Starting school is one of life's first class anxieties


September 03, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Although I would be the first to admit that philosophy is not my strong suit, I nonetheless have a philosophical overview that guides my life. Simply put, it is this: In the course of human events, some events stand out more than other events.

Unfortunately, such events often stand out because they are associated with a particularly stressful situation. Some noteworthy examples to illustrate this thesis might include:

* Losing your luggage on the first stop of a round-the-world tour.

* Being informed by your college-age child that he/she has switched from pre-med to a major in creative dance.

* Finding a basket filled with really cute, marmalade-colored kittens on your front porch along with a note that says: "Please give us a good home."

* Taking time out from your vacation in Durango, Wyo., to have your hair permed at the Ma Jones "Perms R Us" Beauty Parlor.

Some of you, of course, will have experienced traumas similar to, but different from, those cited above: cunningly adorable marmalade-colored puppies in a basket, for instance. Or arriving at your hotel in Hawaii to discover your suitcase is filled with fur-lined parkas and mountaineering boots.

We are talking here of the very first time . . . that your parents left you in a big, scary building to wander among strangers.

All of us, however, have in common the experience of one unforgettable event; an event which this very week is happening to thousands and thousands of uninitiated children. The event of which I write is: The Trauma of Your Very First Day of School.

We are not talking here about your first day back to school after summer vacation. We are talking here of the very first time -- kindergarten, usually -- that your parents left you in a big, scary building to wander among strangers who don't know your name. These strangers also don't know you are afraid of thunder and afraid that all the other kids will know their alphabet.

Worse, yet: What do you do if you feel sick? Or terrified of the bully who is bound to single you out as a prime victim?

And worst of all, suppose your mother forgets to pick you up after school? Suppose she goes to the wrong school to wait for you? And suppose when you don't come out, she goes home to fix dinner, and when everybody sits down, no one notices you aren't there?

If, as the Chinese say, 2 is the age when wisdom begins, then 5 -- or whenever that first day of school arrives -- is surely the age of anxiety. But it is a ritual through which we all must pass.

Or to put it another way: School is the place where, when you have to go there, you have to go there. And no amount of cute Bart Simpson lunch boxes or grown-up looking Reebok sneakers or brand new pencil cases can hold back the rivers of anxiety flowing into the heads of all the children who this week are being initiated into the Secret Society of the Schooled.

Someone once defined education as hanging around until you've caught on. But kindergarten, or whenever that first brush with education takes place, is not only about catching on, it's also about moving on.

It's about stepping out into a new and bigger world -- one that is shocking, exciting, scary and rewarding. Often all at the same time.

Kindergarten, you might say, is like a foreign country. They do things differently there. The customs and habits there are strange and unpredictable. And finding your way around this new territory takes time.

But once past the unfamiliarity and fear of the new, this foreign world can be interesting. Once in a while, you may even forget to worry about who's going to pick you up after school or whether they'll have something awful for lunch, like carrots.

In fact, once in a while you'll be so caught up in a picture you're painting or the way the teacher laughs and pats your shoulder that you won't want to leave when the bell rings. And when you do get home, it's still real nice, but everything seems smaller, somehow.

Losses and gains. Growing up, moving on. We've all been there. So we watch our kids entering school for the first time and remember in ways deeper than memory how that passage felt. And there are losses and gains in that feeling, too.

For some reason it makes a parent remember Robert Frost's meditation on how quickly time passes: "The old dog barks backward without getting up. I can remember when he was a pup."

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