My daughter started kindergarten last week. I’m not handling it well.
I’ve never considered myself the classic helicopter parent. My kid doesn’t wear a helmet and kneepads while riding her scooter because I have no fear of the physical injuries that will inevitably occur. Bones heal. When my kid takes a tumble, I dry her tears, exclaim, “Great Stunt!” and then beam with pride as she gets back on the contraption that sent her crashing to the pavement. Side note: don’t tell my wife.
Emotions, however, are an entirely different matter. I know first-hand the psychological damage that results from the constant infliction of emotional pain over a period of several years.
I didn’t like kindergarten when I was a kid. I was a momma’s boy and usually cried when my precious and endlessly patient mother dropped me off at Orchard Country Day School, a private school in Indianapolis.
I have vivid memories of my mother chasing me around the dining room table on several mornings in what must have been a physically and emotionally exhausting game of cat and mouse. Oddly, I have absolutely no memories of how she managed to catch me each day and get me into the car. I suspect she may have resorted to tranquilizer darts on occasion, but I can’t prove that claim.
I never went willingly. NEVER.
One time, I chased after her car with tears streaming down my face as she drove away from the drop-off line at the front of the school. Another time, my teacher, Mrs. Appel, climbed into the back of the family station wagon and literally pulled me out of the car, through the front doors of the building, and down the hall to her classroom. Later that day, I escaped, but not before kicking Mrs. Appel in the shins.
I was such an emotional mess that the lower-school principal advised my parents to hold me back for a year so I could repeat kindergarten. Mrs. Appel must have been thrilled.
At the time, my behavior was casually diagnosed as “emotional immaturity,” a label with decidedly negative connotations. I think that was an accurate assessment of where I was in my development as compared to my peers. And although I regret the stress and emotional agony I inflicted on my parents and teachers, I’m grateful for the way I was wired as a child. It created a fertile emotional soil within me that ultimately yielded some very good fruit.
One day at recess, I bore witness to something on the playground that had a profound impact on my life. A group of boys in the grade above me were terrorizing a little girl in their class named Emily Gilroy. The boys laughed and giggled as they chased her into the enormous ground-level treehouse where she couldn’t escape. Once trapped, they pulled at Emily’s hair, causing it to shift back and forth on her head, as she desperately pleaded with her tormentors to stop.
The entire gut-wrenching incident was over before I could fully register what was happening and why. I was five years old at the time and had never seen a kid with movable hair before. I’d also never heard of leukemia.
My shock quickly gave way to an overwhelming feeling of empathy for Emily. I somehow understood that I should have done something more to help her, but that moment had passed. Emily went back to playing with her friends as though nothing had happened. She didn’t cry. She didn’t tell the teacher. She wasn’t phased in the slightest.
I, on the other hand, never forgave myself for not doing more on that day. I didn’t intervene. I didn’t tell the boys to leave her alone. I didn’t even ask Emily if she was okay. I just sat there trying to figure out what I was feeling until recess was over.
The emotional and psychological impact of what happened to Emily on that day became more pronounced as the years progressed. At 43, I still have an ache in my heart that I failed to defend her, but Emily was no wimp. She courageously fought multiple battles against her cancer in the years ahead and earned the respect of her peers. The very same boys who had bullied her on the playground that day were amongst those who cried the hardest when she succumbed to the disease in 1989.
At some point, I made the unconscious decision to be an ally of the kids who were bullied and stand up to their tormentors. I had a heart for the underdogs, and by the time I hit the second grade, I had isolated myself from the “popular” crowd and was eating lunch every day with the nose-picker, the fat kid, and the boy who wore dress clothes to school every day that were three sizes too small. How he managed to get through gym class without tearing his britches I’ll never know.
Needless to say, things did not go well for me in elementary and middle school. As the years progressed, I became increasingly compassionate towards some people and increasingly pissed off at others. That’s not a great recipe for success when you become a parent for the first time. It can cause you to ‘overcompensate’ on occasion.
My wife and I wanted to homeschool, but we both work from home and our daughter is very social. Homeschooling just wasn’t an option, and private school is financially out of reach.
Fortunately for us, the public schools in our area are astonishingly good. The elementary school gets great reviews and is very academically challenging. All of the parents who have kids there just rave and rave about the wonderful teachers and administrators.
And yet, the closer we got to the first day of school, the more my anxiety increased. The stress and worries over all the things that might happen were constant.
“What if the school is really not that good?”
“What if the kids are mean to her?”
“What if she’s exposed to things I don’t want her to see or hear yet?”
“What if she finds out the truth about Santa Claus?”
“What if they try to indoctrinate her with their political ideology?”
“What if her teacher is secretly a child molester?”
“What if there’s a shooting?”
All of those thoughts were running through my head 24/7 on an endless loop.
Despite my best efforts to prevent it, the first day of school finally arrived. My daughter was so excited to meet the kids in her class and her new teacher. I, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic.
I was relatively fine when we pulled up to the school. I was nervous, but I was okay. And then we entered the building…
All of the horrible memories came rushing back to me the very second my foot stepped onto those 1980s-era floor tiles and the blinding fluorescent lights hit my eyes. All of the emotional pain; the kids who made fun of me, the names I was called, the classes I struggled to pass, the girls who broke my heart, the kid who beat me up and ripped my favorite shirt, the shame for not being tough enough, all of it.
Once inside, they quickly ushered all of the kids and their parents into the cafeteria for orientation. I noticed as we sat down that all of the teachers in attendance had big smiles on their faces! Well, almost all of them…
There are a total of six kindergarten teachers at my daughter’s school. Five of them radiate pure Disneyesque joy. My daughter got paired with the one battle-ax in the bunch. We’ll call her “Ms. Hannigan.”
Ms. Hannigan has seven children of her own and was known as Mrs. Hannigan the previous year, so she obviously had a rough summer. I guess that explains why the general expression on her face that day was one of the “who farted?” persuasion.
Hannigan’s classroom smelled of Clorox and was devoid of the typical decorations and other pleasantries you generally expect from a woman who teaches five-year-olds. Where were the pictures? Where was the color? Where was the joy?
Ms. Hannigan seemed nervous and failed to make eye contact with the adults in the room. There was no small talk. No introductions or a welcome of any sort. Instead, she immediately jumped to a PowerPoint presentation on her planned curriculum for the year.
“How fun,” I thought to myself as I rested half a butt-cheek in a chair built for a child. “How personable. Also, how the hell do we get our daughter transferred to another class?”
I was a hot mess by the time we exited the building, and I could tell by the look in my wife’s eyes that she had reservations of her own. After sharing our concerns with each other, we did what any reasonable first-time parents of a kindergartner would do: we put the word out on social media that we wanted the scoop on Ms. Hannigan.
48-hours later we received a reply from the parent of a second-grader who had Ms. Hannigan for kindergarten.
“Oh, your child will LOVE her!” she wrote. “She’s really sweet! Very warm and personable.”
“Oh, bull s***!” I exclaimed when my wife shared the reply with me. “Ms. Hannigan? That woman was exuding less warmth than a corpse! Can’t we get her another teacher?”
And then, in the midst of my self-induced chaos, I had an epiphany: The teacher’s not the problem here. I’m the problem. This is about me. This is about my scars from childhood. I’m looking through a broken lens.”
The experiences I had with school were pure misery. I was filled with dread, fear, and anxiety every morning of my life for nine years straight. Things got better in high school, sure, but the damage was already done by then.
School was a place where you went to get bullied. It was a place where you were made to feel less-than. It was an establishment where teachers played favorites, pretty girls were “too good” for me, and no matter how hard I tried, I never fit in. And you know what? I’m actually grateful for that.
Our lives are the sum total of our experiences and the choices we make. I’ve had a balanced mix of extreme ups and downs and made some horrendous decisions in the past, but I did a lot of things right. The journey was painful at times, but in spite of it all, I still managed to thrive.
Today, I’m married to the greatest woman on the face of the planet, and our daughter exhibits the very best qualities in both of us. It’s our job to guide, nurture and protect her as best we can. She is, after all, only five years old.
But our daughter’s journey is her own, and whatever experiences come her way – good and bad – we’ll walk through it together as a family.
I finally found clarity in those moments and began to relax a little… And then I called my doctor to get my Xanax refilled. Epiphanies and clarity tend to come and go in my experience. It’s best to be prepared.
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