Not new at back to school

Posted Sept. 06, 2009, at 8:59 p.m.

I have just come home from taking my oldest boys, Ford, 8, and Owen, 6, to their first day of school (third and first grade, respectively). It is a perfect Maine morning. The temperature seemed to drop 10 degrees overnight, as if on cue for fall. A gentle breeze picked at our hair and spun leaves that are starting to turn brown.

This is how I choose to remember the morning. Let history forget that Owen kicked his feet at the kitchen wall because he wanted “waffles that are square, not circle,” and that Ford asked me not to kiss him goodbye in front of his friends. I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my coat and thought about the year before.

We arrived in Maine from Florida just two days before the first day of the 2008-09 school year. It was only the fifth total day that the boys and I had ever spent in the state. (In July 2008, we were in Maine for four days to find a house.) Previously, I had never been north of New York City. The boys had never been north of Washington, D.C. Everything from the climate to the large highway signs warning of moose was new to us. Unlike a move from, say, Florida to North Carolina, where there are only subtle cultural and environmental differences, our transfer from Florida to Maine might as well have been an overseas tour. We were totally out of our element.

The moving van arrived one day; the boys started school two days later. In between, my sinuses, suddenly aware of all the new species of pollen, started acting up. My eyes were like a leaking faucet. So was my nose. But there were about 300 boxes to unpack and a grocery store to find if the kids were going to be even minimally prepared for their first day.

When the morning came, the school held a meeting for the kindergarten parents after the students were in their classrooms. This is when I met my friend Steph. She saw me blowing my nose and wiping water from my eyes and mistakenly believed that I was all torn up about my son starting kindergarten. “Shoot, I’m not crying,” I told her. “With the kids away today, I might actually have time to unpack more boxes and find our shower curtain.” We both laughed. Steph is a transplant, too. And I was grateful that she talked to me, because while the other mothers hugged each other and carried on with stories about their summers, I stood alone. I imagined that my kids were experiencing the same thing inside their classrooms.

What amazes me now as I look back is that my children never complained or seemed disproportionately scared. On the second day of school, just like on the first, they woke up, dug through boxes to find clothes, got dressed and went to their new school — in their new town, in their new state, in their new part of the country — again. It’s no joke when people talk about the resiliency of military children.

As I finish this column, I have just come home from picking up the boys at school. On our walk, the boys talked over each other to be the first to tell me about the friends they saw. For a moment, I wondered if maybe I had made too much of our move the year before and its impact on them. Maybe it hadn’t affected them at all. They seemed just as well adjusted then as they do now.

Except then Ford said, “There is a new boy in my class. He just moved here.”

“Did you make friends with him?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Ford said. “I’m watching him, though. I’ll give him some time to get settled in. He’s probably kind of overwhelmed. When the time is right, I’ll ask him to be my friend.”

I smiled to myself. Apparently our move did make a big impact on the boys after all. But if that impact leads to more compassion and patience for other people in new and difficult situations, well, then maybe all the stress was worth it.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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