The Last Days of Childhood.

Yesterday morning I put a stamp on the envelope of Matthew’s kindergarten application. It’s a charter school twenty minutes away that’ll teach him math in Greek. I told facebook to keep it’s fingers crossed, half joking. Then I thought about it far longer than I expected to, keeping myself up last night with thoughts of all we’ve done to prepare for this next phase of his life. I wondered if it was enough, if it was too much, if there’s even such a thing as either.

I do want him to get into it (badly), but that isn’t what this mind-seize is about. If he has to go to Pleasantville or Thurgood Marshall elementary, I won’t throw myself off the edge of an overpass. This worry is about only having a year with him before kindergarten – and that’s probably because the other day, Spencer said this:

“Come on, let him live a little, Mommy. Seriously, do you realize that this is his last year of freedom? This is the last he’ll ever know of waking up whenever he wants, playing for as long as he wants, managing his time HOWEVER he wants. He’ll never have this freedom again. Let him live it up!”

Of course, this was following my hand-on-hip response to him handing our four-year-old a Coke-a-Cola 10 minutes before bed, but still. The sentiment was true. Painfully accurate, like a kick to the shin. God, this really is a crucial, fleeting time. So it begs the question: what do we do with it?

I feel a massive responsibility here because I’m the one in charge of his time. Since he isn’t going to a traditional pre-school, I have an obligation to invest a fair chunk of our time to preparing him for the “rigorous” curriculum ahead. Then again, my eldest child just got her period; the last thing on Earth I want to do is rush the process of growing them up.

I’m not even sure what it is I think I have to work so hard at “preparing” him for. Matthew’s always dealt well with change. We can leave him anywhere, with anybody. I can’t promise he’ll behave, but I can promise that (though he’ll be over-the-moon to see us pick him up), he won’t care we left. In fact, that whole over-the-moon bit is a bullshit ruse to fluff our egos; he does it to be polite. To him, new experiences have always been a welcomed adventure. He’s afraid of rides that go too high and too fast at the same time, but he’ll try them at least once just to make sure, and he isn’t afraid of new people or places or rules. He’s a sweet, take-charge kid.

And the boy is smart. By the way, do you mean to tell me there’s no place to indicate on a kindergarten application that this kid, right here, will someday be president of the United States? Like, for real?

I have no reason to worry that he isn’t as prepared for kindergarten academically or cognitively as he’ll ever need to be, but (probably because I’m a little bit of a psychopath) I ache to teach him more. He’s never led me to believe he’ll have trouble making more friends in a week than we can afford to feed at his 6th birthday party, but I get a tiny pang of apprehension if it’s been more than two days that he’s not visited a friend or more than a week since he’s learned a new name.

Enrollment is a year away, but it’s all just moving too fast. It’s hard to explain because I don’t want this process to take any longer than it has to, either. Keeping him home with me forever wouldn’t even help; he’d still grow, he’d still leave my side a little more every year, taking on more responsibility that I can’t shoulder for him – that I have less and less to do with even teaching him to carry. In a way, I kind of look forward to it just being over, and him being in that next phase of life so that I can be there for him, completely, knowing exactly the way that I need to be. Right now, there’s too much freedom, and I don’t like being uncertain about what to do with it.

If we spend half an hour at the park, for example, I wonder if it was half an hour well spent. Could we have been doing something somehow more enriching with our time, or should I have let him linger there a while longer. I wonder if I should be preparing him for classroom consequences by tolerating less, or I should pamper him in leniency while he still has a chance to savor the prerogative of a mother’s sympathetic shoulder.

This, of course, is a far cry from how he feels about these developments.

He’s been asking about how much longer he has to wait before he can go to school, like he’s expecting power rangers to chaperone recess or Santa Clause to cut his grapes in the cafeteria. Kindergarten, to him, is like some magical afterlife that he can’t wait to be promoted to. But I’m treating the boy like he’s some terminally ill family pet that I’m spoiling with extra table scraps, trying to ensure that at least his last days with me are comfortable ones. It’s pathetic and unnecessary, but that’s why I want it to be over. I’m not handling this with a whole ton of emotional grace.

 

~

So Saturday, a hot and breezless noon in the front yard evaporated into a cool, windswept twilight; the first of this year’s fall. Bantering between toys and friends from one yard to the next, Matthew was mosquito-bitten, filthy and free. His cheeks were flush with the color of fresh air and fun, his jacket barely hanging onto him. It took more than a dozen attempts at wrangling him inside before he was forced to comply. When he finally did, exhaustion had the chance to set in and he cried like it was the end of the world.

This is where I’d love to report that any doubts I had about what he needs from us right now, during this transitory time, dissipated into thin air. That we  scooped him up, smothered him in just the right dose of understanding and reassurance, and that it was fine. Or that we stayed strong in the face of his protest and would not tolerate any less than our due respect, and that it paid off. But it was messier than usual. We shooed him into the back door as best we could, one of us lecturing him and the other quietly helping to clean up the yard; then, out of guilt and uncertainty, trading roles. I start lecturing and Spencer lightens up on him a little, offering to help him pick up so that it won’t be so overwhelming for him. It doesn’t make his protest worse, but it doesn’t make it better, either.

Spencer’s battling the same demons I am, though I doubt it’s consciously. Where one night he’s nudging me to lighten up, to give the boy a little freedom, to let him march to the beat of his own drum while he still has the opportunity – the next, he’s exasperated at our “own child’s” unwillingness to march on demand at the crack of our voices. Plus, that little nugget of wisdom he gave me to chew on the other day wasn’t the first of it’s kind – which means that even if he doesn’t talk about it ad nauseam the way I do, it’s on his mind. We’re struggling to find a middle ground, here, and it sucks to feel like neither one of us has a grip on exactly what we need – or want – to do.

I sure wish that I could preserve this time in a jar on the mantle: the eccentrically sweet smell of dandelions and peanut butter and boyhood all stepping at once into an afternoon bath; the distinct thrill of a new library book every other Tuesday morning; the weight of his body, uneven and giggly in my arms at exactly this age. But more so I wish that I could do it without clipping his wings – without actually trapping him. Spencer and I are imperfect parents to an imperfect boy (or, you know, at least that’s what they tell me), and we don’t always agree on where to go or how to get there with him. Juggling so many of our own individual ideals and priorities and dreams for him can sometimes throw a wrench or two in even our best laid compromises. But what we both want the most for this boy is pretty straightforward.

We just want him to live like there’s nothing holding him back, not even us.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Days of Childhood.

  1. If Sarah Hazel were going off to Kindergarten next year, I would totally be freaking out about making the most of her last year of what is innocent childhood. Not saying school age kids aren’t innocent, it’s just different in a way that I can’t quite explain. It’s a whole new world when they go off to school.

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