From preschool on, separation's tough on families

October 02, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

My friend Tom sent his son Dimitri off to school this year. Preschool.

While I was packing my baby off to college, Tom was packing his off to preschool, and as I watched the emotions wash through both camps, I was struck by how life seems to repeat itself.

Dimitri was upbeat and brave as he faced his first day. He is only 3 years old and he had no clue what to expect, but he was excited anyway.

That was how Jessie had been last year, her first in college. She had no idea what awaited her and, though a little nervous, she couldn't wait to get started.

A new autonomy surged through both children like a burst of adrenaline.

On that first day, Dimitri tossed off a casual goodbye and then bounced out of his car seat and up the hill and into the classroom. I think his father was almost hurt.

She was sweet about it, but Jessie chased me home that first day of college. I felt like a floor lamp in the middle of her dorm room, overflowing as it was with suitcases and boxes. She kept stepping around me.

She wanted to unpack -- not just her clothes but her new life. And she didn't need my help with either.

As I left, I felt almost hurt.

Dimitri's second day didn't go as well as the first. Neither did the third day. The teachers had to pull him off his father's neck and outof the car, and he was crying hard.

Jessie's departure for her second year at college went almost as badly. She cried for days at the thought of leaving her friends, her car, her comfortable room, her comfortable life.

The second time around, both children were keenly aware of what they were leaving behind: a safe, cozy environment where all their needs are met.

By the end of that first week, Dimitri was able to tell Tom that he was going to miss him, but he wasn't going to cry anymore. Jessie reassured me that she understood that college was as mandatory in her life as high school had been and she would get through it.

Jessie and Dimitri both toughed out that first day, fueled by the excitement of it all. But both were shocked and dismayed when they realized they had to do it again. It was as if they had both ginned up as much nerve and energy as they had to get through their first day. But there were no reserves to keep it up.

Now, like Jessie, Dimitri is resolute. And proud, too, I think. The first thing he said when he saw me was that he had gone to school that day, "And I didn't cry."

Dimitri goes to the same preschool my children attended, all those years ago, and my husband likes to recall how he suffered during Joseph's first week as he watched his son through a one-way mirror howling, "I want my daddy."

Now my son is locked away inside the white walls of the Naval Academy and in his heart I know my husband stands at the gate each night and howls, "I want my son."

When I left Jessie at Penn State this fall, they had to pull me off her neck. As I drove through the mountains, I was crying hard. I was feeling the goodbye as keenly as Dimitri had, and I didn't like it.

It was my husband's advice that Tom not even start this preschool business with Dimitri. "It always ends the same way," my husband warned. "They start school and before you know it they are gone."

They say that the teenage years are the second toddlerhood. The same issues -- independence, clothes, food and sleep -- repeat themselves in the strangely familiar fights.

It is like that with school, too, I think. Preschool or college, school is just a million little goodbyes leading up to one big sendoff. It's just different parties crying.

Tom and Dimitri have done it once, now. I wonder if they have the reserves to do it again, and again.

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