Watching a child’s first steps to independence

By Jayson Jacoby September 07, 2012 09:45 am

The real landmark moment for a parent isn’t watching your child walk with timid steps into a classroom for the first time.

It’s what happens later the same day.

When the kid comes bounding out of the building, backpack straps bouncing off her little shoulders and a big smile on her face.

That’s when you know that her world has expanded, finally and irretrievably, to include a place where you will always be something of an interloper.

A place where you are always welcome, to be sure.

But also a place where you are not, strictly speaking, necessary.

My younger daughter, Olivia, started kindergarten last week.

I hadn’t been inside a kindergarten classroom for many years. But it seemed to me that nothing significant had changed there during my long absence.

The tiny chairs, so intimidating to adult knees and other unreliable joints.

The walls festooned with posters, at least one featuring the inevitable kittens.

The alphabet stretched across the top of the blackboard, each letter perfectly rendered in both capital and lowercase, including the small “q” with that squirly tail I could never master.

Except that’s not quite right.

(Well, the part about my failure to perfect the “q” is right.)

The blackboard, though, isn’t black.

And there isn’t a single stick of chalk in sight.

Teachers these days use felt markers to write on dry-erase boards, which are as white as a blizzard.

I see a couple of laptop computers on the premises.

Olivia’s teacher, Mrs. Garner, mentions the imminent arrival of half a dozen iPads.

Technology aside, though, the atmosphere reminded me strongly not only of the first classroom my older daughter, Rheann, attended 16 years ago, but of my own distant days in kindergarten.

This nostalgia was neither cloying nor maudlin.

I felt refreshed.

Invigorated, even, by the basic goodness of a room where the main goal is to impart essential knowledge to young brains which have only just begun to flex their considerable power.

The public schools are of course part of the political arena.

Pretty much any discussion of education will eventually get around to such topics as recalcitrant teachers’ unions, an overreliance on inflexible standardized testing, and — at least in Oregon — egregiously generous public pensions.

Each is a legitimate, and important, issue.

Yet none seemed to me terribly vital as I watched Olivia sitting with a few of her classmates, their chairs pulled up to a table that didn’t reach my knee, their heads, some still bearing the marks of mom’s brush in their hair, bent in concentration as they carefully colored Winnie the Pooh.

I felt instead the sense of anticipation — equal parts fear and joy — that marks the beginning of any great journey.

And a smidgen of sadness, too.

I will play a role in the adventure — sometimes guide, more often chauffeur.

But the ultimate destination, whatever lies at the end of the path that starts in this room with its bright colors and eager little faces, is not mine to decide.

I suppose I knew this to be the truth long before this day.

But had I harbored any doubt, it disappeared a few hours later when Olivia rushed out of the doors, looking to me, in that instant, as carefree and independent as an eagle riding a summer thermal, ever higher, and farther.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.