Last Friday my oldest chick closed the book on her first year of elementary school and, as quickly as it came, kindergarten was over. She walked away with fewer teeth, a broader vocabulary and a whole new set of social skills. More times than I can count, as we sat conversing around our dinner table, JoJo would offer some emotional nugget that, if I really thought about it, correlated to some grownup social dilemma in my circle. See if you draw the same comparisons …
Be resourceful (and when deemed necessary, game the system).
About 3 months into the school year I got a call from the school nurse. “Hi there. I have JoJo here in my office and she is not feeling well. She doesn’t have a fever and we’re giving her a bit of Gatorade and letting her close her eyes.” She then cupped her mouth and drew the phone closer to say, “I really think somebody’s just not having a good day. This is the second time she’s been down here in 2 days.” As the year pressed on, there were more casual mentions of the nurse’s office. She had a hang sesh with her cousin there, she had her bud walk her down during art class, she went there for an ice pack because her knees hurt from running so much … I realized that something I’d been taught in my leadership classes might apply here – I was not asking the right questions. Once I began my subtle interrogation, I learned that, not only did the nurse have Gatorade, she also had Sprite, crackers and a sweet dose of one-on-one TLC. It’s like a 5-star luxury resort compared to, say, gym class. I couldn’t fault the girl for wanting an afternoon spritzer and siesta. If anything, I was impressed.
This was not the first or the last time my baby would go scamming for groceries. We get alerts when her lunch money funds are dwindling. “That’s odd,” Hank said, after I relayed that I’d received a low balance email from the school. “I just loaded like 50 bucks onto that thing a few weeks ago.” Turns out, you can log in and see your child’s spending history. Turns out, JoJo likes to add on a cookie, like every single day. Turns out, Doritos are just a little bit extra. Turns out, a cheese stick makes a great side. We were looking at page after page of incriminating purchases, accumulating 25 cents at a time. When I asked her about her a la carte selections, she informed me that you just ask the woman at the cash register to throw one on your tray and you’re good to go. She had no clue she was getting charged, and no clue we’d ever find out. Hank smiled that smile he smiles when one of his girls does something he finds endearing and just said, “I love it. I hope she always just goes for what she wants.”
Drama is relative.
At my age, a scandal typically involves inappropriate behavior, maybe some rage and always a few really bad decisions. For JoJo, the biggest scandal of the 2016-2017 school year came when she climbed to the top of the playdome, got yelled at by another kindergarten teacher and – wait for it – was sentenced to 5 minutes on the wall. I walked onto the playground to pick her up and straight onto OJ’s side of the courtroom. There were 3 criminals in the lineup, each more eager than the next to argue their innocence. We went to the car for a recess. “She’s just so interested in me and she doesn’t need to be interested about me!” she screeched with a blotchy red face. I’d never seen her so heated. “Listen, babe, regardless of what you think of her, she’s a teacher and she deserves your respect. You were probably doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to do, right?” “Maybe, but –” “And you can’t get in trouble if you’re always doing the right thing, right?” “Yes, but–” “OK, then let’s move past it.” But she couldn’t. It rocked her world like an old boyfriend showing up as a contestant on The Bachelorette or a late-in-life baby surprise would rock mine, and I gotta respect that.
Sleep is underrated.
It’s who you know.
There are three battle grounds for grade school children: The cafeteria, the playground and the bus. I can still remember that first day I sat in my car and watched my delicate, dainty 6 year old take that first steep step up into the yellow tunnel of terror on wheels. She looked so petite grabbing the railing to hoist her tiny cakes up, only to slide quickly into the very front seat. That August evening I asked her who she sat with. “Nobody,” she replied. “I don’t know any of the older kids and they’re so loud.” But by the end of the second week, my girl was running that joint. What changed? Her two older cousins started hitching a ride a few times a week. To make matters even better, they were at her after-school program as well. Before I knew it she was regurgitating all of the fourth grade gossip and telling me fifth graders, “had her back.” Had her back from what, I don’t know that I want to know, but I certainly appreciated the support. #squadgoals
Stress and pain both pass eventually.
Do you ever watch your kids experience something and it brings back every distinct smell, thought and feeling you experienced at that age? For me, one of those things is this loose tooth nonsense. I detested the tooth-losing process. The initial wiggle, the tireless tongue prodding, the mental turmoil of committing to pull the little bastard out and then the sight of that alien formation with bloody points that just detached from part of your body. Those meager little calcium nuggets revealed every Fruit Roll-up, every Swiss Cake Roll, every Milk Dud, and left behind only a slight crater to take over the madness. Now I’m reliving the oral horror with JoJo. I feel her anxiety about the process transferring to me. We’ve gone through this 3 – one hard apple shy of 4 – times now and it’s always the same. She recognizes the wiggle that sent the baby tooth past the point of no return (typically because there is blood). This sends her down an emotional spiral of will-it or won’t-it hysteria. It comes out and she screams over a pain that she perceives in her mind and then instantly begins smiling at the realization that said pain actually never existed and the entire process is over. Thus, our heart rates can decline, the Tooth Fairy can make her triumphant appearance and we can all live to experience the roller coaster ride another day.
Compassion always counts.
Of all my aspirations for them, two of the characteristics I so badly want to instill in my chicks are compassion and empathy. The world is so fast and so careless. It’s important to me that they really see people and go out of their way to help when it matters (and it always matters). On our star chart we have a row for “Did something kind,” and I ask the girls what they did to help someone that day. If I feel satisfied with their answer, they get a magnetic star. Spike typically says things like, “I told Johnny that he was not a butt face.” But I always looked forward to JoJo’s answers once she started school. There are so many opportunities to extend grace at that age. She would say things like, “Taylor is getting a new baby sister and I gave her a hug,” or “Sonya was sitting alone at library, so I moved to her table” But my favorite was when she told me she escorted Anthony down the hall after he puked in gym. Because sometimes you just need someone to hold your hand and take you to the nurse after you blow chunks in front of a room full of people. With no judgment.
Embarrassment is temporary (but brutal).
I can still remember, when I was in fifth grade, I thought it would be “cool” if I opened my bedroom window and sat in it. I cranked it out, removed the pesky screen and let the tips of my toes meet the steep shingles below. My on-again off-again “boyfriend”‘s dad, who lived directly behind us, came bursting through his back door and screamed, “Get outa the window, kid! What the hell are you thinking?!” To this day when I see him I picture him shouting at me from his deck. I was so scared he was going to tell my parents, or my little boyfriend. But more than all that, I was so, so embarrassed. I didn’t know what I was doing was dangerous. Hell, that was where all the heroines in the movies went to look at the stars and sort through their thoughts.
So, as we parents often do, I made sure to hand down the same humiliation to my JoJo. On an evening bike ride she turned right in front of a car. Without thinking, I did what any model mother would do. I verbally assassinated her precious spirit in the center of the cul-de-sac. In front of anyone within earshot. I certainly wasn’t mad at her. I was frightened out of my mind and the words just sprinted up my trachea and exploded out of my mouth. She was quiet the entire ride home. When we walked through the door she collapsed in the entryway, with her knees up by her ears and her elbows crossed over top to hold her head. “What’s wrong, honey?” I inquired, ignorant to the fact that, although the pedals between the incident and our driveway had erased the confrontation for me, she was entirely mortified. “I’m embarrassed!” she sobbed as she lifted her head. And I went right back to my window ledge. I knew exactly how she felt. “I’m sorry,” I offered. “But you are the most important thing to me and it terrifies Mommy when I think you might get hurt. I shouldn’t have yelled like that.” As disconcerted as you might be, this, too, shall pass, little bird.
We all just want to be accepted.
It always feels better to be included than excluded. And, gosh dang it, when 8 girls are playing ninjas and there’s no room for 9, or they tell you swinging is stupid, it feels like someone kicked your puppy. I don’t know a single parent who hasn’t wanted to throw a stranger’s kid’s sucker in the dirt for ignoring or belittling their child on the playground.
No one likes an empty bucket.
There are occasions when children say things far more profound than the most educated, enlightened adults. One evening, as I was whipping up a 4-course Taco Tuesday extravaganza, JoJo and Spike started fighting, which is crazy, because that never happens. (That italics indicates major sarcasm.) Anyway, after I launched into my typical retorts – “Guys, knock it off!” “Do you feel better after you hit her?” etc. – with little effect, the oldest chick stepped back a bit and put her hands up defensively. “Listen Spike, I don’t need you taking out of my bucket.” [Silence and inquisitive stares.] “When you say mean things, you take out of people’s buckets. And when you say or do nice things, you fill them up. I’m not going to empty your bucket, so stop emptying mine!” And that, my friends, is what you call an effective after-school lesson. [mic drop]
Feeling special is good for the soul.
Remember how cool it was when your parents or, even better, your pets came into visit you at school? In fourth grade my folks trailered in one of our horses for my Star Day and let me tell you, when that mare shit on the front lawn of my elementary school, I knew I’d climbed 4 rungs up the social ladder. As a working mother I more often than not have guilt about my inability to be a room mother, or a reading pal or a field trip chaperone. There’s always some activity designed to make me feel completely inadequate as an emotional support for my child. But when it counts, wild [pooping] mustangs couldn’t keep me away. Case in point, JoJo’s Valentine’s Day party. We stayed up late cutting pineapples into mangled hearts and shed our own blood skewering those F’ers onto bamboo sticks. We made a party snack mix that I won’t reveal here because I’m thinking about marketing it for profit it was so good, and portioned it out into 22 individual baggies. And when I walked in with those fruit kabobs and bomb-ass mix, my little lady lit up like the Eiffle Tower on New Year’s. I’m not one for praising your child every time they take a tinkle, but I am a big believer in the power of showing up when it counts and letting your girl get her day.
So there you have it. Follow the bold points, throw in a few servings of veggies and commit to move a bit every time Netflix prompts you with, “Are you still watching?” and you have a success plan for a healthy, happy, kind life. And you have JoJo and her tales of the kindergarten somethings to thank for it.
Tune in today to see if she can … be that together mom on the first day of kindergarten.
The thing about children that nobody tells you, is that more often than anyone would like, we discover that these little people are petite vessels sent to open, detonate and unintentionally impose utter and complete emotional devastation upon those who love them most. One look, and they can level you. The right phrase, and you’re shattered into 8 trillion tiny pieces. Almost every happy occasion comes gift wrapped in nostalgia and topped with a bittersweet bow. It’s incredibly humbling and unnerving all at the same time.
JoJo started kindergarten on Wednesday and, as she lifted that construction paper sign announcing her foray into elementary school for the world (or just Instagram and Facebook) to see, something terrible happened. I started sobbing. Big, dreadful, embarrassing, ugly tears. It was like they were all holding hands. Once they started falling, there was no reprieve from the infinity pool of self pity.
But when we got to the sitter’s to drop off the younger two, I said I was fine. I was fine with her looking like a 12 year old who picked out the most mature outfit in her closet. I was fine with her telling her sissies goodbye. “Wait until she goes to college,” the sitter said. And again, I cried.
But when I got back into the car to drive her to school, I said I was fine. I was fine with her sitting, crossed-legged, mouthing all the words to an Ed Sheeran song while looking longingly out the window. You know … like teenagers do. “Are you coming in with me?” JoJo asked. And again, I cried.
But as we walked hand in hand, side by side, into the school, I said I was fine. I was fine with how, as I looked down at the pavement, I noticed her shadow was catching up to mine. I was fine with how her tiny hand felt not-as-tiny nestled in mine, and how I could feel her anxious excitement on the other end. “Here we go,” I said. And I tried so hard not to cry.
As I watched her sit up so straight in her little chair, only looking back to meet eyes with me a few times, when she thought no one was looking. As I watched her walk to her cubby. As I watched her line up and march with a tentative confidence down a hallway alongside the big kids. As I watched her eyes light up at talk of reading and adventures and friends, I told myself I was fine. Everything was fine.
But as we set her on the little round seat in the lunchroom, situated with her compartmentalized tray and carton of apple juice, I didn’t feel fine. “Are you guys leaving now?” JoJo asked. I leaned down, kissed her little baby-skinned cheek, pulled down my sunglasses and didn’t try not to cry. In fact, I let it rain. I let those tears fall for the milestone and for my mourning of the past and the fact that it will always be the past, and in the past, she was tiny and snuggly and so close to me always.
“Find joy in the journey.” my friend Lindsay posted.
“This is what we do. We raise them to give them wings and let them go.” Kel offered.
“It’s a testament to you as a mom that she felt OK to go in there with confidence. It’s OK to be upset. Part of being a mom is loving them so much and worrying and crying.” a sweet coworker said (as I snotted and sobbed over her desk).
But when I got home from work, and I listened to her describe their bear hunt, and the playground, and her new friends … I knew, deep down, everything was just fine. But I still cried today, just a little.
Until next time …