Today is John’s first day of school. His mother, Tanya, is saying goodbye to him. She kisses him. She straightens his collar and fixes his hair. She sends him off to join his kindergarten classmates.
Soon, several five-year-olds are walking into the building, all wearing large backpacks. Tanya waves again.
“I love you!” she shouts from the parking lot.
“Love you, mom!” he yells.
“I know, Mom!”
John’s book bag looks heavier than he is. His mother waves again and again. More I-love-yous, more blowing kisses.
Tanya says, “Lord, I never knew it would be this hard.”
She admits that she doesn’t know exactly how to feel right now. Of course she feels proud, but also a little sick to her stomach.
“For five years,” she says, “I taught him to talk, eat, how to say yes ma’am, everything. It’s always been him and me. But now…” She wipes the corner of her eye. “Now he’s in there, and I’m out here.”
There are lots of parents out here. Each parent watches his or her child join the herd of lost puppies who do not understand the concept of a single-file line.
On the sidewalk, kids await their teacher who will take them to a classroom.
Tanya’s friend, Kimberly, is also saying goodbye to her son, Townes.
Kimberly says, “This is a happy day, don’t get me wrong, but it’s bittersweet, you know?”
John and Townes are with their peers. Laughing. Horsing around. Today is the first day of the rest of their lives.
Their two mothers couldn’t be prouder if this were a Lee Greenwood hit song.
As it happens, I remember my first day of kindergarten. In fact, I remember it with startling clarity. Which is bizarre because I don’t have a good memory.
My memory has gotten worse with age. There are lots of things I can’t recall. For example, my middle name.
But I remember my first day of school.
It was hot. I wore blue shorts. Yellow shirt. We didn’t use backpacks, I don’t know why. Instead, we all carried brown paper grocery sacks. The same kind you get from the Piggly Wiggly.
My mother wore a pink dress with pockets. Her hair was long. She escorted me into an old building that smelled like mildew and disinfectant. I was nervous.
Then my mother waved goodbye, and I watched her from the window of our classroom. She walked home with her hands shoved in her dress pockets. Without me.
Oh, the humanity.
School was frightening. Our teacher was a large woman who played an out-of-tune piano and bounced around singing the song “Mairzy Doats.”
It was hell on earth. And it got worse. At naptime, our teacher taught us to fold our hands and recite:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
“If I should die before I wake,
“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
This disturbing little ditty suggests that any child dumb enough to fall asleep might actually stop breathing and die before he or she ever wakes up. I was so terrified by this poem that I did not fully fall asleep until I hit my mid-thirties.
After my first day of class, I darted out of the school building, carrying my paper sack. My mother was waiting. I jumped into her arms and begged her to never leave me again.
We walked home. And that night before bed, I found something on my pillow. It was a gift. A handmade book, crafted from construction paper.
My mother made it. Inside were pictures she had illustrated. The book was entitled, “Mama and Me.”
The book was a pictorial story of a mother and son who had all kinds of adventures. They flew airplanes, climbed mountains, drove race cars, and splashed in oceans.
“I missed you today,” my mother said.
And for as long as I live, I will never forget that.
Over the years, my mother and I grew up a lot. Our family story was not an easy one, but we had lots of experiences. Some were terrifying, others were adventurous.
We never flew airplanes or raced stock cars, but we survived. And that counts for something. Somehow the young woman in the pink dress helped a little boy become a man.
Right now, I am watching young parents do the same thing for their children.
Tanya says with a laugh, “God, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself now that he’s gone.”
“Yeah,” says Kimberly. “Same here.”
The group of children follow Teacher. They start walking toward school. The kids wave. Parents wave.
These children have a fun day ahead of them. Maybe they will sing, finger paint, dance, or learn morbid little bedtime prayers that will haunt them until they are middle-aged.
The doors swing open. The kids walk inside. Each mother and father fits in final goodbyes.
“I love you, John!” Tanya shouts.
John waves. He disappears inside.
“There goes my little boy,” says Tanya, sniffing her nose. “He’ll probably have so much fun today that he’ll forget all about his mother.”
No, he won’t.
Not for as long as he lives.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast.