Most of us still have vivid memories of our first day in school. My mother says she can still see, like yesterday, that morning in the mid-1950s, when she turned to look at her mother as she walked out the door of the classroom, leaving her alone in this new and unfamiliar environment for the first time.
I can, in turn, recall my mother’s last warm and comforting embrace on my own first day in school in the early 1980s. I remember that there was a lot of noise and fuss, and that other boys were crying, and pleading with their mothers not to abandon them. My heart was also swollen with emotions, but I felt keen to stay. Most importantly, my teacher, whose face I can still see, seemed very kind.
The first day in school is a rite of passage, when a child moves out into the world, and beyond their parent’s protection, for the first time. School will be a key focus in their lives for the following 14 years.
The first day is at once traumatic and thrilling. You have a great sense of responsibility in guiding your own child through this landmark event in their little lives. My five-year-old daughter had been ruminating on this for months prior to the actual event.
The day before school was due to start, she was a jangle of emotions. About every hour she asked for “a huggle”. She was playing excitedly with her siblings, but with a palpable nervous energy. I gathered her older brother and sister around and explained to them the turmoil of emotions she would be feeling the day before starting school.
I asked her if she felt excited about school tomorrow. She nodded and that she was excited, burying her head into my chest. I said, “Are you also a little bit scared?” She replied instantly, “Really scared!” I told her that everybody feels a bit excited and scared when starting school.
Her older brother and sister told her they understood, and that they had felt exactly the same before their first day. They said that as soon as they had gone in, they realised there was nothing to be scared about, they weren’t afraid any more.
The next morning, the new schoolbag and lunchbox were carefully packed. She looked incredibly smart in her uniform. As we walked into the schoolyard, the older kids skipped off happily to their classrooms, with barely a glance over their shoulders. Our new starter was initially carried along with the merriment. Yet as we approached her classroom, the noise levels increased. She hesitated at the door, suddenly pale. She stopped, shook her head and said she didn’t want to go in. After some persuasion, she took a tentative step into the classroom, like the first man on the moon.
The noise inside was a deafening cacophony, there were parents and kids in motion around the room. Immediately in front of her was a girl in tears, wailing. A boy suddenly developed a determined expression on his face, and made a sprint for the door, in a spirited bid for freedom. His father ran after him down the corridor.
Amid the chaos, we guided her to her desk where two of her friends were sitting quietly, seeming only mildly traumatised. She began to slowly settle and play with the toys left on the desk. The other parents fell away slowly after the bell rang, depending on the emotional state of their charge. Our girl’s head fell mournfully the desk periodically, and so further medicinal hugs were required. We gave her a slow tour of the classroom, culminating in her teacher coming over to chat to her. She was buoyed by the attention, and didn’t even say goodbye as we reluctantly left.
At pickup time a spirited and happy girl bounded out of the classroom. It had all been great,h er teacher was lovely, and school was “brilliant fun”. At break time she had run over to her brother and sister in the yard and had also made new friends. With a bright smile, she announced, “I can’t wait to go back tomorrow!”