I've built up what the first day of school is going to be like for my daughter so much that I wake up some mornings thinking it's already happened. This is also a result of how damn fast kids grow up -- but mostly it's just that I have such a vivid picture of this first day.
The picture is vivid enough that I'm going to save you the time of reading my first day of school posts amongst all the other first day of school posts by writing it now, a few days in advance of our actual first day of school. To me, the first day of your child's school journey is one of those magical moments when as a parent, you realize your kid is growing up -- and also a time when hopefully, you can commend yourself on a job well done.
The whole family woke up early, Charlie because she always wakes up early, and the rest of us because we were nervous, but excited, about Leah's first day of junior kindergarten. As I expected, as soon as I saw Leah, I burst into tears.
"Mike," Andrea started in after five minutes of my incomprehensible babbling. "Crying is fine, but you need to get it together long enough to actually get her to school."
"But she's such a big girl now," was what I was predictably able to get out after five additional minutes of snot and babble.
Leah spent the time I was crying putting on the new dress she had picked for her first day. It had cartoonish flowers on it so I didn't like it, but I had been reminded the day before by Andrea that "if she's big enough to go to school, she's big enough to pick out her outfit for the first day."
She was right; she looked like a big kid. So I cried as Andrea put together her lunch while I held on to my oldest daughter as though she was about to start a semester away from us on another continent.
"I'll do the dessert," I told Andrea through soggy eyes. And I packed some fruit gummies into her lunch pack.
In no time, it was time to pack up the girls for day care drop off. For the hundredth time we had to explain to Leah that she was going to be part of before and after care at her school, which meant she would have extra time with friends, but no school bus ride.
"But I want to drive on the bus," she whined, reaching tears for the first time. We knew this was going to be a tough battle since the bus was one of the things she was most looking forward to.
"I know, Leah, and you'll still have many opportunities to ride the bus this year, but most mornings we'll drop you off so you can do arts and crafts," I explained to her.
"Like painting. And also running."
"Oh good, I have my speedy shoes in my backpack."
Bringing her back to the backpack did it -- she loved that thing. It was blue (her favorite color), it was hers to keep for herself (sharing is still an issue with her sister) and most importantly, it was full of school supplies that she had helped pick out and pack. While outwardly we spent the rest of the short drive singing the ABCs, inwardly, I was worrying about how much I was going to cry when it was time for us to leave our big girl behind. It wasn't because I was afraid to have other adults see me cry -- I had long gotten past that -- but I was afraid the teachers might need me to give real answers to real questions and that I'd have been unable to answer. Like the time my mom tried to ask me what I was doing at the vet, but I couldn't tell her because I couldn't stop crying about our cat being put down.
We did eventually pull up to the school and we did eventually get out of the car. Leah did eventually escape my grasp and she did eventually confidently walk to the woman who ran the before school care and gave her a high five. Both of us remained tear-free as we walked with Leah towards the gym, where we would eventually be separated. We marveled at all the kids with their similarly large backpacks and equally awkward first day of school outfits. The girls had bows in their hair and the boys had a slicked-back look they'd probably try to recreate every day for the rest of their elementary school career.
"Can I go play with my friends?" Leah said, pulling on my hand and waking me to the true reality of the situation.
"Of course you can."
I watched her walk away then, my big girl who was so interested in making new friends. My big girl who would talk to anyone about anything if they gave her a chance. My big girl who, apparently, didn't need me to hold her hand every step of the way anymore.
And that's when the tears came in earnest. Not sad tears, but proud tears, the tears that glisten in your eye a little longer and hang around your face as you smile through them. They're also the kind my daughter never saw. I watched her play for a few seconds and noticed she had given another little girl a hug before she had even taken off her backpack. As I wiped away the water from my beard, she turned toward me.
"See ya tonight, Daddy, I'm going to play with friends at school today." And then she smiled and I knew it was time to go.
Having let go of the hand of one of my girls, I grabbed a hold of another and my wife and I walked out of the gymnasium together to the comfort of our Toyota Matrix where we could reflect on how fast our baby had grown up.
The rest of the day was a blur. I believe I went to work and I'm pretty sure I was even productive. I did of course look up from my keyboard 347 times to look at the pictures of both of my girls that adorn my office. In many of them I'm holding their hands the way I held Leah's earlier that day before she headed off to make new friends. I thought about how many more times they'd want to hold my hand as they got older. Maybe a thousand times, maybe 500 times, maybe 100 times. There was no way for me to know. Nor did it matter, as long as I was willing to keep offering it.