Holding tightly to my mother’s hands, I walked nervously into the school yard. I heard my name being introduced to my teacher and an explanation that I was a shy child. I clutched at my mother’s legs as she tried to leave. I begged her to stay with me. I couldn’t be left there on my own. I was scared. I was going to be sick. She prised herself away from me, told me I would be okay and left.
I cried and cried. In fact, I cried so much that day that the teachers phoned my Mum to come back and collect me. That was my first day of school.
Just thinking of that day (and the days after) fills me with dread. I had zero confidence and despised going to school in my early years.
So, as my eldest daughter embarked on her schooling journey this week I was full of trepidation. How would she cope? Would she make friends? Would she feel as lost and as hopeless as I did? I wanted so badly for her to be confident and enjoy her time there.
I walked her to her classroom. We waved to her teachers and they said hi. She didn’t say anything. They didn’t push the issue and gave us some space. I looked around her room. I felt lost.
This was not your typical classroom. There were no desks neatly lined up in rows. The walls were not lined with shelves filled with brightly coloured boxes of activities. There were no posters on the walls or other stimulating decorations. It was plain and somewhat bare. There were some scraps of paper in baskets, cardboard boxes, some blocks and other bits and pieces of things placed around the room.
I wasn’t sure what to do or even what to suggest to my daughter. I so desperately wanted this to be a positive and exciting experience for her and even though I had no timeline and could stay as long as I wanted, I had hoped that she would be able to get her teeth into something to settle her nerves so I could find a good time to say my goodbyes and leave her to it. I wanted to take comfort it the knowledge that she was happy and thriving when I left.
We stood for a while and I felt myself getting annoyed. Why weren’t her teachers doing anything? She was new, I was new. I was unsure and wanted some guidance.
L saw another child eating from her lunchbox and told me she was hungry. She collected her lunchbox from the fridge and sat down to eat. As she went through her day’s food piece by piece, again, I worried. What if she ran out of food all before 9:30? Again, I wondered, where her teachers were. Surely they should be showing how enthusiastic they were to have her in the class and demonstrating for her what she could be doing in the space.
As all these things were going through my head and I felt my own anxieties, based on my school experiences, exploding to the surface, L was taking it all in. She munched on her apple pieces and looked curiously around the room. She observed the other children, their interactions, their games. She saw the teachers and sized them up. She said nothing, just observed.
A teacher came over and sat on her other side. I had told the teacher earlier that morning that L really liked drawing and painting and that it might help her feel settled if she had something she felt competent doing. The teacher received that information but to my mind seemed not to be getting what I was asking. I wanted them to find something for L to do. I wanted her to find her feet and feel confident. I wanted her NOT to feel the way I had felt on my first day.
But this was my hang up. You see, she didn’t feel like I felt on my first day because she wasn’t me. The nervousness and anxiety I felt on her behalf were my own projections and I was doing her a massive disservice not trusting in her process and those of her experienced teachers. I was making it about me and my discomfort with the whole situation.
The teacher at the table said to L. “I hear you like to draw. Do you like pencils or felt pens?” L was silent in response and I went to answer for her. I took an in breath and was about to explain what L liked to draw with at home, but as I did L looked directly at the teacher and loudly and clearly announced that she liked pens the best but that she also liked pencils sometimes. It just depended. The teacher continued conversing with her about her own love of drawing and in that moment, my fears and concerns began to melt away.
I began to see more clearly, what had been unfolding in front of me. I realised my projections for my child were based on my own insecurities and not my daughter’s. I could see that her process was to take in the space through sensitive observation (something I could learn from) and find her own time, a time that was right for her, to begin exploring the area.
I also started to appreciate the strategies of the staff. They know, better than I, that a child ushered from their parent, entertained or made busy doing something that keeps their minds occupied is not being at all sensitive nor respectful to the child’s process of transition. They could see her need to size up both them and the space before they began to build those important connections with her. It would have been superficial and inauthentic were they to set out fun activities for her that they thought would make her like them and want to come back to learn more.
Not long after L’s conversation with her teacher about the drawings, I decided my presence was probably hindering rather than helping her transition into this space. I needed to trust in her capabilities and demonstrate this trust by leaving her to it.
I let her know it would be soon time for me to go. Her arm immediately shot out and grabbed my arm. But as quickly as it landed on me, it let go. She stood up from her lunch and began to walk me to the door. She asked if she could come and wave goodbye at the fence. I asked her teacher and they encouraged it.
She walked me to the gate and started to come through it with me. I thought that this would be the time she dissolved into tears and that her anxieties would show. The principal walked by us at that moment and I saw him subtly signal to a teacher to come close (I think to help pry her off me). But he needn’t have worried. She kissed me goodbye and then went back through the gate, confidently closing it behind her and running off.
I burst into tears. All my feelings; my fears for her and nervousness finally spilled out but I was glad she was not there to see them. Those tears were not at all about her. They were my projections. They were my emotions, brought up some 30 years after my own schooling career had begun and to have put them on her would not have been fair. Many of the tears I shed were also born of the pride and relief I felt in that moment; understanding that this is her journey and it will be different to mine. I have recognised that I have to let go of what I perceive about her schooling and, as Magda Gerber used to say, wait and observe before processing the information presented.
Had I done this a little more clearly today, I would have seen that she was a capable and confident little person, taking everything in her stride. And even if she wasn’t all of these things, that would still not be anything to do with my past and my support for her would need to be free of these projections.
I am now really looking forward to a do over next week as she takes her own, perfect steps forward into her schooling.
Edited to add: On her 5th drop off, emotions spilled over and it all became too much. Read how we coped with these emotions whilst still supporting her confidence here.
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury