I always loved the first day of school. I loved the camouflage of new clothes. I loved the return of a routine. And I loved the anticipation of narrowing the breadth of the unknown. Friends and strangers transformed over the summer growing taller, smarter, curvier, funnier, some more aloof and some downright gregarious. And I’ve loved watching my daughter repeat this familiar ritual and marveled at how she went from being a forgetful kindergartner needing my encouragement and organizational skills to being 100% in charge as she headed off to 8th grade. She set her alarm, picked out her clothes, completed and remembered her various summer homework packets, and made it to the bus without a sprint or a dash.
Even with her independence, I still have my own rituals. Being a manic working mother, it has been important to create memorable traditions in hope that when my daughter thinks back to her childhood she will remember that I was there. For example, I always snap her photo on the first day of school before she heads to the bus stop. And I have always cleared my afternoon schedule on that first day so I can be home to hear all about who was in her class and who was not, what her teacher was like, etc. I wanted the news when it was fresh, laced with the excitement of the day. No rehashed stories for me, I wanted it first hand. Running my typical five-minutes-late, I walked in the door and confirmed that the bus had already come and gone, and observed that my daughter had her after school snack preparation already underway. She barely looked up as she asked suspiciously, “What are you doing home?”
“I always come home early on your first day of school.”
“No you don’t.”
“Sure I do. It’s a tradition. I’ve been doing it since you were in kindergarten.” I recognized the teenage shrug of the shoulders.
“I don’t remember it.” She looked at her father who echoed her statement word for word, matching the intonation perfectly. It is always interesting to see collusion in action, especially when you are the outlier.
So, there would be no “Fiddler on the Roof” moments today. I let the wave of exasperation pass as a mother’s intuition kicked in and whispered that this probably wouldn’t be the best time to call my assistant and ask her to attest to the fact that she has been blocking out the first day of school on my schedule for the past eight years. It was better to accept that I had stepped into some sort of alternate universe. I forced a smile and asked, “So, how was it?”
Grunt. Or was it a groan? This alternate universe also has its own communication system, similar to the Morse code. Short grunt can mean ‘yes,’ ‘uh-huh,’ or ‘I acknowledge your presence.’ A longer more sustained sound, which resembles a groan might indicate displeasure, ‘no,’ ‘nuh-uh,’ or ‘go away.’ Through a series of grunts and groans, muttered in combination, one can get a semblance of the basic emotions and needs represented on the Maslow hierarchy. Communicating through my native English and the alternate universe language, I discovered that her class sizes are between 30-40 kids (so much for gifted programs delivering a more personalized education experience), she shares lunch with only one of her close friends, and she has the dreaded Math teacher that led me to take on the principal (he has since left, I swear it was unrelated) and the school district (who assured me that they have a policy of not repeating teachers for multiple grades). As I channeled a war room mentality, I mapped out a strategy for a math teacher coup d'état. I stopped long enough to see my daughter’s seething rage and ensuing tears. She told me I was making her life worse, and she wanted to quit the gifted program and be normal. Now I knew I was in an alternate universe. This was the child that had painted the toilet seats with toothpaste during preschool because she was bored. What was normal? She used to relish the idea of me going toe-to-toe with the math teacher? And that is when it hit me. I was seeing the world through my eyes, not hers.
When I was in 8th grade I was the Invisible Girl. No cape or fancy emblem, but my superhero power allowed me to blend in no matter how much I tried to stand out. And I really wanted to stand out. I would have traded my “I” for a “V” in a heartbeat in order to become the Visible Girl. As I listened to my daughter I realized that she was looking to do just the opposite, trade the “V” for an “I.” She just wanted to blend in. She pointed out that there were only three Caucasian girls in the 8th grade gifted program, the rest were Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese), with a few east Indians represented as well. The other white kids were in the regular academic program and they all hung out together. The Hispanic kids and the African American kids also had their own cliques. The great divide in the school was between who was considered smart and who was not. My daughter craved the “I” so much, she was willing to trade in her “V” status, which in this case was her intellect. Belonging is a powerful human need.
Thankfully, even though I eventually learned how to accomplish selected visibility, I still have my superhero power of blending in. Without the need for turn signals or hand gestures, I easily maneuver between the lines, occupying the space between sects, cliques and arbitrary delineations. Now was the time to hang out in the space between “smart” and “not smart.” I apologized for trying to plan a coup of the math teacher and said the words that any “smart” person dreads: I was wrong. By admitting that I wasn’t very smart, I became brilliant. I realized that sometimes the first day of school turns out to be a really bad day.
So here’s to the second day of school, which my daughter tells me was quite good. No need for superhero powers, no alternate universe, just a good day. And here’s to remembering the power of living in the space between the lines and a reminder to channel Invisible Girl a little more often.