My sister-in-law snapped an extraordinary picture of my niece, on her first day of kindergarten. After putting her on the bus (which had several more stops to make), Debbie high-tailed it to the school, waited for the bus to roll in, spotted Jen still at her seat and clicked away, nabbing the shot that makes my jaw drop every time I look at it.
Welcome to the moment where everything changes.
This took place in the days before the advent of pre-K orientations, when the first day of school was one’s first encounter with their school. This was, literally, the first time Jen was seeing the building in which she’d spend the bulk of the next few years. There are so many emotions she conveys in this shot–you can see she’s nervous and scared, and excited, and so wholly absorbed in her assessment of the school that she doesn’t even notice her mother standing just below her on the sidewalk. Can you feel the butterflies flitting around in her stomach? This picture makes me want to practice my zen deep breathing.
She looks so…little. She was so little then. I mean, come on. She was five. And yet–despite the fact that she was so young, and nervous, and facing an entirely unknown situation–she got off that bus and went in those doors.
You could argue that she had to go. You could rightly claim that there was nothing she or her parents could have done to prevent her from going to school, and even if she broke down into hysterics and threw herself on the ground at her mother’s feet, eventually, she would have had to walk through those doors anyway. Therein lies my point. She was five, and when children are five we don’t just expect, but mandate, that they do things like go to school and learn how to read and add and become functional members of our society. Which is fine and as it should be since they need to start doing that at some point, but ultimately what we expect a five-year-old to do is blow up her or his comfort zone and launch into a journey of self-improvement. Think about it. We expect our children to go to a new building where they are surrounded by people they don’t know, abide by rules they haven’t had to live by yet, incorporate new skill sets into their repertoire, and perform those skills on demand. Daily. For twelve years (thirteen, counting kindergarten). When they cry and say they hate school we assure them, “You’ll get used to it, it gets better, I promise.” And every day the kids go back to school, to stare down new expectations, and meet them. Or not, as also happens.
Kids, I’ve come to realize, don’t hate school because it’s hard–the word “hard” is so ambiguous in this situation that it renders itself meaningless. Math is hard, grammar is hard, history is hard, science is hard…but so what? Anything new is “hard”, since you lack the learned skill for it. I can think of fully grown, seemingly functional adults who would rather peel their own faces off than walk into the unknown like Jen did that day, and like every five-year-old does on their first day of school. Kids hate school because it constantly pushes them out of their comfort zone. They may change…or they may fail to change in comparison to the peers that surround them. Which is worse? How many times have you made the face my niece is making, mentally or physically? How many times have you resisted doing something because it’s different? How many times have you said (or heard someone else say), “No, I won’t do it, I hate change.” How many times have you tried to do something once, lacked the innate skill for it and defensively declared it “stupid”? (You should have seen my first and only knitting lesson.)
I understand the desire for order, and I understand why we as adults tend to resist change. I understand why we’re attached to our status and our stuff; I don’t even want to imagine a road trip without my smart phone handy anymore. But I suspect that’s not what It, in the big-picture, capital-I “It”, is all about, no matter how much I love to surf the web while my boyfriend is driving. We were born programmed to learn, to think, to experience a range of emotions, to make our time here on this planet an insightful and emotional journey and not just a chronological one. So. With this new year, I wish you all peace and joy and health. I wish you love, and I wish you all the ability to attain the goals you’ve set for yourselves. And I wish you all the courage of the five-year-old girl who rides the butterflies into a great unknown. Ever forward!