I still have photos of my daughter’s last “normal” day of school. It was Tuesday, March 10th, 2020, an unseasonably warm day in New Jersey. Her Pre-K class was celebrating Holi, the popular ancient Indian festival celebrating spring. The students had been required to bring plain white T-shirts that would then get saturated with color. I had been annoyed that morning, because I was on a business trip and kept getting texts from my daughter’s teacher, asking for written permission for Lucy to get dirty. I bristled under the formality. Didn’t me sending a brand new white T-shirt imply my consent?
But, I hastily excused myself from a meeting to scrawl permission (“it has to be written permission”) on a piece of printer paper and emailed it to her teacher. The photos from that day turned out to be pure gold: An entire courtyard of four-and-five-year-olds, all different skin colors, their faces, arms, and T-shirts covered with color. They’re laughing, hugging, touching.
A week later, everything was different. Even now, everything is different. My once tiny four-year-old is now a soon-to-be-first grader, with ten adult teeth crowding her gums to prove it. Last year was a lost year: Two different schools and lots of outdoor playtime, with academics an afterthought. It was not what I had anticipated for kindergarten. It was survival. We both made the most of it, but it didn’t feel like “school.”
This year feels like an official return. Lucy is going to a new school with new uniforms and new rules — a new world. Back then, her teacher’s biggest concern was whether she had permission to get her shirt dirty. Now, her teachers are struggling with masks and social distancing; COVID tests and analyzing potential symptoms.
As a parent, I feel way out of my comfort zone. I can talk about new friends and learning to listen. But how do you make sure your child keeps her mask on, knows to wash her hands regularly, and understands that COVID-19 — and the new Delta variant — is a serious illness that no one, nope, not even grown-ups, completely comprehends? How do you tell your six-year-old that whispering in a classmate’s ear is dangerous or that holding hands with a friend could potentially make grandparents sick?
Of course, we’ve been having versions of these conversations for the last year and a half. And oftentimes, kids adapt to the hardships of life even more easily than adults. After all, at this point, the pandemic represents nearly 25% of Lucy’s lived experience. But there’s something about going back to school — real school, with grades and homework and a three-page supply list — that makes me feel sad. Lucy is entering a world that I have no experience in. I can tell her about my own first day of first grade, but it was circle time and shared snacks, nothing like what she’ll experience. And it makes it even more disappointing that she had such a tiny taste of school in pre-K.
But then I try to remember what won’t change: The excitement of picking out a pencil box. The anticipation of meeting new friends. The wonder at looking at the imposing entrance doors and realizing that Big Kid School is finally your place.
And there’s also lessons to be found in the sanitization and safety procedures; ones we’ve all learned. Two years ago, I laughed off Lucy’s teacher’s concern about her getting dirty. Today I realize that the care teachers put into noticing details does more than save a shirt from the laundry, it literally can stop kids from getting sick. I am proud that Lucy has learned that wearing a mask is one way to help keep other people safe, as well as herself, and that washing hands is a form of caring. And those lessons have rubbed off on me, too.
I know first grade will be a lot of firsts for both of us. I know there will be bumps in the road. But I also know that the more we look forward with excitement, instead of back with sadness, the better it will be for both of us.