The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. — James Taylor
School started a couple of weeks ago. Nick is nine this year, in the Fern Hill equivalent of 4th grade.
According to an online resource I visited the other day, 4th graders should be reading prose and poetry aloud, making oral reports, alphabetizing, and developing word-attack methods. Nick isn’t. I haven’t a clue what a word-attack method is.
Nick should also know simple fractions, multiplication and division facts to 100, estimation of outcomes, and problem solving analysis. He doesn’t know those things either, I suppose, although I can’t say for sure about the last two—what they are is beyond me.
What is he learning at this un-school we send him to?
We get to the yard early so he can pick out his cubby for the year. Children and parents crowd about us, full of first-day thrum. We wait for Nick’s best friend, Jay, so the two can have spaces side-by-side. But Jay is late, and when he finally arrives, the only cubby left is far away from Nick’s. There’s no saving spots for friends.
Jay is devastated, and berates his mom, Jennifer, for their tardiness.
“Jay,” says Nick later, “Why didn’t you get here?”
This is called kicking someone when he’s down. Jay responds, “Why didn’t you save me one, loser? I hate you.”
I don’t hear this. Neither does Jennifer. I’m re-connecting with other parents I haven’t seen over the summer, checking out the new futon by the mosh area, renewing my acquaintance with the giant pines shading the yard.
Soon it’s time for morning meeting and I step into the elementary room to check in with Nick and say goodbye. He’s halfheartedly sketching on a piece of paper at the room’s only table. Jay is in the corner with a group of boys.
“Can you pick me up early?” Nick says.
“You just got here.”
“I’m tired. It’s too hot.”
“Well, I’ll see if mom can come early,” I say.
I hug him and he doesn’t let go.
“Can you stay?” he says.
Parents are welcome any time in the Fern Hill yard. Some, especially parents of the younger kids, plan to spend the whole day today. But Nick’s asking comes as a surprise.
I have no plans, except some marketing, which can wait. I was going to write a blog post, too. I’m behind on the blog. A lot of work needs doing there.
Tension grips my throat, and a kind of panic that makes me want to run from the world and take refuge in fantasy. In this case, the fantasy of a writer with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
Would you rather write about your kid, or be with him, loser?
THE PARADISE GARDEN
Something in Nick’s tone tells me he’s verging on tears.
“Why don’t we go outside,” I say.
I catch the eye of Nick’s teacher, Dante, as we exit. Dante nods.
We walk over the sandy path to the garden and sit down together under a pomegranate tree. I put my arm around Nick. The sun-dappled yard is empty now, everyone else inside at their morning meetings. We’re alone with the trees.
“Dada, I want to go home.”
I know better than to ask the reason. I tell him he needs to stay.
“Why?” he says. “There’s nothing I want to do here.”
How do I work? Einstein is reputed to have said.
“If you go home, nothing will happen,” I say. “If you stay, you can be surprised.”
“Please,” he says, his eyes brimming.
“Nick,” I say, “You need to be here.”
And the tears come. They come and they come and and he lets my arm remain. In my mind I breathe out a bubble around us, a clear and shining bubble of something impenetrable and transparent and loving. I suspend us in it.
We stay this way a long time. Every so often he hiccups and asks me to take him home. I say, “No” and he cries some more.
What the trouble is I can only guess. I suspect it has to do with Jay and some connection missed, some terrible loneliness in Nick.
The morning meetings end. It’s the only structured part of the day here. The kids stream into the yard. Some pass us by with concerned looks but say nothing. They start their games and plans, breaking off in little groups. Nick hides his eyes.
I think of other kinds of schools, where other children sit inside in rows of desks, developing word attack methods, alphabetizing, estimating outcomes and analyzing problems, taking tests, preparing for the uncertain future. Some of these kids undoubtedly are feeling scared and lonely the first day of school, or worried about friends. I surely felt that way on my long march toward a career, though I wasn’t paying attention. Tending to feelings is not the vocabulary of achievement.
To hell with that. This morning is precisely why Nick is at this school, so he can can have this moment of unhurried presence with himself, full of yuck and hiccups, without agenda, without plan, without future.
And it’s precisely why I’m here, my panic and fantasies for the moment forgotten, where I can feel the paradise garden, the sun looking through the pines, and soft earth turning beneath us, one second per second.
I had thought I was going to tell this story in one post. Silly me. The First Day of School continues next time with Birches. It takes what it takes.
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