“Cool-as-ice Dad Melts as his First-grader Climbs Aboard the Bus”

Published in The Indianapolis Star, Sunday, September 5, 1993

I’m standing at the front door, waiting for the school bus to pick up my 6-year old. I am also scanning the neighborhood for crow in case I should have to eat it.

It was just two weeks ago that I chuckled in disbelief as some stay-at-home mom friends spoke wistfully about their children starting first grade. Though Liz, my 6-year-old, was also starting first grade, I was hardly so maudlin. The truth is, I could hardly wait.

After all, this was the same child who somehow could not find anything to do all summer, despite my many suggestions, some of which included chores. I knew this was a child who needed school.

And I don’t go in for sentimentality. Had I not been the one throwing rose petals in front of the school bus last year when it came to pick Liz up for kindergarten? Men, I told myself, just don’t place emotional markers on those kinds of events.

The first sign that I might be wrong occurred on Saturday as I was cutting the grass. The blur of my elder daughter, hair flowing behind her, caught my attention as she ran past. I was struck by how big she seemed, and at the same time, how little. Could she really be six, I asked myself rhetorically.

She is, of course. She asserted her independence when we purchased school supplies by selecting the purple glue stick that dries white instead of the normal glue stick I had suggested. The official school supply list didn’t say the glue stick couldn’t be purple, so I let her have it, as well as the “litterless” lunch box she thought was cool. I applauded her concern for the environment, but I think she really just likes the colors.

Standing in line at Wal-mart with the other back-to-school parents, I contemplated my days without Liz.

Kindergarten had been only a half day. She went in the afternoon. My younger daughter, Katy, still took naps most days. I relished the quiet, knowing it would be broken soon by Katy awakening just a little while before Liz rushed through the door to tell me what she had done that day.

Now she would be gone far longer, away from my influence and entrusted to a teacher I hadn’t met yet. Katy would miss her and expect me to play with her as much as Liz had. While it would be very different, I was sure it would not be cause for emotion.

But now, as I stand here waiting, I’m not so sure. I wonder what kinds of feelings my mother had when I started first grade. Had she felt a sense of relief or regret that I had gotten older? Had she cried after the bus doors closed?

These are idle questions now. My mother died more than a year ago.

I wonder if I will be alive to see Liz’s reaction to a child starting first grade. I wonder if she will ask me how I felt, and if I will remember.

Liz is dressed and ready to go. Her teeth are brushed, her hair is pulled back and her bed is made. She correctly reports her bus number, teacher’s name and other vital information when I prod her. She refuses to let me pin a note to her shirt that contains some of this information.

She says she won’t forget. I believe her. The note remains off.

We wait on the front porch well in advance of the expected arrival time. I made idle conversation that Liz almost ignores. She is so excited, I forgive her.

The school bus comes. I take the obligatory photograph of her getting on the bus. I wave goodbye, but I can’t see if she’s waving back. My eyes have somehow misted over.

I enter the house and realize that gender is irrelevant in this case. We all fall victim to the great parental paradox: We want our children to grow up, but we can’t help wanting to hold onto them for just one more minute.

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