Monday, February 02, 2009

First Day

Early this morning we all left the house together. We walked the familiar route to the school - it's the same way I walk almost daily to the post office, and it's the way to the park and the market. This time we all saw the territory with new eyes. We said goodbye and left quite quickly, as soon as the kids were settled into the room, the paparazzi parents dispersed. Let the records state that I did not cry. I felt nothing but excitement for her and a wonderful lightness of being - I am no longer as responsible for every aspect of Fred's personal growth as I was yesterday. I get to share, yes I admit it, the burden of care for her. I get to hand over some of the intensity of her every waking hour. She is a resilient and powerful creature. I know she is ready for the world.
However, at 3.15 I walk down to the school alone to pick her up. I wait with the other parents, few of whom I know by name (even, I blush, some of the mums I know from kinder last year). All of the prep mums have older kids already at the school, I am the only newby. I am not exactly a foreigner (after all everyone is friendly and inclusive, and I've met everyone before, during orientation last year), but I feel slightly remote. A pregnant woman approaches, a week away from being induced. Everyone here knows her, sympathises with her about the fierceness of last week's heat. She is not someone I recognise, she's not a prep mum, her kids are all in older grades. I make sympathetic noises too, but say nothing. They all start talking about redback spiders nesting in their airconditioning units, again, I say nothing - we don't have airconditioning (yes, that was fun when the mercury hit 45 degrees last week), and I've never seen a redback spider, as far as I know. Fred comes out to use the toilets, hitching up her skirt before the toilet door closes and some of the mums laugh. The bell goes. Fred emerges from the toilets with two other girls and they all drift back in to the cloakroom, I remind Fred to get her bag. When she doesn't reappear I go in looking for her. She's discovered some show bag propaganda from the government. She forgets her schoolbag. I retrieve it. I know I will be carrying it home.
Outside she tells me that Milly, who was her buddy at the end of last year, isn't her buddy anymore. Fred is disappointed. So am I. I like Milly, who posed for a shot with Fred outside the school this morning. She has a new buddy, she tells me, but she can't remember her name. Apparently the new buddy hates Fred's name and hated Fred (Fred used the word hate). 'I think she's just mean,' Fred says, philosophically. My heart suckers closed, like a sea anemone. Later Fred says, 'But she likes me now. I fell over and hurt my knee and I think she was quite worried. She said Oh!' With Fred, it can be hard to get a straight story out of her.
Later, on the way home, Fred says 'Who's the best name of it all?' Still thinking of her so-called buddy, I answer reassuringly, 'Frederique.' 'No!' she says, 'the best black name.' I'm not sure where this question is going. We watched Hairspray recently, after Mamma Mia was such a big hit, and ended up having this terribly confused conversation about racism. 'What is it?' I say. 'God' she announces, with that reverent tone she keeps for talking about god (for new readers, this fascination is not new, but does not come from us, since we are a household of non-believers). 'God,' she says again. 'God has black skin.' What am I supposed to say? I answer with my usual vagueness:'Has he?' She looks at me. 'She. God is a girl. E told us today.' E is her teacher (they use first names, something I'm not 100% jiggy with, though I don't know why it bothers me). I am not sure exactly what transpired in the classroom, and though I know that for Fred, this story has some basis in truth, I also find it hard to believe that her new prep teacher, gentle, quietly spoken, turtle rearing, grey-haired E, smaller than most grade sixes (as I am) stood at the front of the room and said, 'Class, God is a black woman. Hallelujah.'
On the same walk home we also covered what people ate with in the olden days, you know, before forks, whether Fred was alive in the olden days, and if she would go to heaven one day, and just exactly where heaven is.
Although I didn't cry this morning, my stomach is churning. What happened with her buddy? Why were they talking about God in the classroom? This is it, I suddenly know. It's started already. She's entered a world almost beyond my scrutiny, and like a bird I can only survive on the breadcrumbs she throws me.
Later as I'm making her lunch I realise some of the novelty has already worn off. I see a string of endless lunches unfolding before me. There will be other girls like Fred's buddy, who will make fun of her name, or dislike her for no reason and not all of them will be so easily charmed. This is the long haul. This is the future. It's already here.


  1. Hmmm. Yes indeed. Give it two more terms and you'll be getting no breadcrumbs at all.
    A's teacher this year is Jo. As is me, of course. And Lulu's Ballet teacher. And her swimming classmate.
    Just thought I'd add that.
    I love the photos. It's a huge learning curve but the biggest thing I've had to learn since A started school is to step back and let them deal. As others have said, they're much more resilient and care a whole lot less about the small stuff than we do.

  2. Very true Jo. Wow, great account of the First Day. Ours is on Thursday but I don't feel like it's anything too special as it's the same school he was at already, same uniform, mostly same kids. Maybe I'm just in denial.

  3. Wow, I was sitting back today feeling relieved that this is the first year I have no kids at school (they're at work, college, and uni now)but reading this has made me a little teary for all those yesterdays.

  4. Anonymous7:22 AM

    I love you can walk to school. We'll be able to too next year (I think. School's not 100% settled on).

    (ps Redbacks. Yes. Eltham is overridden. We had to spray. You just look in the house eaves and they're everywhere

  5. Penn, she looks so adorable in her uniform : )
    I remember that feeling-realising that the time when the boys life was really around our own little universe was gone too. I remember almost resenting that feeling of 'having to be a part' of the school machine, irroutine-rather than going where the hours took us.
    Yet, you feel yourself very quickly adapting. I think it took a week! lol.
    I was thinking last night with Will now going into grade 5 this yr, how I have come to love the school routine again too...have for yrs. You live it all again in a way..the new school bks..exciting events at school..the anticipation of a friday arvo with w/end or later summer holls looming. The structure of school has now become a lovely part of our lives an we will miss it eventually, I guess.
    It is their life though, and a bittersweet feeling knowing that they will walk their own path. It is a change, an adjustment.
    You captured those feelings so well xxx

  6. What a great encounter of Fred's first day! She looks beautiful in her uniform. I hope she has a wonderul year ahead. xx

  7. Hi Penni
    This post was so touching and amusing and sad - it made me simultaneously long for and dread having a kid.
    I hope day 2 goes well for everyone and you figure out (and tell us) what's with the black lady-god.

  8. Anonymous2:47 PM

    Yes. Indeed. The thing that has come as the greatest surprise to me - I like doing the lunches after all.

    PS You've never seen a redback spider? You lucky thing.

  9. Yes, they take off and that's that. Another world that visits your own, but doesn't necessarily come in the front door. Good luck with tomorrow.

  10. My heart broke with every story like that, but at the same time I almost relished the challenge of trying to piece together the loaf from the crumbs.

    After 2 terms I felt the need to ask if it was ok if the Kid didn't sit with his buddy at lunch, since it seemed they didn't get on. (Kid was terrified of breaking rules - not my fault I swear!) Teacher was a bit surprised to hear there was conflict, but agreed that sanctioned separation was the path of least resistance. Never heard another word about it. Mountains shrank to mole hills. :)

  11. UPDATE:
    Well, she survived her second day too without dramas.
    Fred's teacher was completely baffled when it came to the black lady god thing, and couldn't think of anything it might have related to. So it's a mystery where that might have sprung from.

  12. My new grade 4 boy came home quoting "and then they spanked him, just for luck". Then came a comment about best beloved and the Limpopo River and I realised the teacher has been reading the Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.


    ps. my middle boy once said to me in the car "What's god like?" and before I could answer (thank heavens!) he said "Oh yeah that's right, she's blue."

    pps. I make the husband do the lunches.

  13. Oh Penn, it was like I was standing there next to you. What a great way of remembering Fred's first day. She looks so cute in her uniform.

  14. Anonymous1:18 PM

    What beautiful writing.

    (I was hoping that E. really had said, "Class, God is a black woman. Hallelujah." Maybe I'll just pretend she did.)

  15. Gulp, I get a little heart-broken when I hear the blunt criticisms children give one another - not liking your name, sheesh, straight to the heart, for mother and child both. Still, I am always amazed by the quiet resilience of children too, Fred just moving through it all steadily and determinedly.

    The photos were really sweet too.

  16. That's so gorgeous - photos and writing. And brings it all back. Not just the kid stuff, either. The standing on the fringes of all the mums who know each other and you don't know them and they have conversations and you kind of chip in but don't know if you should ... That can be tough.

    And yes, letting go and standing back and letting them battle through the playground skirmishes is hard. nd striking a balance between that and knowing when to step in. Hearing comments like Fred's buddy's is awful, too. I think it does break your heart more than theirs. Sounds like she had a good day though.

    And coming to terms with the gap between your ideals of how a school should operate and what happens in reality. That was an issue for me, and, going on your own thoughtful ruminations on choosing a school, I imagine that might come up for you too.

    Looking forward to continuing to read about your experiences as a school mum.

  17. She looks so happy and eager.

    The post below is lovely too. The most beautiful and saddest line is 'not even in your dreams'.