First Grade

Thursday. My daughter’s bedroom . 7:15 a.m. It’s time to get ready for school. The poor dear wakes up tired. We had been at her grandparents’ the night before for a holiday dinner. Now, she doesn’t want to go to school. She really doesn’t want to. She prefers to stay home and play with her toys and dolls. “Can’t I stay with you, mama?” She asks me to save her. I’m just not sure how.

When I was a kid, I longed to cut out of elementary school. I was bored. I was teased. I hated it. Goes without saying I was never allowed to stay home without being really sick. “Forget first grade,” I think silently. “Let’s home school, let’s play.” I’m in parenting hell. Can I redeem my childhood by giving my daughter the day off? My parent voice butts in. She’s not me. Her day off can’t change my third grade memories. Redemption doesn’t work that way.

The good parenting angel comes into the room and inhabits my body. I do not scream. I stay calm and ask the right question. “Anything else bothering you, pup?”

“I hate MRI,” the sweet thing whispers through her curled up body. “It’s boring.” MRI is fancy for how her school teaches kids to read. I don’t know what it stands for or how it works. I only know that although it’s effective and she’s learning how to read, it scares my daughter. I am caught between wanting to be cool parent, sensitive parent, and tough parent. Is there a right combo?

I reach for the phone. Dial 215-her-dad, already on his way to work. He’s usually the gentle one. “No. Send her to school,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.” He reminds me that it’s my day to write. “Don’t give it up. She’ll be fine.” The constant struggle, coming down harder on most women than men.

The tantrum starts for real. Tantrums don’t get her what she wants, but she throws them, anyway. She refuses to get dressed. I want to see the parenting book that explains how to get your child dressed for school when they’re flailing about and screaming. I don’t even try. She gets loud: “I’m tired. You kept me up late. I want to stay home. It’s your fault.” She tells me again that she’s scared and it’s terrible to send her to school. It’s not the right time to remind her that while many schools are scary, her funky little Quaker school is profoundly nurturing.

It’s 7:30. Desperation, brilliance, I don’t know which, perhaps the good parenting angel still hovering near. I call the teacher. I can be vulnerable, let her see the cracks in our family life. I will ask her to help. Miraculously, Kristin answers. She’s in her classroom a half hour before the first kid will show up. Kristin asks to be put on the phone with my daughter, who by now is plugging her ears. I’m in bad shape, trying to be the adult, holding back the tears of my own before-school tantrums, many years before. “You can come to school sad, that’s okay,” Kristin is telling my daughter. Wow. No one ever told me that. “I really want to see you, and we can talk about it together. Your friends will want to see you today. Lots of kids come to school sad and scared and we talk it out. Come. Now let me talk to your mom.”

All my teachers together wouldn’t equal her emotional presence. Kristin tells me to bring her on in. She is firm and kind and warm. “Otherwise, she’ll think that anytime there’s something scary, she can just stay home.” She doesn’t tell me how to get a child in civil disobedience pose dressed, but I notice that my daughter wore a t-shirt and sweatpants to bed, and in a pinch, they’ll pass for school clothes. We can make this happen.

We arrive at the classroom just a few minutes late. Kristin greets my daughter with a big “I’m so glad you’re here!” Her friends Eva and Jasmine call her over, as if on cue. My daughter hangs up her sweatshirt, and signs in, and puts her green homework folder in the box. I smooth her hair. Kiss her good bye. She smiles wanly and handwaves me out the door.

I drive home to write. We are both saved, but not nearly in the way we expected.