I don’t remember my first day of kindergarden.
My only indications of how that beginning went is a home video that, 30 years later, still elicits a loud laugh from my family. In it, my sisters and I are talking about going back to school, and when my father asks what grade I’m entering, I proudly announce I’m joining Mrs. Carolous’ classroom, and I have my new book bag, trapper-keeper, and lunchbox all already packed.
Less than five minutes later, and after several failed attempts of me interrupting the conversation, my eldest sister is walking through her entrance to fifth grade with painstaking attention to detail. Suddenly, obnoxiously, I shove my way in front of her and in front of the camera lens and screech, “Film meeeeeeeee!” My father declares it hard to avoid me, and the video soon ends.
Luckily, my classroom presence was better than my on-camera persona. Or so I hope.
I’m telling you this because, throughout the past few weeks, I’ve had to make up stories to fill in my memory gaps and to feed my niece’s insatiable hunger for knowing what to expect in her first year of school.
And the big day is finally here. Today, my niece, Grace, starts kindergarden. This morning, I held her thin hand as the crossing guard waved us through the street. I watched her toddle across the chaotic, kid-filled playground and up the steep school steps, her eyes big and her enormous backpack creating a shadow larger than she is. My sister dressed her smartly, adorably, in one of the many (many) new outfits we purchased this past weekend during our back-to-school shopping frenzy, before which Grace made a list of all the things she needed: shirts, sweaters, pants, shorts, dresses, socks, underwear, coats, mittens, hats, shoes, headbands, and barrettes. Basically, a new wardrobe. And that just covered the clothes end of things.
She’s attending a small school that’s less than a five minute walk from my front door. It is an old, sturdy brick building that’s housed thousands of equally nervous, eager, and shy children—as well as equally frazzled, freaked out parents. When we got inside, bright sunlight poured across the high-ceilinged hallways, the well-worn tables and waxed floors of her classroom. Everything was crisp, freshly cleaned, eye-catching, and clearly, colorfully labelled. I watched Grace look and absorb and take it all in, silently.
I wanted to squat down in front of her and say so many things. I wanted to take a seat in the corner and assure her that I was here, she was alright, it was all going to be just fine. I felt like sobbing—me, the auntie, not even the mother!
Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel so damn much.
So that I didn’t start blubbering, I waved good-bye to my sister, gave Grace a quick kiss, wished her luck, and told her I’d be outside to pick her up promptly when school let out. She and I are having a first-day-of-school tea party, complete with cookies and pink lemonade, and we’ve been talking about it for weeks. But Grace barely glanced my way. She wasn’t processing anything beyond the next minute.
The future—even just the future of this afternoon—didn’t exist for her yet as we stood in that loud, sunny kindergarden room.
And on my short walk home, I got to thinking about why this time in my niece’s life, and these next few years of learning, are so precious—and so in need of protection.
As children, the future holds no meaning. The present is enough—more than enough, all-consuming and even overwhelming in its awesome newness. It fills each crack of the day such that there’s no energy for anything but this: now.
How freeing. How wonderfully simple and sublime. How quickly we, as adults, destroy that with our incessant plannings and pressures for the next several decades of these childrens’ young lives.
When is it, exactly, that we begin pushing kids to think and live beyond today? When are the expectations, the higher-than-the-Jones’ bars, set and clearly pointed out and then road mapped? At what point do we teach our children that the future is more important than the present?
Even now, I can’t help but wonder: how do you rationalize “life is short” with “plan for your future”?
How do you ensure that your “right now” is as much as priority as the somedays you hope for ahead?
This is how and why having a child in your life fundamentally changes your perspective (and everything else).
For a child, each day is a parade through the unknown. In a way, as a matter of sheer survival, they need to be fully engaged and all-hands-on-deck for whatever is happening immediately to or in front of them. They know no alternative yet. And as caretakers, I think one of the wonderful things we can do for the little boy or girl we’re raising is to nurture and praise this natural inclination to look at and listen to and ask about everything. Doing so teaches them curiosity, awareness, sensitivity, and responsibility for and understanding of their impact on other people and things around them.
I once told Grace that learning was like the beloved ocean we live alongside: fascinating, fulfilling, life-sustaining, seemingly bottomless, with trenches and species and secrets still undiscovered, such that no person, man or woman, is its master or its keeper—or ever will be.
I want to remind Grace of this.
I want to fuel her appetite for learning, for openness to ideas and imagination. I want to help build her pride and confidence in who she is and what she thinks. I want to foster her resolve in leading, going her own way—leave the following and the pointing fingers to others. I want to teach her that each day is a unseen possibility and holds promise.
And because I know well that such idealism is as much a curse as a blessing, I also want to tell this darling child that the world will knock her sideways more times than she’ll be able to count. People, children especially, will be cruel and crushing. Things inside her will break such that she’ll be rebuilt differently. A time will come when she will doubt everything. So much will make such little sense, despite her best efforts at understanding.
But, those are all lessons she’ll encounter in good time. Warnings aren’t very useful—we seekers stride past them anyway, chins high, shoulders squared. And Grace is a brave explorer—of truth, art, words, places, and people.
I like to think I’ve already shown her a path or two; I pray I’ll continue to journey with her, even if only in spirit, for many years to come. For now, my job is in making sure her pack is well-stocked with the necessary reserves: a positive outlook, a strong sense of self, and a certainty that she is loved and that she is the only Grace there is. It is futile to compare yourself to others. No two oysters yield the same magnificent pearl.
My niece—she will do great things in a thousand small ways.
I know this because she’s already taught me the most profound lesson: each day is a new chance to love richly and honestly, to live presently and purposefully, to be strong, brave, and true.