Reflections on the First Day of School

6 Sep

Lucy's first day of pre-school, one year ago. She was a LOT happier than I was on my first day!

As school begins for millions of Americans across the nation today, I can’t help but think of some of my first days of school. Some first days were good. Some not so much.

My first day of pre-school was, unsurprisingly, a huge stress. In my mind I picture myself wearing a blue and white gingham dress, though I’m not really certain that I was. I do know for sure that I sat on the front steps and would not go in. I wept. I probably sulked. I think I clung to my Snoopy doll that somehow got red paint on it which never came off, those being the days before washable Tempera.

I’m not sure how long I sat there before my teacher dragged me in. Well, probably not dragged literally, but for sure coaxed, cajoled, encouraged me in. I think, once I was there, that I enjoyed myself. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I’d visited it before, but then MOMMY was with me!) I do know that when Mom picked me up on that first day I told her all about two friends I’d made – Eliza and Michelle – so it can’t all have been misery and damp gingham.

I don’t remember much about the successive first days of school after that for several years, which means, I suppose, that they all fit into the “not as stressful” category. But then, the summer after 9th grade, my parents and I (my sisters were out of the house by then) moved off of Orcas Island, Washington to Bend, Oregon. Bend was a small town of 18,000 then. Today it’s well over 100,000 and I’m sure I wouldn’t even be able to find our old house, let alone my high school.

The school, Mountain View High School, had about 1,000 students. Orcas Island High school had 120. Eliza and Michelle were still my classmates, as were the other 30ish kids we’d all grown up with. This new school, as you can imagine, was a bit overwhelming. (I remember wishing I could go to the other high school in Bend…it only had 800 students!) That first day of school fits into the misery category of first days. (Why is it that the bad and sad stuff is so much easier to remember than the good and pleasant stuff?!) I was shy. I was a bit of a nerd. I wore teal-blue corduroy. (What can I say? It was the ‘80’s.) I knew no one. No one…except one boy I’d met at church and who was a year ahead of me and completely out of my league. That didn’t stop me from having a crush on him for the entire year, but that’s another story!

That first morning, in French II, we had to do something in groups. Oy, vey! Group work: the scourge of every inhibited person. One girl, Anna, was particularly kind and that was nice. But then it was lunch time. The other scourge of the inhibited, new student. I’d never had to eat lunch alone before. I’d never had to introduce myself to people and ask if I could sit by them. I couldn’t ask a person to pass the salt without blushing. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face it.

So I took the sack lunch Mom had made for me and ate in the bathroom, last stall on the right. I did that every day for a week. (Perhaps this is why I HATE bananas and sandwiches to this day. And those brown, paper lunch sacks give me the willies.)

And then, in a stroke of grace, Anna asked me one day in French class if I wanted to sit with her and her friends at lunch. She told me where they usually sat; she said I’d be welcome. Just writing about this makes me smile. I don’t know if she’d noticed that she never saw me during lunch, or if the idea just occurred to her, or what, all I know is that her overtures to me made my day, my week, my year.

We were only in Bend for 11 months and then we moved to West Berlin, where, I am happy to report, that first day was unremarkable. That school was easy to be a new student in because, being a Department of Defense school, filled with children of military parents, everyone there had moved at least once, everyone knew what it was like to be new, everyone understood how to make friends. I’m certain, however, that had I moved directly to Berlin from Orcas, I would have been eating in the bathroom in complete overwhelming fear. Bend, as it turns out, was a blessing. That year of transitions and experience enabled me to sit down near some Berlin girls from English class without dying of embarrassment. Never again would I let myself eat in a bathroom stall.

First day of 3rd and 5th grades, one year ago...

It’s funny, writing this – I don’t usually like to write so seriously, so sentimentally. But there it is: part of my life. Somewhere along the line – and I’m not quite sure where, it was a process, I suppose – I changed. I am not so shy any more, not so intimidated. I can talk to complete strangers! I can even initiate the conversation. That’s a plus about growing up, getting older. Yes, it was an epiphany when I discovered that turning 40 wasn’t the end of the world! It was, in fact, freeing.

Given the right context today, I can be downright obnoxiously loud! Or, at least unafraid. Unafraid of what people think of me, unafraid of offending, unafraid of new situations. When I went to graduate school, I on-purpose picked a school (Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN) where I knew no one, had no friends to fall back on. I wanted to stretch myself, to force myself to reach out. It was an excellent experience.

Even on the first day.


7 Responses to “Reflections on the First Day of School”

  1. Rose September 6, 2011 at 11:04 am #


  2. CMO September 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    You are so clever, love it.

    You can choose to not post this if it is embarrassing, I won’t mind.


  3. Stacey Greely September 9, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    I wonder what it is, that makes some children SO excited about the first day of school, and others so..not. My new home has a bus stop right on the corner. It’s terribly cute to listen to all the excited chatter at the bus stop, coming in through the window as I sit with my morning coffee in my pjs, watching CNN. I’m also so very curious about all of the parents who come to the bus stop with their kids, and wait for them to get on the bus before leaving. Such was unheard of back in my day. Of course, I never took the bus. I walked to and from school-uphill both ways, of course.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 9, 2011 at 7:55 am #

      Yeah, it’s not the same parenting world that it was when we were kids. No more riding your bike alone to the corner store, or going alone to the bus stop, or walking a block to a friend’s house without supervision. I’m sure in some towns/neighborhoods you can, but not too many. And yes, it’s all a personality thing, I suppose – the first-day excitement or lack thereof! I’m glad you survived that double walk up hill! It’s amazing how hills used to work like that.

  4. Neeks September 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    I had to work and missed my daughter’s first day (it’s the only one I ever missed) to Pre-K. We had picked out the perfect outfit, had the new awesome lunchbox with matching thermos…saddle shoes. My Mom got her up and ready…put her long blond hair into two high ponytails, etc.
    I got a picture of her when she got home…ponytails coming down, one lower than the other, skirt sideways, shoes dirty. She had the BIGGEST grin on her face. It’s once of my most treasured pictures of her!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

      That sounds like the PERFECT kid picture! The after-effects of the first day of school…tells a better story than the before-school pic, I bet!

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