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My First Day of School Epiphany

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Grace gives my hand a squeeze and then drops it as we near the door of her new classroom. This still-warm September morning, the first day of school, is Grace's first in the "new wing," the part of our school that houses the second, third and fourth grades. She's excited but also, I know, apprehensive about the transition that this new building represents.

I started at this same school, in this same building, in second grade many, many years ago -- but when Grace and I push open the green door into the new wing and head down the hall between classrooms and the gym, the memories that flood back are shockingly fresh. This intensifies when we arrive at 2P and I realize the room was my fourth grade homeroom.

"Grace!" A blonde woman I've seen on campus but never met comes over and shakes both of our hands. "Mrs. Peterson," she says to me before putting an arm around Grace's shoulders and steering her across the room. I stand and watch them, startled by how tall my daughter is next to her teacher. It is both the ultimate cliché and the central question of parenting: where did the time go? I watch Grace nod at Mrs. Peterson and lean over to sign in on a piece of paper by the door, remembering the easel that stood in our kitchen years ago and her first, faint scrawled attempts at writing the letters of her name. Her R's looked like jellyfish, irregular O's with two spindly legs descending from them.

As the room fills with other second graders and their parents, a low din of conversation rises around me. I look at the carpet on the floor in the far corner of the room. That's where we sat, too, cross-legged -- though in those non-PC days we called it "Indian style," not "criss-cross applesauce" -- for class meetings and certain activities.

Past and present collapse and I fall down the long tunnel of memory. I can squint and see my red-headed self sitting on the floor, holding an embroidery hoop, painstakingly sewing a sun onto fabric. I can't remember why we learned embroidery that year, but I can visualize perfectly the piece I made for my grandparents, which hung, framed, in their kitchen until my grandmother died and my grandfather moved out.

"Mum?" I shake my head, forcing myself back to right now. "Help me find my table?" I follow her around the room, looking for her nametag.

"Grace, this was my fourth grade classroom," I whisper in her ear as we find her seat and she slides into her chair.

"Wow! Really, Mummy?"

"Yes. Isn't that crazy?"

"Well, then all year I will know you sat in these very same seats, in this very same room. That's so cool." She looks happily around and then jumps up to hug a friend who has just sat down at the next table. I watch them talking animatedly, glad that the anxiety of the morning has melted away but wondering when the last vestiges of pudgy little girl-ness in her face did. Her cheekbones have a new, clear definition. A memory blooms as I look at her cleft chin, of holding my newborn first baby in my arms, bewildered, awestruck. I scanned her face, looking for clues about who she was and where she came from, and called out to Matt when I noticed that she had the same defined cleft in her chin as I do. Somehow that one small detail stunned me with its tangible, definite proof that she was my child.

Now I can see the teenager she will be glinting around the edges of her eyes, and suddenly the future is in the room as surely as is the past. I was 9 as a student in this room and I am 36 now; she is almost 8 now but I can remember her at hours old as easily as I can imagine her at 16. I close my eyes and slide on time's slipperiness, momentarily disoriented. My chest tightens and I hear a sound like the squealing of brakes as she and I, then and now, what is and what will be, all collide in my head.

"Bye, Mummy. See you at the end of the day," Grace presses her cheek against mine and then turns back to her friend. Blinking back sudden tears, I wave to her and leave the room. I stand in the door for a moment and look back, watching her long, summer-brown legs swinging under her desk. Then I walk back through the hall thick with memories and out into the bright, warm morning. This life is full of dissonance, and also of music.