My son didn’t cry the first day of preschool. He didn’t even turn around to watch me wave goodbye. He just marched his cute little 2-year-old self into the Chick Room, placed his red school bag in the cubby marked with his photo and joined his teacher on the carpet for circle time. I slowly backed away from the classroom door, not wanting to do anything to break my typically separation-sensitive son’s unexpected stride. I also wanted to keep the promise I made to myself that I’d save any milestone tears of my own until I got back in my car. And, there, in the driver’s seat, shed a few tears is exactly what I did. Tears tinged with relief, happiness, sadness—and all the adjacent emotions that dance between and among them.
Hours later after my eyes had dried, my little boy ran into my arms at pickup. He shared highlights of the day—his new crayon masterpieces and the name of a new friend—over a celebratory meal of scrambled eggs, french fries and tomato slices. It seemed for a moment that all the anxiety and reading I had collected about starting school was for naught. I patted myself on the back more than once that night for a job well done and slept soundly, anticipating an equally successful second day ahead, minus, of course, my car cry. I could not have been more wrong on all counts.
Not only did my son cry the second day. He cried on the third day, the fourth day and the fifth day. He cried on the 100th day, the 153rd day and on the very last day. He cried during the camp program the school ran during the summer and he cried on the days when the music teacher he talked about incessantly at home was visiting his classroom. He cried despite debating the merits of the playground toys during the weekend and he cried even though he spent many a dinnertime explaining the rules of the phone game he and his new bestie had created. Save for an inexplicable six-week period along the way, my baby cried every day at drop-off for all three years of preschool. And, even though I repeatedly met with teachers and the director and took other steps to make sure he was safe and happy during the hours following those tear-filled goodbyes (which, by all accounts, he was), as well as giving him a range of tools to manage the mornings, it didn’t matter. What’s more, I often went sob for sob with him once I left the school building.
The little boy who cried every morning at preschool drop-off—and plenty of mornings after that too—graduated high school this spring, during a pandemic and against the backdrop of pain and protest and racial injustice. I cried. I wept a little as I heard the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance and a little more as, in unison with his classmates on Zoom, he moved his tassel from left to right. But, my son, my no longer little boy, was dry-eyed. He smiled and his focus was steady as it has been for a long time now.
Almost 15 years later, the preschool tears are so faded a memory that at times they hardly seem real. What I can appreciate from this vantage point is what I couldn’t see at the time—that the hard stuff is part of the journey. The tears are part of our story. Other easier paths would have been preferable, of course, but we don’t get to choose when or where we hit the bumps no matter how hard we work to swerve away from them. I bow to the salty river that is part of the story that carried us here and I am grateful that its current didn’t pull us under. So, as I dab my eyes, I honor my son, a happy, well-adjusted young man, and I thank the preschool experience for doing more for us both than I ever could have imagined.
Beth Kanter is a writer living in the DMV who is the author of several books about the area, including Great Food Finds DC and No Access DC. She still is getting used to the idea of having an emptier nest come fall.