“It’s a new beginning!” I enthused to my grandson at the schoolhouse door two years ago. “Kindergarten! You’ll learn new things and make new friends. It’s going to be great!”
Joe wasn’t buying it. Three older kids whirled by shrieking, and he shrank back against the wall. A few feet away, a little girl with French braids did too.
“What’s your name?” I asked her. I got a miserable “Celia” in response. “What a pretty name, “ I said. “Celia, this is Joe, my grandson. It’s his first day at school. Is it your first day too?” Celia nodded and sidled away from me.
A perky little blond approached. “I’m Anna,” she told me. “Joe’s in my class. Hi, Joe!”
“Hi,” Joe said, suddenly preoccupied with an inventory of his backpack.
An older boy with stiff spikes of hair jutting from his scalp intervened. “You’re not supposed to stand here,” he snarled at us, his fists on his hips. “You can’t stand by the wall. You have to stand on your animal.”
Buzz off, my inner child wanted to say, but I tightened my tenuous grasp on adulthood. “Our animal? What animal?”
“They’re over there,” Spike growled, pointing to chalk drawings on the tarmac. “You line up by your teacher’s animal. You can’t stand by the wall.”
It was the best advice available in the confusion of swirling, shrieking older kids, so I grabbed Joe’s hand and beckoned to Anna and Celia. We went to an area where other adults were positioning kids into something approximating a line. I found Mrs. Robson’s sheep line and herded my three lambs into it.
Just in time: A loud bell of the type you only hear in schools signaled that the time for parting had come. Teachers emerged from the buildings to claim their respective species. We parents and grandparents in the sheep line hugged our kindergarteners and then faded away like sad, dissolving ghosts. Some children cried. Some adults did too.
“Bye, Joe,” I said, upbeat as all-get-out. “Have fun!”
“Bye, Grandma Mary,” he responded, his voice as hollow as his eyes. Then Mrs. Robson ushered her flock into the school.
Ah, that first day. It’s always hard, but that one was especially so for my family. Joe wasn’t the only one facing a new beginning. It was a new day for his mom, too – a new job in a new town. In the new economy, she and her husband had been unable to sell their house, so he remained working in their old hometown while Joe started school in their new one. They had joined the ranks of fractured families doing what they have to do to ensure that a new beginning leads to a happier ending.
At least their separation was temporary. Statistics aren’t re-assuring for children in one-parent homes. They’re more likely to have academic, emotional, and health problems; less likely to succeed. But those outcomes can be mitigated or negated entirely by the significant involvement of just one other caring adult – a teacher, a neighbor, a grandparent, a custodian. Two years ago, my husband and I took turns on the road being that adult for Joe.
Stewing over hollow little Joe that fall, I kept thinking of another child who had started school while his mother made a new beginning. Her siblings swooped in to fill the gaps: A brother and sister took turns getting him home from school. On nights when his mom worked late, another sister fed him, bathed him, and put him to bed. He liked to be talked to sleep so she would lie there with him, staring into the darkness and commenting on the moon and the stars and the strange ways of cattle and leprechauns.
One night he turned to her and mused, “My mom sure is smart.”
“She sure is,” his aunt cooed.
“She knows everything but three things,” the boy continued.
“Oh?” His aunt was intrigued. “Which three?”
“That’s the hard part,” he replied. “She doesn’t know yet. But once she does, she’ll know everything.”
Then he rolled over and sank into sleep, content that his mother was just three mysteries short of perfection. His aunt listened to his soft breathing and marveled over the stretched-thin single mom who could still plant this seed of contentment in her child, chuckling in anticipation of the day it would blossom into laughter.
That boy beat back the statistical disadvantage. Today he’s got a college degree, a good job, great health, a heart of gold and a wonderful sense of humor. He recently got married and set out on a new beginning he couldn’t be more excited about.
Maybe you know somebody like that boy, or like my Joe. Maybe you could be that significant other who fills in a blank that a stretched-thin family can’t quite cover. The time to save a life isn’t when the distress is full-blown; it’s when the distress is still just stress. You might just pick that child up at school one day a week and give his mom a breather. You might contact the school and see if you can tutor a child or read to a few and give the teacher a breather.
There are always kids like Spike at school, snarling directions to control what little they can control in a frenzied world. There are always Celias, withdrawing miserably into their insecurity. There are even girls like Anna, who seem so poised in the morning, but have a meltdown every afternoon. One of every 5 Montana children lives in poverty. One of every 3.8 lives in a single-parent household. There are so many Montana kids who could benefit from the company of just one other adult who takes the time to listen to their musings or tell them a story that captures the imagination.
It never hurts to begin that story this way: “Your mom (or dad) sure must be smart ….”