We’ve only been here for forty minutes, but I’m wondering if it’s time to go.
I’ve already met a dozen other parents, wearing a name tag bearing both mine and my daughter’s name on it. I’ve squinted across the top of my mask at half-familiar faces, a couple I recognize from college and a woman who looks—from the eyes up—like someone who might go to my church (but who turned out not to, actually). We’ve talked about summer plans, about fall schedules, and—more than anything else—about preschool. There must be a limited number of preschools in the city, but I can’t have heard the same name twice in these conversations. They’re mostly some variety of the same formula: something small with something big or good or clever. Little Feats. Little Explorers. Tiny Trees. Roaring Mouse. And though surely I’d learn something from an in-depth comparison of the preschools of North Seattle, I’m not completely enthralled by the topic, so my attention is wandering.
My eldest daughter and I are here today for a good reason. This is the first of three PTA-sponsored playdates for the incoming Kindergarteners at Luci’s new elementary school. Geographically, our circle of friends is on the widespread side, not the kids-around-the-corner side, so meeting some future classmates seems like a pretty valuable use of a Saturday morning. We were excited, both of us. Well, Luci was more excited than I was, because she loves meeting new people. I have an ambivalent relationship with meeting a bunch of new people at once, but the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve learned to set it aside for the sake of community, friendship, and all the good that comes of it all. Plus, I’m a parent, and sometimes that means getting yourself excited for things like popsicles with strangers in a city park.
After forty minutes, though, I have met everyone that was “easy” to meet, have had all of the first conversations I’m going to have. And also my daughter isn’t having a hands-down grand time. She’s drifting from slides to monkey bars to swings and back, though she’s hardly the only kid doing so. Even though we’re at an interesting new park, a fact that distracted her at first, now the magnitude of having to make all new friends is occurring to her, and she’s not sure how to start. We sit together under a play structure for a while, watching the kids and grown-ups coalesce and divide in different combinations of two, three, four, little molecules bouncing about the brightly-colored playground. We talk about making friends, about how everyone here is new for both of us. I wonder what are good conversation openings for Kindergarteners. Is it cool to compliment another kid’s unicorn dress? Or ask them about their light-up shoes? We decide to go get a popsicle, and see where that takes us.
This feels like the first day of school, though I know it’s not, and the first day of school is complicated. On one hand, I love school. Like, I love it, so much that if I express the true extent of my feelings about organized education, lots of fellow adults assume assume I’m being sarcastic. (“Oh, you ‘love’ school? Do you also ‘love’ mosquitos? And the DMV?”) On the other, most first days of school involved meeting dozens, if not hundreds, of people for the first time, along with a hyper-awareness that this was the all-important first impression that they’d ever have of me. Especially as a teacher, I would finish that first day exhilarated and exhausted, full of hope for the year but also aching for the day, just a few weeks off, when I knew everyone’s name and they knew that I was a bit of a nerd but I loved them, and we could all relax a little bit into the easier rhythms of established classes. That’s what I’m wanting for myself, I realize, as watch this crowd of parents who all seem to know each other or be much better at making new friends than I feel.
I’ve written before about how odd it is to watch my children walk through these entirely normal milestones of early education without having any footholds of my own to recall. When I was almost six, I was filling out phonics workbooks on the San Juan ferry or counting houses with Christmas lights along the ever-darker twists of Highway 20 in the Upper Skagit Valley. I was eleven for my first day of school, and it was different than this. Really different.
But then, I’m sure that literally every parent feels that way about something here. I didn’t go to Kindergarten, but no one here had iPads or the internet when they were small children. None of us sat through good bits of preschool online, making friends with a teacher and kids the size of postage stamps on a laptop screen. None of us began our formal, all-day education with our mouths and noses covered, learning to recognize smiles and sadness, nerves or stress just by the tilt of new friends’ and teacher’s eyebrows, the tones of their muffled voices. We’re all a little ways off the edge of the map these days.
I stand near Luci for a while after she finishes her popsicle, then watch as she sets a specific set of monkey bars in her sights and then tries, again and again, to climb up and cross them. Eventually, other kids join her, including a little girl in a long dress and cardigan that could have come out of Luci’s own closet, and I back away, a step at a time, until I’m lurking at the edge with a few other parents. I’ve met them before, even if it was just an hour ago, so we don’t have to talk about preschool again. Instead, we talk about kids’ clothes, about the cherished family routines that are about to be shaken up by our eldest children starting Kindergarten, and about the basic strangeness of the last eighteen months in Life With Small Kids.
Luci climbs to the unsteady platforms of the play structure, then swings out onto the rope monkey bars, followed by her two new friends. Her arms are strong and tired, her eyes squinting in concentration and delight. When we have to leave, an hour or so later, she’s full of excitement and plans for the year. “I made my first friend!” she squeals. “Can we sit together at school?”
Though I can’t make any promises to that effect, I decide, for the moment, not to tell her about class assignments and their uncertainty. We’ll leave that worry for another moment, resting instead in the victory of this one, and knowing that, next time, it will be a little easier. Next time, we’ll recognize some half-faces. Next time, we’ll talk about more than preschool. Next time, we’ll start playing right away. Because everyone is nervous about something, and at the end of the day, we have this extraordinary power to make each other feel safe, known, and loved. Next time, in other words, we’ll keep making friends.