Monday was the boy’s first day of preschool.
No, it isn’t September. Yes, he only just turned three. But it’s a developmental preschool. You see, on his third birthday he aged out of his regular speech therapy, and after a series of tests, he qualified to go to a preschool that will take its place. Because he requires special help, he gets special circumstances.
He was so excited to go to school. I did my best to make sure he knew that it was something he’d be doing on his own, that though he had been in his classroom playing with trucks a couple times while I had meetings with the teacher, today would be different. He kept saying he understood. But, with his speech delay, it’s often hard to tell whether he’s saying something he understands or just parroting me. Also he’s three. Three-year-olds aren’t exactly reliable.
I was prepared for tears and screams. The tantrum of a lifetime. I had contingency plans.
But then, as I explained the situation for the fifteenth time, he looked at me and said, “kiss,” and planted one right on my mouth. Then the teacher showed up and he said hi, and he gave me a hug and followed her to the school bus to pick up the other kids, eager and happy and so grown-up. I didn’t allow myself to linger. I went right back to the car and packed up the baby and the stroller and drove away.
Okay, so I drove away really slowly and found a spot from which I could watch him trying to figure out how to stand in line and saw him smiling and spinning around with a confused kind of joy and then a car pulled up behind me and then I drove away. And I cried, of course. Of course I cried. And I drove home and called my mommy.
At pick-up, the teacher told me he did “okay.” Not many details. Then the boy played on the school playground for about a half an hour before coming home for what was really a pleasant evening. Absence had made both our hearts grow fonder. Preschool was already changing our lives.
On Tuesday, we had a play date in the morning and went to school after that. It was tougher this time, with tears in the parking lot as I tried to pep-talk him into wanting to go in. I let him put two of his Hot Wheels into his backpack, and though he was still teary-eyed, he walked with me to meet his teacher. Again, I drove away as slowly as possible, willing him to be happy, willing him to be okay.
That afternoon, I did not feel any relief. I missed him. The girl was fussy and I had no toddler shenanigans to distract me from the somewhat boring business of bouncing a baby while trying to fold laundry. Turns out my loud, rough, messy tantrum machine is kind of what makes my life interesting. And I knew he didn’t want to be at school. And I worried and worried. But when I picked him up, he seemed okay. The teacher said he did about 1/3 the screaming as he had the day before, which, to her, meant he was adjusting nicely. We played on the playground again, my little boy holding his own among the big kids who waited for their parents to pick them up, doing his best to make friends with a couple of eight-year-olds who seemed a bit baffled by the presence of a three-year-old on the play structure. He seemed more grown-up to me. His voice seemed deeper. Maybe he walked differently. He was peeling away, becoming his own person.
Which is what all this terrible twos/threenager nonsense is about. As they transform from babies into children, the wee ones have to establish themselves as separate entities from their parents, especially their mothers. This often involves screaming. Lots of defiance. Friction for friction’s sake. Tantrums, even when they’ve been given exactly what they asked for. They act out against us to prove that they are not us.
Well, the boy is now getting proof that his not me. When I dropped him off this afternoon, he obviously had mixed feelings. He wasn’t unhappy to be there, exactly. He was excited to be wearing his Pull-Ups (they have race cars on them and, I suspect, make him feel a little more grown-up). He was excited to see the school buses and the playground. He was happy to see the teacher and the teacher’s aide. Still, he whined. It was when I kissed him goodbye that the whining melted into tears.
Maybe this is why a lot of kids don’t go to preschool until they’re four, or at least an older three. Some, like me, don’t go to preschool at all. School requires a lot of personal growth for kids who have been staying home with a parent or, I would imagine, even a single caregiver like a grandparent or a nanny. Even with low student-teacher ratios, school does not involve the same one-on-one attention or connection. There are so many other kids. I’m sure some homes are as structured as school is, but many (like ours) are much more free-form. And, being that the goal of the boy’s preschool is to help developmentally delayed kids catch up and go to kindergarten with their peers, it is not just supervised playtime. I doubt there is anything about school that feels like home, and my son is dealing with all of this newness on his own, without me or my hand to hold.
Before school started, I was looking forward to the relief of having the boy out of my hair nearly twelve hours a week, to being able to get more done–which, honestly, I am. I’m writing this blog post. I’ve done some laundry. I’ve done exercise and picked up toys. But even though he’s not here to try to sit on the baby during tummy time, or to dump a full box of toys for every few toys I put away, it’s like he’s still here with me. I’m thinking about him all the time: what’s he doing, what’s he thinking, is he making friends or hiding in the corner, has he eaten his snack. And what is it like for him to be there alone, as an individual, separate from me. Because as much as his toddler self wants to stand alone, I know a large part of him still wants to stand next to me.
The truth is, it’s going to be hard for at least one of us every time I drop him off at school. That one of us, after a while, will probably be me. I want him to learn to communicate more effectively. I want him to walk side by side with his peers, moving forward with the “normal” kids, and that requires work. And, honestly, I’ve always wondered if my lack of social skills stems at least partially from the fact that I did not go to preschool. I was nearly five when I started kindergarten and it was my first real exposure to other kids who weren’t related to me. Some of this is just me, but I did not make any friends that year. When I was allowed to play house with the other kids, I was forced to be a piece of furniture. Being a table was best. Being a chair sucked, because then the other kids sat on me.
It’s possible that some kid is sitting on my son right now. One of his friends sat on him just this morning. He seems to have inherited my oddball nature, my lack of inherent understanding about or relation to other people. But I have learned a lot and I know he will, too. And the earlier he learns it, I think, the better, because I can’t always pull the kids off him and make them apologize.
So many things to think about while waiting to pick your kid up from school. But as much as my heart might drop whenever I leave him there, however many doubts I might have or how much I might criticize myself and my decisions, at least I know I’ll get a lift whenever I collect him at the end of the day.