The night before the first day of school was always the longest night of my life. I'd lie wide awake for hours, wondering about my locker location, who my lunch table neighbors would be, what my teachers would be like, and whether my Trapper Keeper notebook was still in style or as antiquated as the unworn parachute pants hanging in my closet. My small canvas backpack would be sitting in a corner by the door, stuffed like a sausage with notebooks, pens and dormant anxiety.
I'd start the next day too nervous and too charged to eat breakfast and end it too exhausted and too intimidated to contemplate anything except dinner and sleep, usually in that order. Were it not for adrenaline and caffeinated soda, I'd never have made it through.
Now that my son Charlie's entering Fourth Grade, and his sisters starting First, I still feel anxious. On their debut morning of school -- my first as a newly-minted divorced parent -- I arrive nearly an hour early and wait across the street for them to show up.
When they finally do, I survey my girls' pretty dresses and colorful hair bands, and can easily see the seeds of their teenage years being planted. As we cross the street together, I look over at Charlie's massive backpack, adorned with zippered pockets, water bottle holders, super-padded straps, and reinforced bottom, and think: Are we sending this kid to school or to Costa Rica?
While hordes of unfamiliar children race around us like idiots, I compare myself to every genial-looking, power-tied, flip-flop-wearing dad at the scene. I still feel like the odd dad out. Can they tell that I no longer live with my kids? Does something about my demeanor shout "part-time parent!" Is the fellow in the leather pants really going to work dressed like that?
A man with a scraggly beard who'd been standing alone suddenly starts chatting us up.
"My daughter's going into first grade," he says, though there's no daughter in sight.
"Same here," I say politely, pointing at my girls. He just nods.
A man in a maintenance uniform comes up to Charlie and greets him with a warm hello, then looks up at my ex-wife.
"This little guy -- when I'm feeling down -- he just lifts me up."
I extend my hand, and the man shakes it.
"Is this your wife?" he asks, pointing at my ex.
"Ex-wife," I say as casually as I can.
The man cocks his head, confused. "What?"
"Ex-wife," I repeat.
"They're divorced," Charlie says matter-of-factly.
"Well...I wish my ex-wife and I got along that good," he says.
My ex and I avoid looking at each other.
When the kids split up for their class lines, the man with the scraggly beard comes over to me.
"I couldn't help but overhear you're divorced."
"Yup," I say.
"I'm also divorced. I'm meeting my daughter here."
"I met my kids here, too," I say. "That seems to be the divorce give-away -- when you come in separate cars."
The man smiles, then tells me his own story -- messy divorce, small apartment, kids every other weekend. As he talks, I survey the asphalt playground again, this time spotting several random Dads milling around as if waiting for instructions.
I excuse myself to give each of the kids a final, long hug, and watch as their teachers lead them into the school.
"Come on, Gloria," one man says to his wife, prying her from a young boy who shares his mother's hair. "It's not like we're sending him into the military."
I so desperately want to be a fly on the classroom bulletin board, to watch and observe everything going on. In more narcissistic moments, I want to steer my kids to success, so that they're volunteering the right answers, modeling perfect courtesy and demonstrating all the patience and poise I didn't display at all when I was in grade school.
In short, I want them to be age-inappropriate. This is why teachers shoo parents away after the bell rings, or in some cases get restraining orders.
After all the kids go inside, the door closes with a loud click, and the parents creep away like zombies. Well, most of us. I keep my ground, staring at the big, open classroom window, estimating just how tall I could stand in the prickly bush below it.
The next time I wait with my children for those big red doors to open, I pledge not to bring my neuroses.
Next time, I'll just bring tissues.
Joel Schwartzberg is an award-winning essayist and author of "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad," from which this piece is borrowed.