The night before the first day of school was always the longest night of my life.
I'd lie wide awake for hours, wondering about my locker location, who my lunch table neighbors would be, what my teachers would be like, and whether my Trapper Keeper notebook was still in style or as antiquated as the unworn parachute pants hanging in my closet. My small canvas backpack would be sitting in a corner by the door, stuffed like a sausage with notebooks, pens and hope.
I'd start the next day too nervous and too charged to eat breakfast and end it too exhausted and too intimidated to contemplate anything except dinner and sleep, usually in that order. Were it not for adrenaline and caffeinated soda, I'd never have made it through.
Now that my son Eliot's entering fourth grade, and his sisters starting first, I still feel anxious. When I meet them on their first morning of school, I survey my girls' pretty dresses and colorful hair bands, and can easily see the seeds of their teenage years being planted. I look over at Eliot's massive backpack, adorned with zippered pockets, water bottle holders, super-padded straps, reinforced bottom, and skateboard wheels, and think: Are we sending this kid to school or to Costa Rica?
As hordes of unfamiliar children race around my kids like idiots, I compare myself to every genial-looking, power-tied, flip-flop-wearing dad at the scene. Are they, like me, checking their watches but unsure if they want that minute hand to slow down or speed up?
I so desperately want to be a fly on the school bulletin board, to watch and observe everything going on. In more narcissistic moments, I want to steer my kids to success, so that they're volunteering the right answers, modeling perfect courtesy and demonstrating all the patience and poise I didn't display at all when I was in grade school. In short, I want them to be age-inappropriate. This is why teachers shoo parents away after the bell rings, or in some cases get restraining orders.
After the kids go inside, the door closes with a loud click, and the small crowd of parents creeps away like zombies. Well, most of us. I keep my ground, staring at the big, open classroom window, estimating just how tall I could stand in the prickly bush below it.
The next time I wait with my children for those big red doors to open, I pledge not to bring my neuroses.
Next time, I'll just bring tissues.