I am that parent.
The one who, on the first day of Pre-school/Kindergarten/Year Three/Year Seven is in tears from the moment I pull up in the school car park.
My children line up in their new classes with shiny new school shoes and lunchboxes, with a mother who is usually far more anxious than they are. I am the parent the teacher takes by the shoulder with a tolerant smile, saying “Off you go, Mrs Stephens; your son is going to have a wonderful day. Have you thought about going out for a coffee?”
I’ve done the first day of school three times now. I would have assumed that it would be easiest for me with my youngest child, but in truth it was just as hard to let him go as it was the other two. All of those worries- would he be alright? Would the teacher understand; would he be able to tell them he was scared?
My youngest son is autistic. He is a bright, bouncy child, with an expressive face that makes me want to laugh all the time- his vocabulary is beyond his age, and his brain races faster than a locomotive. When it came to his schooling, I wasn’t worried about him academically; however, the social skills necessary to survive the playground are something he struggles with. Misunderstandings abound when a child is unable to understand unspoken social cues or explain his thoughts and fears; and sometimes the only clue is the behaviour that often gets more attention than the underlying cause.
In reality, I should have felt more confident. With speech therapists, OT’s, psychologists and an excellent team of people dedicated to making my son’s first year easier, I still found myself terrified- and it is something I have found in myself each time I have sent a child to school. There is so much we cannot control in the school environment- we don’t know the other families; we don’t know how the teacher will react to our child. We don’t know if our child will find reading hard, or if Maths will reduce them to a teary mess. And in many cases, we fear bullying or exclusion in the playground, we fear our child not being able to ask for help.
Special needs or no, I believe it is a battle that most parents face. School is a rite of passage most children have to experience; it shapes them as they grow, and the experiences they go through will teach them lessons far beyond the three ‘r’s. And the biggest fear we face is in the widening of our child’s world- no longer is Mummy the voice of wisdom, now she has peers and a teacher to compete with- and woe betide the mother who disagrees with the teacher!!!
The first day was one I hope to never repeat- he sat in the new class lines gripping his father’s hand, with big silent tears rolling down his face the whole time. I was worried that he wasn’t ready, that I couldn’t protect him- I was afraid to put him into the hands of others. As the year went on we had ups and downs; there were times the teacher wouldn’t know what to do with him, times when I would want to pull him from school myself to shield him from the messy business of life. I had to force myself at times to drive away from the school, putting my faith in those who were caring for him.
In letting my son go, I had to confront the fears that lived inside of me. I had to confront the fact that at times he will hurt- at times I will need to hold him as he cries, for something that I can’t control. We are so tied to our children that it hurts us- and I have to be willing for that too. The way I handle these circumstances in turn teaches my children how to respond. I need to teach them to have faith in people, and not to run from new experiences; to walk into new situations having faith in themselves, and in the people who placed them there.
I’m not there yet, I still cry on the first day of school. However, I have learned some things since the moment I left my eldest child on the first day of school eight years ago. I have learned to demonstrate faith in the school I place my children into- for their sake, as much as my own. I have found that cultivating a positive relationship with teachers places me in a better position to help my children make their way through school, and that a willingness to talk through issues honestly with teachers keeps that door of communication open. My attitude matters. By choosing to work alongside of the school and not in opposition, my children have a team of people committed to seeing them through the school year.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned though, has less to do with my children, and more to do with me. In order to teach my children about life, I can’t teach them to hide from it- I can’t shield them from every challenge, every disappointment. Being a mother takes more courage than I ever thought possible- the courage to let my children experience pain, to let them in turn grow.
Leading into November, I now find myself looking another year down the barrel. New teachers that I need to meet, IEP meetings and parent-teacher conferences. New classrooms and seating plans, new ways of learning.
My son is looking to me for courage in these times- and maybe sometimes I have to convince him before I really feel it myself! Putting a child into school is an act of faith, and one I am learning to embrace. My job as a mother is to teach my children to be courageous, to take on new challenges and stretch themselves as they grow.
I think the best illustration of parenthood is in the divine juxtaposition I experienced on my eldest child’s first excursion away. For three days I worried that he was warm and well fed, panicked about him getting hurt and came up with terrifying scenarios that would never actually happen. As anyone could predict, he had a wonderful time away, and came home three days later completely sanguine about the experience. At that point I went to my room and cried- because he didn’t need me anymore!
So if I could offer any advice to anyone, I would say to trust yourself. Get to know the environment your child will go into, and get to know other parents in the same boat. Lastly, trust that your child has the ability to learn and grow- and that one day soon school will simply be the thing that they do. Lastly, pack a few tissues, a camera and a great big smile- the first day of school is one to be treasured.