Noe Valley Voice July-August 2006

First Day of Preschool

By Robin Dutton-Cookston

We walk into the carefully organized classroom, and the panic sets in. Not in Grace. In me. I notice every grubby detail that I must have missed at the orientation last month. Those kitchen toys are just jumbled in a pile. And when were those costumes last washed? The room is too quiet. Those cool toys are up too high where the kids can't reach them. The playground looks wet and cold. There are only boys here. Where are the girls? Will Grace be the only girl?

I am wild-eyed, surveying the room like a lioness ready to devour any threat to her young. Grace hugs my leg, prompting me to get it together.

"Let's put your things in your cubby, okay?" I say to my daughter.

This suggestion is exciting, and she detaches herself from my leg to unload her backpack. We take a casual tour of the room, where the toys don't look so bad. In fact, some of the work centers seem pretty cool. I make a note to copy an idea for Play-Doh accessories back home.

We go outside, and Grace helps her teacher, Christina, get the sand toys out of the storage shed. I see a daddy, who is wearing a baby in a sling, dropping off his little boy. I breathe a sigh of relief that there are some other cool parents. Then I silently scold myself for thinking that using a sling makes someone cool.

A youngish mom with unusual facial piercings brings her daughter by, and I am relieved to see a girl. Again I scold myself for my bizarre attachment to gender balance. She's not even 3! Who cares if she plays with boys or girls?

After spending a few minutes watching Grace dig in the sand, I announce that it is time for me to leave. I crouch down at kid level, and Grace clings to me harder than I have ever felt. Her arms envelope my neck and she crawls up my body like she is trying to go back inside my womb.

"Please take me home with you! Please don't go!" she begs.

"Why don't you walk us to the door?" I suggest.

She does, and the teacher's aide silently follows behind. At the door Grace cries and begs again. I fight back my own tears.

"I love you so much, Grace. And I am so proud of you. You are going to have a great time today, and I will come back to get you later. I promise."

She still won't let go. I start to stand up, to force the separation, no matter how painful. Grace grabs the scarf from my neck so that it unwinds as I stand. "Can I keep this until you get back?" she says.

"Of course you can."

And just like that she switches into chatty, happy Grace mode. She turns to Roxie, the teacher's aide, and says, "This is my mommy's scarf, and I am going to keep it for her until she comes back." Then she turns and heads out to play.

And I feel okay. We leave the classroom and peek through the one-way observation window in the hall. The scarf is knotted around Grace's neck, and she is chatting away with Roxie.

I remember the game we played yesterday, initiated by Grace, where she said that she was the mommy taking me to school. She asked me to cry when she left, and then she said she would give me something to hold until she got back. I can't believe I didn't proactively remember that game this morning. Kids are so amazing at making sure their needs are met, and yesterday she was definitely letting me know what would give her comfort. Grace knew what would make her feel better, and when I forgot to give her a little something of mine, she went ahead and took my scarf. Simply amazing.

Later, when I go back to pick Grace up, she doesn't want to leave. "But I'm still playing, Mama!"

I finally persuade her to head out to the car with a promise of a box of soymilk that waits for her. In the hallway, she talks and talks about her day. The words are a blurry chatter of kidspeak, and I have trouble making it all out. But something does jump out at me.

"I had fun, fun, fun at school today. It is full of love."

I am so relieved and grateful to hear this that I almost burst into tears.

Robin Dutton-Cookston is a fulltime mom and a part-time writer. She writes an online column called "The Foggiest Idea" and also self-publishes a parenting zine called Apron Strings.

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