It’s bigger than I expected
That’s my first thought as daughter E and I run-walk through the school’s side gate, awkwardly steering the double pram containing Baby J and the combined chaos of our morning…all the while trying to look cool as we kick up dust.
If it feels big to me, it must feel enormous to her.
It’s more than just the wide expanse of asphalt and buildings, the unfamiliar physical landmarks that make up this ‘school’ world we’ve come to meet for the first time. It’s the surging sea of kids and colour and noise, overflowing the outdoor hall like impatient waves at high tide.
If this is what ‘Orientation’ looks like, I’m not feeling it.
With relief we find our college friends— let’s call them family— somewhere in the middle of it all. And for a moment we touch land with B and her son A (also ‘orienting’ today) and we exhale. We hug and debrief, and my feet steady as we stand in the familiar shallows of friendship and splash around a bit.
B points out a big old tree in the middle of the playground, and for a second E is distracted by the beauty of its long arms, the reach of it’s trunk to sky.
A. needs to go to the toilet, and reluctantly E and I move away from shore again.
We are told to wait in line until each child is allocated a ‘Buddy,’ an older school kid to take them under their blue and brown uniformed wing and lead them through these delicate first steps of acclimatisation. The line is long, the sun intensifying its downward glare on us all, and E’s nervously checking out the kids before and behind us like I’m checking out the mums.
Will I get a boy or a girl buddy, do you think? E asks me.
A girl, I tell her. Surely. She’s fascinated with older girls, with any girls, having two brothers. A girl will settle her.
She tugs at my dress, the new-old one I bought at my favourite op-shop yesterday and slipped on this morning like a piece of floral armour. She grasps sections of material in her fist, leans in close like my legs are her anchor. I think about how she practically ran the whole way here, up the long stretch of sidewalk on the busy main road, noise of traffic competing with her excited chatter. I need to practise, she said. I need to make sure I can do it, so I’m ready for next year. She’s got her parents’ earnestness. Our eager, nervous passion.
And our fears too.
Now she’s silent as a back country lane, seeking hiddenness in all this crowdedness.
The kids in line are being picked off one by one.We watch them go by, our two bodies alert as watchmen. I notice how many girl buddy’s are being delivered out, how many boys are left. I try not to make calculations in my head.
I steer E in front of me to make sure she isn’t overlooked, and I feel her heart beating fast and hard beneath the material of her dress. Unconsciously I begin stroking her back, like we do at night to help her sleep, trying to smooth it away. All that buried, boiling tension, that imagination that can be her greatest ally and her foe.
Don’t I know it. I don’t need to reach out to realise it. I feel it too. Because we are the same churning blood. Is it better or worse to be so alike? To know your kid’s tender pain because you’ve owned it yourself?
It’s her turn at last.
Her buddy is brought forward and offered like a prize. In fact the ‘buddy’ comes as a pair. Two tall boys. One a little bigger than the other. The smaller one with long sun-bleached hair, a little surfer boy, smiles awkward-kind. With a strange combination of gentleness and boyishness they shepherd this little blond girl through the playground as her mum trails behind.
She sits down in the classroom at a little table between them and they play with toy hammers, pressing coloured objects with tacks into board. The classroom is full and thriving with buddies and newbies, and a scattering of parents loitering at the fringes.
I wait a few minutes before I say I’ll go. Parents have been informed we need to attend a literacy and numeracy talk in the library, to be paternally oriented, while our kids stay behind and absorb their new space.
That’s when it happens. I was waiting and hoping it wouldn’t but always knew it could. Her tears come fast and torrential. Her arms are thrown around me and she’s strong, and I remember her intense grip as a baby, and she’s gripping me now. The teacher comes over and has a go at releasing her. But E’s white-knuckle clamped.
I won’t fight her, not this early on, the teacher says. And I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed.
We go outside and sit on a bench out of the way. A kind older male teacher hands us a brochure, and I scan it briefly. The words blur. I can’t concentrate because inside I’m already making plans. Maybe we need to find a smaller school, one where E (and I) don’t feel so swallowed, a place we can start in slow and calm. My thoughts are anything but slow, my plans are paced and nervous. Because that’s what I do. I write narratives and I jump in headfirst and start kicking hard for land at the first sign of struggle.
But the thing is the story isn’t finished yet
I ring E’s dad at college, and Dr M’s deep voice stills me just enough. But still, my eyes can’t hide their moisture. E sees my tears. Why are you sad? she says. I tell her the truth, for better or worse. I tell her I hate to see her hurting.
She considers me a moment. Then she speaks the line that isn’t in my script, the one that blows my it’s -all-a-big-messy-failure narrative off its track.
I want to go back in, she says.
I tell her I’ll wait outside the classroom for her this time.
I stand outside with another mum whose son is crying too. We comfort each other like wives of fellow soldiers, and chat softly of our lives. There is a surprising gentle companionship in peering through the window, together watching our offspring find fragile wings.
I see E making necklaces with the little long-haired surfy boy. She smiles sweet up at him and he steps in closer.
This is what it looks like: to face fear down and do it anyway.
And yes, I’m one of only two mammas standing in the corridor, loitering by the small window. But that’s okay too. We all have our own story. The things that make her – that make me – weak, bud strength from the vine, breed sensitivity and beauty.
And I remember suddenly how my mum used to tell me my brother Greg would cry at the gate. Greg the one who later spoke for us all, who soothed our pains and sorrows with the legacy of his words.
As soon as it began it’s over, and we go in once more with the other mums and kids swarm in to meet us and for a moment I don’t see E and I worry she’ll fear I’ve forgotten her.
But then there she is, and that surfer boy’s standing next to her, close as a shadow tall and noble, and she smiles wide at him and waves and says it, a brave goodbye.
And she tells me she wants to come back to school again.
And I utter a silent prayer of thanks.
And that old beautiful tree stands strong and quiet amidst it all, branches brandished to the overcast sky, as the new flock of children flood the playground once more and just as quickly leave.