Leaving Kindergarten

What a Wonderful World

When the teacher started the end-of-the year slide show for our daughter’s kindergarten class, she had trouble getting the music to play. One of the students helpfully pointed out, “it was much better with the music,” referring to their dry run the day before. A few slides went by, and then the music started to work. And by “work,” I mean, make us all cry.

Of course they have to grow up. What’s the point of having children if not to raise them? 

Looking at this room of 20 six-year-olds, I wanted to freeze time. Their fidgety bodies, open smiles, vibrating excitement to have their parents in their classroom, and their unbridled hugs and kisses for us parents. I generally don’t want my kids to grow up, but moments like this especially heighten the urgency of that totally irrational desire.

Of course they have to grow up. What’s the point of having children if not to raise them?  I realize my wish has all the makings of a dark fable, keeping a selfish mother’s children frozen at a certain age, resulting in all sorts of unhappy endings. But I can’t help it.

I feel it so deeply when I study the look of their youth – squishy cheeks and bellies, unblemished and untarnished skin, new freckles each summer, and toothless gaps in their smiles. It’s not just the physical I wish I could capture in a bottle. It’s their spirit: no self-consciousness yet, bounding recklessly and clumsily through learning roller-skating and riding bikes, and doing it again and again even after tears and bloody scrapes. The way they need me, look at me, love me. I know it won’t always be like this.

I remember when my oldest daughter started kindergarten, I felt like for the first time ever I had no idea what was happening in her daily life. I will never forget the terrified look on her face as I watched her walk in with her class on the first day. She moved slowly and I could tell she was holding back crying, willing herself to not run back to me. I cried lots of my own tears as I had to suppress that urge to hold her hand and stay next to her as she faced this scary new world. A world that she loved of course, it’s imagined terror lasting only a brief moment.

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Kindergarten holds a certain sweet spot in the ages and stages of parenting. It represents a huge transition from the dependence of preschool years, where we parents get lots of information about the child’s day.

From the intensively documented diapers, feedings, and sleep time in infancy, to cute little descriptions of their daily toddler adventures, to conversations with teachers at drop-off and pick-up, I knew their world of school even if I wasn’t there with them.

Kindergarten gives our children and us a bridge from early childhood co-dependence to a more independent childhood (and parenthood). They still get to play quite a bit in most kindergarten classrooms, and social relationships continue to (hopefully) be the focus over intensive academics.

In kindergarten, they learn how to be in school with habits and routines they will need for the rest of their school lives, but they can still play with play-doh and dollhouses. We learn how to let go and let them be – at least a little bit.

I think this is why the end of the kindergarten year strikes with such emotion. This has been the transition to elementary school, and now the transition has completed. They are growing up, out, and away from us.  

In this moment -- this kindergarten slide show moment on a warm Friday morning -- I take it all in. I feel my big body not quite fitting on the child-sized kindergarten chair; I smell the faint odor of sweat in the hot room full of people, without air conditioning; I hear the tiny giggles and whispers of 6-year-olds trying to obey their teacher’s instructions to sit quietly; I see my daughter’s untamed blonde hair in the midst of all the heads of untamed hair; and I hear Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, cueing the emotion to rise like a wave inside me. I love this moment. I love who my daughter is right now, exactly like this.  

She will be a first grader next, middle school before we know it, and graduating high school in some impossibly soon future. But she will also always be six, proudly finishing kindergarten, because I have absorbed this moment.