First Day

Today is John’s first day of school. His mother, Tanya, is saying goodbye to him. She kisses him. She straightens his collar and fixes his hair. She sends him off to join his kindergarten classmates.

Soon, several five-year-olds are walking into the building, all wearing large backpacks. Tanya waves again.

“I love you!” she shouts from the parking lot.

“Love you, mom!” he yells.

“So much!”

“I know, Mom!”

John’s book bag looks heavier than he is. His mother waves again and again. More I-love-yous, more blowing kisses.

Tanya says, “Lord, I never knew it would be this hard.”

She admits that she doesn’t don’t know exactly how to feel right now. Of course she feels proud, but also a little sick to her stomach.

“For five years,” she says, “I taught him to talk, eat, how to say yes ma’am, everything. It’s always been him and me. But now…” She wipes the corner of her eye. “Now he’s in there, and I’m out here.”

There are lots of parents out here. Each parent watches his or her child join the herd of lost puppies who do not understand the concept of a single-file line.

On the sidewalk, kids await their teacher who will take them to a classroom.

Tanya’s friend, Kimberly is also saying goodbye to her son, Townes.

Kimberly says, “This is a happy day, don’t get me wrong, but it’s bittersweet, you know?”

John and Townes are with their peers. Laughing. Horsing around. Today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

Their two mothers couldn’t be prouder if this were a Lee Greenwood hit song.

As it happens, I remember my first day of kindergarten. In fact, I remember it with startling clarity. Which is bizarre because I don’t have a good memory.

My memory has gotten worse with age. There are lots of things I can’t recall. For example, my middle name.

But I remember my first day of school.

It was hot weather. I wore blue shorts. Yellow shirt. We didn’t use backpacks, I don’t know why. Instead, we all carried brown paper grocery sacks. The same kind you get from the Piggly Wiggly.

My mother wore a pink dress with pockets. Her hair was long. She escorted me into an old building that smelled like mildew and disinfectant. I was nervous.

Then my mother waved goodbye, and I watched her from the window of our classroom. She walked home with her hands shoved in her dress pockets. Without me.

Oh, the humanity.

School was frightening. Our teacher was a large woman who played an out-of-tune piano and bounced around singing the song “Mairzy Doats.” Which is an unsettling song with weird, trippy lyrics that sound like something chanted in various insane asylums.

“Mairzy doats and dozy doats,
“And liddle lamzy divey,
“A kiddley divey too,
“Wouldn’t you?”

It was hell on earth. And it got worse. At naptime, our teacher taught us to fold our hands and recite:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
“If I should die before I wake,
“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

This disturbing little diddy suggests that any child dumb enough to fall asleep might actually stop breathing and die before he or she ever wakes up. I was so terrified by this poem that I did not fully fall asleep until I hit my mid-thirties.

After my first day of class, I darted out of the school building, carrying my paper sack. My mother was waiting. I jumped into her arms and begged her to never leave me again.

We walked home. And that night before bed, I found something on my pillow. It was a gift. A handmade book, crafted from construction paper.

My mother made it. Inside were pictures she had illustrated. The book was entitled, “Mama and Me.”

The book was a pictorial story of a mother and son who had all kinds of adventures. They flew airplanes, climbed mountains, drove race cars, and splashed in oceans.

“I missed you today,” my mother said.

And for as long as I live, I will never forget that.

Over the years, my mother and I grew up a lot. Our family story was not an easy one, but we had lots of experiences. Some were terrifying, others were adventurous.

We never flew airplanes or raced stock cars, but we survived. And that counts for something. Somehow the young woman in the pink dress helped a little boy become a man.

Right now, I am watching young parents do the same thing for their children.

Tanya says with a laugh, “God, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself now that he’s gone.”

“Yeah,” says Kimberly. “Same here.”

The group of children follow Teacher. They start walking toward school. The kids wave. Parents wave.

These children have a fun day ahead of them. Maybe they will sing, finger paint, dance, or learn morbid little bedtime prayers that will haunt them until they are middle-aged.

The doors swing open. The kids walk inside. Each mother and father fits in final goodbyes.

“I love you, John!” Tanya shouts.

John waves. He disappears inside.

“There goes my little boy,” says Tanya, sniffing her nose. “He’ll probably have so much fun today that he’ll forget all about his mother.”

No, he won’t.

Not for as long as he lives.

21 comments

  1. Rosemary Johannesmann - August 6, 2019 7:13 am

    Hahahaha. All this time I thought the song went-// Mares eat oats and goats eat oats and little lambs eat ivy; a kid’ll eat ivy, too, wouldn’t you?

    Reply
  2. Naomi - August 6, 2019 10:10 am

    Sean, it’s odd that you mentioned the first song you learned in kindergarten. In 1950, I was in the hospital suffering from polio. I just turned 6 years old and I was scared to death. I couldn’t have visitors and the nurses were mean. One morning, I woke up and found a record player with one record that my mother had left before I was awake. It had that song on the only record that I had but I couldn’t understand the words. I was an adult before I understood the words when I heard it on an episode of M*A*S*H, where Hawkeye enunciated the words so that I could understand it.

    Reply
  3. Camille - August 6, 2019 10:41 am

    My eyes are leaking…

    Reply
    • Elizabeth - August 6, 2019 10:55 am

      Mine too, Camille

      Reply
  4. Ailene - August 6, 2019 11:01 am

    Love this…..

    Reply
  5. Steve - August 6, 2019 11:45 am

    So good.

    Reply
  6. Becky - August 6, 2019 12:02 pm

    I am 67 years old, and I miss my mama every.single.day!!!

    Reply
  7. Katy Maddox - August 6, 2019 12:35 pm

    Sweet Sean- not sure if you’re being “tongue-in-cheek”, but the lyrics are “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, a kid’ll eat ivy, too, wouldn’t you?”

    Reply
  8. Aletta Campbell - August 6, 2019 12:49 pm

    Dear Sean, I loved this story as I do all your writing. I can also help you with the Marizy Doats song. The simplified version goes like this:

    Mares eat oats an’ does eat oats,
    And little lambs eat Ivey,
    A kid ‘ill eat ivey too,
    Wouldn’t you?

    This was taught to me back in 1971. I was an Alabama girl stuck in Virginia Beach, Virginia back then. Thank goodness that is still considered the south. One of the neighbors was a girl from Vermont, bless her heart, and she went around singing this all the time. It is forever stuck in my head! I hope this explanation of the song is helpful. Keep the stories coming!

    Reply
  9. Jess - August 6, 2019 1:01 pm

    Sean, when I was a kid back in the Dark Ages most of us didn’t go to kindergarten; we went to first grade. My first grade teacher, Ms. Reynolds, hugged us when we came in the classroom and that helped make us feel better. Don’t know if teachers can do that today without risking trouble from parents. Yeah, I realize that could potentially lead to problems, but it sure helped back in the Dark Ages.

    Reply
  10. That's jack - August 6, 2019 1:17 pm

    Me ‘n Jess above both went to school in the dark ages. The World was at War and every thing was rationed. School was a minor inconvenience. But I certainly enjoyed your post, always do. You squeeze a lot of life from an incident.
    Sherry & jack still skeered over here in NC

    Reply
  11. LBJ - August 6, 2019 1:42 pm

    I taught full day kindergarten for more than 20 years. The first month is exhausting! There are no naps. I would tell ‘my’ parents to expect their children to be very tired when they got home for the first few weeks. I told my family I would be very tired the first few months! I’m sad that kindergarten has changed so much with such a push for “time on learning.” Kindergarten has turned into 1st grade with expectations the children would be reading and writing sentences, knowing the names of solid shapes and completing math workbooks.
    I’m retired now. I miss the children but not the stress!

    Reply
  12. Connie Havard Ryland - August 6, 2019 1:46 pm

    I loved school from the first minute I went. Of course, kindergarten wasn’t a thing then. But I remember very well dropping my kids off at school. I missed them but I knew they would have lots to tell me when they got home. I was a stay at home mom while my first kids were little, so I stayed busy baking and sewing and quilting and whatever I had to do until they came home. My granddaughter tho-I had to work outside the home when I was raising her, so she got accustomed to being st day care. She couldn’t wait to be home every day. She had wonderful teachers that loved her so we were both happy. I miss those days.

    Reply
  13. MermaidGrammy - August 6, 2019 2:29 pm

    1. It’s “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. Kids’ll (kids [baby goats]will) eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”” And more…
    2. That nighttime prayer is almost as scary as most fairy tales.
    3. My sweet momma sang the song to me and I said the prayer every night until my grandchildren came to us – via Abrazo Adoption – and when I paid attention to the words I taught them another
    4. Now that we are experiencing momma’s dementia, I sing the song to her on the phone. It helps. It became popular during WWII. The people needed the nonsensical songs of that time. Now, I do
    5. A REALLY BIG ONE; Sean and Jamie, there’s at least one child God has picked especially for you. You just need to find what He has waiting. You both have so much that children need in these awful, trying days.

    Reply
  14. Judy - August 6, 2019 2:39 pm

    I cried the first day of school…every year for 15 years. I have two children, and the first day of school just made me more aware that they were going to need me less and that they were stretching those wings a little further. It was good cry…all about me. Then I dried up my tears and moved on. But I did cry, and I am not ashamed to admit it. I love being a mother, and now a Mimi.

    Reply
  15. Mary T. - August 6, 2019 2:43 pm

    I was also frightened by that prayer. I like the version which says, “Watch me safely through the night and wake me with the morning light.

    Reply
  16. Susan Kennedy - August 6, 2019 3:04 pm

    Lyrics to those silly songs always sound strange when you’re little until one day you say “oh! THAT’S what it’s saying!” Anyway, you made my eyes sweat. First days of school for my little ones were always bittersweet. Now I’m going through it again with grandkids. 💙

    Reply
  17. Cindy Matthews - August 6, 2019 3:24 pm

    This made me laugh and cry, thank you

    Reply
  18. Linda Moon - August 6, 2019 3:25 pm

    I’ll be going to the Piggly Wiggly in just a few minutes. But first…..I agree wholeheartedly that the morbid bedtime prayer was more frightening than Mairzy Doats! On behalf of all Kindergarten Moms who ever were or will be, Thank You for sharing the memory of your Mom, the one that you will never forget. I bet you’ve made her proud!!

    Reply
  19. Bob Stewart - August 6, 2019 3:36 pm

    My mom has been gone for 8 years. I miss here everyday.
    Mothers are our safety nets in life. My mother lived i assisted living for several years.
    When i would visit her, she would always ask. Have you anything to eat today?
    Then she would had me a few dollars and say. Go get yourself something good to eat.
    They never let go of “their little boys”, even when we are no longer little!

    Reply
  20. Robert Chiles - August 12, 2019 2:32 pm

    Your son is your son ’till he takes him a wife; but your daughter’s your daughter for the rest of your life. Just kidding, our children are ours forever.

    Reply

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