THE BOY'S first day of school:
I thought it would be one of those unforgettably poignant moments, the kind of experience one files away in some special region of memory so that it might be retrieved for some important purpose later in the boy's life.
The bus was to come at 7:55. We were to meet it in front of the SuperFresh. During the short ride, I had imagined, I'd have a pep talk with the 6-year-old. That tiny script writer/director inside my skull had the father talking to the son about making new friends, about paying careful attention to the teacher and about the importance of having fun.
In the script in my head I told the boy about how at his age I walked a mile and a half to my West Baltimore grade school,
usually in the snow. In a very poignant close-up I told the boy about how I took off my shoes and walked in my bare feet so I could save shoe leather. At the end of the scene I imagined a heart-rending long shot of the boy's tear-stained face pressed up against the bus window, as the fumes from the yellow Leviathan bring a glisten to the father's eyes.
The actual send-off looked more like a production of "Aida" -- without the elephants. By 7:45 the parking lot in front of the SuperFresh was crowded with an assortment of vehicles in which my wife, her mother, her father, my sister-in-law, my 9-year-old niece and a close family friend all had traveled to witness this important rite of passage. They all brought cameras.
By 7:50 the people preparing for the day's work inside the SuperFresh were staring in our direction. It looked for all the world as though a 6-year-old in khaki shorts and blue blazer were holding a press conference in front of the store.
You could see the man who runs the produce department and a couple of the checkers mouthing the words: "Who is that boy?" They must have thought that in the midst of all their royal troubles, one of Prince Charles and Lady Di's sons had gone missing and somehow mysteriously reappeared at the SuperFresh.
The bus appeared on time. Holding his parents' hands, the boy cooly walked the few paces to the open door. He swung into the first seat and didn't look back. It was as if he had already made most of the 3,240 trips he will take before starting college.
And yet . . .
He didn't know how un-cool it is to sit behind the driver. There was something about the juxtaposition of his confident facade and the innocence of sitting in that first seat that reminded me of just how irrevocably changed the boy is about to become. Watching the tail-lights of the bus that first day began in me a curious kind of grief.
Until now, the boy has been filled with the most extraordinary capacity to wonder. He has run head-long into his young life, constantly closing the distance between himself and yet another truth, but he has not always found those truths in the places where his new school, or any school to come, will suggest he look.
I have not taught my son well enough that there are places where joy is not so easily found. He has not yet learned that exuberance is not always a virtue, or that cruelty comes more easily than tenderness for some people.
I don't think he will learn these unfortunate things at his new school. But the school is surely a symbol of a world that cannot be as well ordered and easily orchestrated as the sheltered one in which he has lived his first six years.
A few weeks ago, we ran together through the summer rain in nothing more than our undershorts. That day, I pressed him close to my chest. I held him so tightly I could feel his heart beating. I remember thinking that day that this will not last long. These imperceptible moments of innocence vanish. They change so subtly. The changes add up, gradually become something larger until early childhood becomes an entire life.
As the bus pulled away from the SuperFresh, I remembered the boy sitting at the beach as a 3-year-old. He placed dry sand in a sieve and watched intently as it drained back onto the beach. After a while, I placed some wet sand in the sieve so that it might trap the handfuls he placed in it. The boy was amazed. It was as if somehow I had slowed time. The boy thought I knew magic.
I wish I did.
Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published by Wakefield Editions.