard. And then Saturday evening, as Smoke was getting out of the bath and drying off, he was giggling over some remembered joke that Jeremy had made. Like most kindergarten jokes relayed secondhand, I couldn’t follow it. Smoke seemed surprised by his own memory of Jeremy, and a pained look crossed his face.
“Every time I think of Jeremy I almost cry,” he told me. He was almost crying.
“I can see that,” I told him. I wanted to fix it. “Do you want me to see if I can find his phone number? Or would you rather I focus on making play dates with new friends?” I asked. Getting Jeremy’s phone number felt like a long shot. For all I know they’ve moved to Tennessee. Besides that, I had called Jeremy’s mom once before to invite him to Smoke’s birthday party. She wasn’t especially friendly, and just as we were hanging up I heard a male voice in the background shout “Who was that?” I was hoping Smoke would opt for the latter.
“How about you focus on both?” Smoke asked. For a moment I thought he was brightening. I hung up his towel as he pulled on his skivvies. But as we walked towards his bedroom, the tears returned. “I feel like all that I have left of Jeremy is a memory.”
Seriously? I have no idea where he learned to talk like that. I scoured my brain trying to come up with Lifetime movies I might have inadvertently exposed him to.
That was last week, and every so often I think that I’ll try to get a hold of Jeremy’s parents. But I’m pretty sure that I’m only avoiding what Smoke already knows is true.
Ever since Smoke started kindergarten, I’ve had to face that he has a life apart from me, one that I know very little about. When Smoke was in preschool, I lingered during drop-offs and pick-ups. I chatted with his teachers; I watched him play with friends; I got all the necessary updates about what he ate and if he napped.
But now that Smoke’s in public school, he inhabits a larger world, and I have to rely on the little he tells me. I’ve learned about the girl that chases him, the boys who drool over his cookies at lunch, and the girls who have a No Boys Allowed club on the playground, and I’ve known about Jeremy (not his real name, of course), one of three classmates that Smoke invited to his birthday party several weeks ago.
Jeremy arrived with his grandmother and clung to her at first, but by the end of the party he was trailing Smoke. Jeremy has round brown eyes and a tiny, high voice, a voice that he used to ask Smoke, over and over, “Are you sure you have my present?” He was worried, I guess, that someone had stolen it, or that it had fallen beneath the table. He sounded perpetually on the verge of tears.
Late last week Smoke reported to me that he plays with Jeremy every day at recess, that in fact Jeremy is the only one he plays with. “He makes me promise in the morning,” Smoke reported.
Jeremy is a sweet boy, but I felt protective of Smoke. I didn’t want anyone squelching his social potential. And if I’m being honest with myself, I have a secret hope that Smoke will be more liked than I was in grade school. “You get to choose who you play with,” I told him. Smoke had no response to my unsolicited advice.
With so little to go on, I’ve had to live with the fact that in some respects Smoke is a stranger to me. Though I’ve heard bits and pieces of what happens on the playground, I’ve had no idea who he is in the classroom. Is he loud? Is he funny? Is he shy? Does he follow directions? Does he hold up the class when he’s slow? And so I’ve been looking forward to our first parent-teacher conference.
On Friday, at 2:30 pm, Smoke and I walked the three blocks to his school. As we waited our turn to meet with Mrs. N, Smoke showed me the tree he’d printed during Center Time, and boldly peered in the window. But the moment Mrs. N opened the door to let us in, Smoke held my hand delicately and led me to the conference table. We sat across from Mrs. N in the tiny chairs.
Mrs. N was systematic. She had lots of ground to cover in thirty minutes. She wanted Smoke to demonstrate his reading skills, and so she took out one of her packets and Smoke followed along with her finger, making a sound for each letter she pointed to, keeping with her time. He spoke with a voice I didn’t recognize, a voice that was soft and unsure, though he moved at a pace that was confident. This wasn’t the boy I know at home, the one who shouts in his brother’s ear, who runs laps around the house naked, who consistently ignores my instructions no matter how politely or how sternly I offer them. When he and Mrs. N had completed the page, he looked up and she offered a quick nod of approval. Then it was on to math.
I watched and waited patiently. I had expected it to go this way. I’d spend the first twenty-five minutes getting the particulars of Smoke’s learning. The overall assessment, the Who-Smoke-is-in-Kindergarten would happen at the very end.
I couldn’t quite look Mrs. N in the eye once she got to that part. She has this way of breaking character and getting misty-eyed when she talks about her students, and I knew that if I looked at her directly, I would melt into a puddle of goo. She observed that Smoke had “blossomed” over the past few weeks, that he had gone from acting shy to being comfortable. “He has a very gentle soul,” Mrs. N confided, and I tried to casually flick away a tear before it dribbled too far down my face. “He’s kind to all of his classmates, and he has such a good time with Jeremy—“ Mrs. N stopped herself and I looked up at her once more. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But Jeremy’s moving to another town. I just learned that. Monday will be his last day. You might want to give Smoke a heads-up.”
“Oh well,” I said blithely, remembering what Smoke had said earlier in the week about his daily recess requests. “Smoke is a pretty go-with-the flow kind of guy.” I was assuming that Jeremy’s departure might open the door for Smoke to make several new friends.
As Smoke and I approached the first crosswalk on our way home, I asked if he had heard what Mrs. N had told me about Jeremy. He hadn’t. A feeling came over me then, and I suddenly understood that this might actually be a big deal.
We stopped walking and I crouched down to be as short as Smoke. “Jeremy’s moving.” Smoke’s face fell. “He won’t be in your class anymore.
His lip quivered. “But he’s my best friend.” His head sank and he cried.
I scooped him up and carried him home, his butt propped on my arm, all of his limbs dangling as he cried and drooled into my neck, and I sniffled along. We were a sobbing, dangling mess of sad walking home in the drizzle.
Here is what I learned from this, Dear Reader: of the three of us who sat at the table—Mrs. N, Smoke, and myself—I was the least qualified to talk about Smoke’s social skills, to declare him laid-back, to decide how many or what kind of friends he needed. Smoke is the expert, Mrs. N is the observer, and I am the outsider.
For the rest of the afternoon, Smoke taught me about the kind of friend he is. We bought Jeremy a card and a small gift for their last day together on Monday, and Smoke painstakingly decorated the card with pictures and words.
And beginning on Tuesday, kindergarten will be a new place for him, the same place it was, but minus a best friend, a safety net. I hope that I will find a way to make space for the bigness of that, because the truth is there’s not much else I can do. Every morning, five days a week, he steps into a world that I have little influence over, a world that I will never fully know.
There’s pleasantly exhausted, and then there’s on-the-brink exhausted. Two nights ago, I was the latter. As Smoke prepared for bedtime, I walked through our house and tried not to look too hard. Everywhere, there was a sight that raised my blood pressure. There’s a pile of laundry in the armchair that hasn’t disappeared for weeks. There are the shelves full of expired medications and near-empty bottles of supplements. There are about a dozen piles scattered throughout the house of paperwork that has no home. Some days it feels like I can’t reach for something I need without eight things I don’t need falling to the floor.
This is a problem, yes, but it’s not a new problem. It’s a problem I live with until I get so tired that I don’t think that I can live with it anymore. If I came to this point at 9 am on a Saturday morning, then perhaps I could put the feeling to use. But at 9 pm on a weeknight, it translates to nothing but desperation, and even though I feel far more cranky than sleepy, I try to tell myself, over and over, “Go to sleep as soon as you can.” I was afraid that if I didn’t I might fall apart–on myself or on someone else.
But it was my night to put Smoke to bed, and he never wants me to go to sleep as fast as I can. He wants books followed by meandering conversations, and he’s never sufficiently impressed when I report to him how late it is.
Every week Smoke comes home from kindergarten with some small book he’s made and memorized, and so I often have him read to me at bedtime as a warm-up. Smoke had come home with this rainbow book, and I had placed in on his bed earlier in the evening so that we would remember to read it. But when we got to bed, Smoke wanted to skip it. He only wanted to read about ninjas.
In spite of my mantra (Go to sleep as fast as you can!) I fought him. “Why won’t you read to me?” I asked while at the same time I wondered: why was I picking a fight?
“It’s too embarrassing.”
“What’s embarrassing about it?”
“I just don’t want to read it.”
“Well how does it go? Just tell me.”
Smoke rolled his eyes. “You say the colors of the rainbow twice, and then you say ‘Makes a rainbow ________.”
“Makes a rainbow what?”
“Makes a rainbow b_______.”
“Makes a rainbow bright?”
“Oh,” I said. The layer of sheer annoyance that had hardened around my heart had started to melt away. “I think I would probably cry if I heard you sing that.”
Of course Smoke started singing: Red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple, red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple—clap!—make a rainbow bright.
It was the clap that did me in. I was totally unprepared for the earnestness of that clap.
I’m quite certain that the earnestness of that song, its unapologetic sweetness, is exactly why Smoke had wanted to forgo it in favor of his ninja book. At six, he’s just aware enough to recognize innocence and be suspicious of it. But, when pressed, he reluctantly administered the medicine I needed. That was kind of him.
“Do you think I cried?” I asked. Smoke wasn’t sure, and so I pointed to the corner of my eye. We laughed at my one little tear, and then read about ninjas for much longer than I wanted to. And then we went to sleep.
Earlier this week, Smoke reported to me that a girl in his class keeps on hugging him. Every time he sat down on the carpet for circle time she embraced him and wouldn’t let him go until the class had settled. Not only that, but this girl was chasing him on the playground at recess, and grabbing his shirt when she caught him so that he couldn’t get away. He held the edge of his own shirt to demonstrate, and pulled on it to reveal his lean, pale belly, his inability to move without stretching his shirt further and revealing more of his body. The more he talked about it, the more distressed he sounded.
“Did you tell her to stop?” I asked.
“She laughs at me when I tell her!” Smoke said. His voice broke around the edges.
I pulled a piece of paper off the kitchen table. It was a handout that Mrs. N had sent home about Kelso’s choices. It looked like this.
“Have you tried any of these choices?” I asked him, aware that I was an outsider to this new social landscape. I offered the page tentatively.
“Saying stop is one of the choices,” he explained, not even looking at the list. “Also I tried ignoring, and joining a new game, but she just follows me everywhere.”
“Do you want me to tell Mrs. N?” I asked him.
He thought about it for a moment, and decided he did.
Several years ago, I heard a public school teacher comment on how much time she spent in recent years simply answering emails from parents—parents who wanted to know why their kid got a 92 rather than a 98 on a spelling test, or parents demanding a rationale for the novel they were reading in Language Arts. I told myself I wouldn’t add to the burden; I wouldn’t be a parent emailer.
But then, in our orientation meeting with Mrs. N, she reassured us: “Please don’t ever hesitate to email me. Even if it seems like a little problem.”
I wasn’t sure what kind of problem this was. Certainly it seemed like the sort of thing kids typically did to each other, the sort of thing that thirty years ago kids would have worked out on their own. I remember epic boy vs. girl battles that happened at the very edge of the recess field, which was also the bottom of a hill, far away from any grown-up gaze. I remember a kid named Billy Duffy whose face was always stained with meat sauce, who had earned a reputation for kissing girls against their will. Playground problems weren’t teacher problems, and unless you were bleeding, the recess aides didn’t want to hear about it.
But it’s 2014, and as much as I worry about overprotecting my kids, I feel grateful that the system seems to care a little more. (Okay, a lot more.) Also, these days I read a lot about consent, and I brood over how to teach my sons to honor bodies and boundaries. So when a problem like this emerges, even if it’s a little one, I feel that there’s a lot at stake.
I mean, Smoke’s discomfort at having his shirt pulled or being hugged goes beyond annoyance. I could tell by his distress that he felt trapped. I also sensed that he, like me, wasn’t sure how much attention his situation warranted.
That night, awake in bed, I entertained the following thoughts.
I felt some alignment with the girl who so badly wanted Smoke’s attention. I know how it feels to want a friend so badly. And I understood why she had chosen Smoke, who is quiet and kind and funny.
I considered what it feels like to be physically trapped, and what a common feeling that was in childhood. Well-meaning grown-ups pinch your cheeks and kiss you with their bad breath. Bossy friends convince you to let them roll you up in blankets.
I imagined Smoke, some years from now, chasing girls around the playground and lifting their skirts. Maybe some would see this as a little problem, but to me it would be a Big Problem.
I emailed Mrs. N before school the following morning. As we arrived two hours later, she approached us and squatted so she could talk to Smoke at his level. “I told [redacted] that she needs to leave you alone and save all of her hugs for her family at home.” Smoke’s eyes widened. “Will you please tell me if that didn’t solve the problem?” He nodded.
Every moment of Mrs. N’s time is precious. The line of kids was already moving toward the classroom, and she was already moving with them, but as she got farther and farther away she thanked me for letting her know, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign as she disappeared through the door.
I’m glad that it’s 2014. I’m glad that my son’s teacher cares about what happens on the playground.
My son’s kindergarten teacher bribes her students to behave for five days straight using only a small piece of paper as a reward. At the beginning of each week, she issues each child a small die-cut shape, and if they listen, cooperate, and follow the rules, they get to bring it home on Monday.
In Mrs. N’s weekly email to parents this morning, she announced that this week’s behavior incentive was a bear. If we don’t find an incentive in our children’s folder, she instructed parents on curriculum night, we might want to have a conversation about why that is.
That bear stayed in the back of my mind for hours. I didn’t think about it actively, but it stuck as a kind of visual marker for the end of the day. When I got home, I would remember to check Smoke’s folder and, assuming the bear was there, I’d make a point to share a moment of pride with him.
I was true to this intention, and I checked his folder moments after arriving home. I removed the papers from each pocket: there were instructions for photo day, a handout on conferences, a flyer for the harvest party. There was even a free magazine for parents. But there was no bear.
Last week, I had a moment of mild panic only to find that the bear was simply hiding in the flaps. Today I checked the flaps. No bear. My heart dropped. I mean, I could feel it dropping, then it raced. Blood ran into my cheeks. I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this bear.
“Did you get a bear in your folder?” I asked Smoke, hoping that maybe he’d already claimed it.
“I don’t think so,” he told me.
“Is there a reason you didn’t get one?” I reminded him that the bears were a reward for good behavior.
“I don’t think anyone got one,” he said. He didn’t seem to be hiding anything from me.
I took the dogs for a walk, and on that walk I was filled with dread. I kept asking myself: Is this really about the die-cut bear? Like maybe, are you upset about something else that you’re forgetting? But no, it was only the bear.
I wondered what my son had done. Clearly he hadn’t punched a child or tried to set the school on fire, or I would have heard from the principal or Mrs. N herself. But was he a disruptor? Did he poke other children during circle time? Did he chase someone around with a booger?
I wondered why it mattered. Some of it was sympathy. I started to imagine Smoke as the kind of kid who, week after week, comes home without a bear. The kind of kid who wants to do right, but gets labeled as trouble. Some of it was mystery. Smoke has been in kindergarten for a month now, and I have very little information about his performance. The truth is, as well as I know my son, I have no idea who he is in his classroom. The die-cuts every week have reassured me that all is well.
In my head I drafted an email. I would try to play it casual. Dear Mrs. N, it would read. Smoke did not have a bear in his folder today, but he wasn’t able to tell me anything about that. If he misbehaved last week, he is blissfully unaware. Is there anything I should know?
When I came home, I checked the pockets of the folder one last time, as if I might have somehow missed the bear. I hadn’t.
Though I kept telling myself it wasn’t urgent, I went to my laptop and opened my email account. There, at the top of my inbox was an email from Mrs. N.
The subject line read: Bears.
The paper bear that was supposed to go home today to indicate your child
had a great week last week didn’t get into the folders today—sorry.
I will send the bears tomorrow.
Maybe I am not the only one who had feelings about the missing bears.
Last night, in between story time and sleep, which is when Smoke is at his chattiest, he said, “We should do something nice for Mrs. N______”.
Mrs. N is, of course, his kindergarten teacher.
“Like what?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, like, maybe…make cookies with frosting?”
Tonight was curriculum night at Smoke’s school, one of my many initiations into becoming a public school parent. I walked into Smoke’s classroom and sat with the other parents in the tiny chairs. Mrs. N stood in front of us, reading from a children’s book. Mrs. N’s age is hard to place. She’s clearly older than the parents, but she’s leggy and sports a blonde bob and black eyeliner. Tonight she had paired a black pencil skirt and pumps with the requisite school spirit t-shirt.
I looked around the room, trying to take in the cubbies and the calendars, searching for any sign of my Smoke. Already my eyes were welling up. Shit, I thought, what’s wrong with me? I’d had the thought that this was where Smoke was spending so much of his life all of a sudden, a place that was mostly unfamiliar to me.
Mrs. N put down the book and addressed us. “This is my thirty-fifth year teaching kindergarten,” she said. “And every year I worry: this is going to be the year that it just doesn’t work, the year the kids just don’t get it and no one will behave. But then I meet your kids…” Now Mrs. N herself was fighting tears. “Your kids are great. I’m so grateful that you entrust them to me.”
I can’t tell you how many parents were also crying, because I was too busy looking at the table, swallowing, trying not to pass the point of no return. If I had let go, I could have kept it up for the full forty-minute session. Instead, I tried to listen. Here are a few of the things I learned from Mrs. N.
For many years she taught kindergarten the way most teachers do. She stood in front of the classroom and led them through a project from beginning to end. But children, and kindergarteners in particular, move at different paces and have different skill sets. This way of leading a class, normal though it was, left everyone frustrated.
After years of doing it this way, Mrs. N changed systems. Now she sets up multiple stations with projects. Some projects are required, and some are optional, but kids get to move through them at their own pace. Sometimes kids want to do a particular project but that station is full, so they get to learn about disappointment. This is one of the best lessons they get to learn in her class.
Mrs. N has an elaborate system to help each child track his or her project, but I could not begin to explain it to you. Apparently, though, the kindergarteners can keep track of these procedures.
According to Mrs. N, “These kids pretty much know exactly what’s going on at any given moment. You’d be surprised.” I was surprised. I can barely get Smoke to put his shoes on in the morning, or answer when I ask eight times what he wants for breakfast, but apparently he’s capable of understanding a complex behavior incentive system, staying in line, waiting his turn etc. when Mrs. N is in charge.
Mrs. N reports that when the kids are working on their various projects, the room gets loud, but it’s the sound of focused learning. “I don’t do crazy,” she says.
Please do not come into her classroom, watch the kids at their stations, and comment, “Oh, cute! They’re playing!” They are not playing; they are working. Last year, when a new principal came on, Mrs. N insisted that he sit in and observe her kindergarteners at their stations, because she wanted him to understand exactly how it worked. From what I can tell so far, the principal is a kind enough man, but I enjoyed imagining him in one of the tiny chairs, being schooled by the kickass kindergarten teacher in her thirty-fourth year of teaching.
Every time there’s a change in administration, Mrs. N braces herself. She is totally prepared to retire if a new principal ever insists she go back to the old way of doing things. “I’ve been there and I was nothing but frustrated,” she says. “And I know I frustrated more than a few kids too.”
Three weeks ago, if you had asked me to imagine an ideal kindergarten teacher, I think I would have pictured a plump and patient woman, someone with no discernible edges. But I love Mrs. N’s edges. In fact, I feel the need to point out that I’ve done absolutely nothing to land my son in what strikes me as an exceptionally awesome kindergarten class. I didn’t pull strings or write letters. I didn’t visit dozens of schools. We go to this school because it’s two blocks away, and Smoke found Mrs. N because he was assigned to her. Also, of course, I have the privilege of living in a small city with a functional and relatively well-funded school system.
Because I’ve done so little, I’m left wondering: How do I show my appreciation for someone who manages over twenty squirrely little bodies every day, who has taught for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and who has somehow maintained enough passion for her work that she gets teary-eyed when talking about her students? How do you thank someone for offering so much of themselves to your child?
“Mommy, can you buy me a new toy today?” my son Smoke asks from the backseat. He’s finished a long day of kindergarten, finished the popcorn that I gave him in a plastic cup, and now he’s at a loss.
I’m at a loss too. He’s been asking me this question every day for weeks and I just can’t get the answer right. He’s been prone to fits of rage lately, and the word “no” and all its variations are the trigger. I try to let him down gently. “That’s not part of my plan this afternoon.”
It’s approaching five o’clock, and the roads are crowded. I’m nearing the onramp for the freeway, getting ready to pick up Stump, Smoke’s little brother. The daycare center is open until six, but I feel better if I pick him up by five.
“I want to get a toy at Target!” Smoke insists.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I tell him, “but I’m not going to Target today.”
He must have understood I meant it, because the next thing I know, a hard object glances off my head and lands below my seat. It’s Smoke’s plastic cup—the one that held popcorn moments ago. He’s thrown it to spite me, and now he is red-faced and crying. I’m thirty feet from the freeway and the onramp is crowded, but I fumble for my hazards and pull to the side. In my own mind, my actions match the drama of the situation. This will show him, I think. My head smarts. My heart is pounding. “We’ll get back on the road when you can promise me we’re safe,” I say. I’m trying to sound calm, but the tension in my voice betrays me.
Smoke is unimpressed. There’s nothing more for him to throw, so he reaches for his brother’s empty car seat and rocks it. His look is pure defiance. Since all of my strategies are failing, I yell. “What are you doing? WHAT are you doing? Why do you want to hurt me?”
Over the course of the month since these rages began, Smoke has taught me that this is not the way to calm him. Reacting to his rage with my own just stokes the fire.
“You’re the one who’s being mean to me!”
I find my pseudo-calm voice again. “I’m not being mean. I picked you up from school, and I gave you a snack. Now I’m driving and you threw a cup at me, and that’s dangerous, so I’m mad.”
He’s quiet now, and so I wait for a break in traffic and get back on the freeway. “Why do you do those things Smoke?”
His cry becomes less aggressive, more private. He shakes his head and wipes a tear. “I don’t know,” he answers. All of a sudden it seems we forgive each other.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in September and the day has warmed to eighty degrees. It’s like summer, but with a softer light. We’re at a gathering in a friend’s backyard, with a view of her horses, her chickens, her tomatoes exploding off the vine. I’ve found a bench in the back corner of the yard, away from things, where both of my sons can wander, can throw balls and swing rackets without knocking over someone’s beer. When I sit on the bench and Smoke joins me, I don’t expect to stay there long. I’m not foolish. Stump is twenty months old and so parties, for me, mainly mean chasing him around on damage patrol.
But today, by some stroke of luck, Stump follows Mommy Kellie back into the thick of the party, and he stays with her. Smoke spreads across the bench and lays his head in my lap. I run my fingers through his hair and pick at a spot of dried out yogurt—Stump had launched it at him earlier today. Smoke looks straight ahead now at the lawn. I take in his brown eyes and every freckle on his face. I am surprised by how content he is to be with me this way.
“Did you know,” I begin, “that a few days after your birthday school will be closed for an extra day?” He doesn’t answer, but I know he’s listening and so I continue. “And do you remember what my birthday present to you is going to be?”
“The Forbidden Forest Lego set?” he asks.
“No, it’s not a toy.”
“The zipline park.” He remembers.
“Well if it’s a nice day we’ll go, just you and me, no little brother.”
As he continues to lie in my lap, I think about the last eight months, the second year of his brother’s life. For the first year, I felt a little bad for my second child because his infancy didn’t get the same undivided attention that Smoke’s did. I didn’t photograph every moment, didn’t respond immediately to every cry. But in this second year, it’s Smoke who’s wound up with the short end of the stick. If Stump is awake, I have no hands free to sit and draw, or make a puzzle, or do any of the activities Smoke may request of me. And if Stump is napping, I am busy catching up on personal and household tasks. For the most part, Smoke must fend for himself. I’ve wondered lately if the rages are a symptom of his utter jealousy, his displacement. And I wonder now if this moment together might be some kind of salve or antidote. I find myself getting caught in the hope that I’ve fixed it, that beginning right now there will be no more rages. But of course that’s not how medicine works. If it’s a medicine that cures, we will require multiple doses. For a time, these two things might be true at once: a) my son is prone to violent tantrums, b) my son requires my undivided affection.
Smoke raises his head just a little. “Let’s talk more about special days,” he whispers.
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.
Smoke is right. Two days just don’t yield enough time to recoup what the workweek has taken.
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.
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.