Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mom World vs. Kid World II: First Day Jitters

This morning we arrived at school right on time, even early. The girls were wearing the same short sleeved dresses they have been wearing for weeks; they were shivering for the first time since we arrived. I asked Grace if she were cold and at first she said yes. Then she admitted that she was actually just nervous. As we stood outside the portail that would finally divide us, waiting for it to be opened, Abigail burrowed into my body, and pulled my arms around her as though I were her sweater. My hands rested right on her pounding little heart.

The scene was familiar in some ways, totally strange in others. The Director M. __________ stood outside the school. Parents and children milled about, the kids dressed in their new clothes, and the moms dressed in diaphanous white outfits (I think they look strangely Floridian, but they are apparently quite stylish here) or little dresses. There were lots of dads on the sidewalk, several of them smoking, even the one talking with the Director.

When the door finally opened, the kids started to drain in little cliques down into the schoolyard. Each one kissed his or her parents twice, once on each cheek. The mothers of the smallest ones looked slightly stricken, the parents of the older ones utterly relieved.

In the car on the way from Sillans, we had practiced answering "comment t'appel tu?" and "quel age as tu?" as I thought those might be the questions that would be asked to get them into the correct classrooms.

Nothing like planning ahead -- I began their crucial French instruction in the car, on the way to school. If this doesn't get my parenting license revoked, then presumably nothing else I do this year will. For someone who prides herself on being so organized, this whole "neglect to teach the kids French" thing is awfully strange. But honestly, before today, we have tried, if fitfully. I think that the language has not taken hold because it has simply not registered with them that they might actually wish to try to learn some French. When it did, that realization fell like a ton of croque-monsieurs.

I suggested to the girls as gently as I could that it might be time for them to go. I tried to get them to hold hands and leave together a few times, but they stood firm as the rest of the kids walked past them. I was wondering how much of a fuss I would have to make to get them to start walking, when Abigail turned to face me and said, "I'm going."

I have no idea what got her from using me as a sweater to deciding it was time to walk away. Abigail will always be somewhat of a mystery to me, even though she seems at times so clear and straightforward.

They looked up into my face solemnly, unmistakeably asking me to give them their bisous, like the rest of the kids. I kissed them gently and slowly on each cheek. Or they kissed me. It was so strange, yet so right for where we were, and when. They left, hand in hand, to walk down the ramp, beyond where I could see.

I wish I could say that I wasn't one of the several mothers who hung around the gate, peering in to watch Abigail stand quietly on the side, waiting. I have always felt sorry for the ones who can't let themselves go, who don't have enough other things to do. It's fine when the kid is 3 or 4, but not being able to leave your seven-year-old is a little unseemly. I told myself it was for her. But it was me. I wasn't quite ready to leave until I saw her get rounded up into a classroom along with the other kids. I was pleased to see that Abigail's teacher was the one who had been most warmly greeted by her former pupils when she arrived at school that morning. (The teacher had driven up quite a bit after we got there, and walked into school all of five minutes before the students entered the building.)

I left, not sure whether to feel despair, guilt, pride, or simple relief. They had walked into school, of their own accord. I had left them in a building where they knew only two other children; only one of them was in Abigail's classroom, and he was six years old. I had no idea what their teachers' names even were, and no way of finding out. I had been asked quite clearly and firmly to stay on my side of the portail. I had no real reason to trust that anybody at all would take care of my children they way I thought they should be cared for.

I spent the morning getting ready for lunch, believing firmly that if I served just the right midday meal, they would be OK. It's hard to believe I could be so 100% Mom on this occasion, given that I have spent all of their other first-day-of-school mornings so occupied by other people's children. I rarely worried at all about my girls, so focused was I on making everything OK for 226 others.

I staved off anxiety by buying enough food for several lunches, everything by request: tortellini, chicken, and soup for Grace, and regular sliced bread and regular old American cheese (wrapped slices!) for Abigail's requested grilled cheese sandwich. Cream puffs as a surprise for Grace, as they had been such a religious experience the last time. I returned to our little apartment, which seemed so empty without kids in it. Bill was fully absorbed in other things, but I couldn't think about anything but the girls. I felt separated from the girls, and now separated from him by my own anxiety and his own more pressing concerns. I think I also felt separated from myself -- at least from the version of me who used to have more to do on this important day. I had a queasy feeling and could not settle my mind on anything useful aside from watching the clock. I was so relieved when it was time to go back and get them.

I was there ridiculously early, and forced myself to walk around for ten minutes before going to the gate. They emerged at 11:30, with a small group of about 20 other kids, the ones like mine who have parents at home to cook for them. Abigail came out first, and I gave her a little purple flower I had picked out of the grass next to the school. Grace came second, and she got a white one that was soft and puffy like cotton. They both looked relieved. Happy even. Abigail told me that she had had running races. Grace said that her teacher spoke nearly every language on the European continent, but not English. She thought he was funny. They were both fine. Absolutely fine. They asked for me to play music in the car, like they always do. I tried not to show them just how surprised I really was that they were so much more than just OK.

Back home, we fed them and listened to their stories. We drove them back to school for drop off, then spent the afternoon milling about Aups and reading at a café while drinking a single beer each, for about two hours. It felt like the most decadent thing we ever had done, but I still had to keep checking the clock after turning each few pages. I could not just enjoy the time.

While I was reading, day-dreaming, and wondering about them under the town's 400 year-old plane tree, what were they doing? They both told me that nobody expects them to do anything at school: they just have to sit quietly while the teacher talks. If that was the case, they would have lots of time to fill inside their own heads. What were they thinking about, those six blocks away from our table at the café? Were the other children being kind? Were the teachers?

When, exactly, would the sounds of the language start to unravel themselves for my girls so that they could join in the life of the school? And when would their French skills go zooming past mine?

Tonight we move from one apartment of les Baumes to a much smaller part next door. Already we have spent down our first two phases of our trip, and have just begun the next, which is the shortest. We will be in that new super-tiny apartment for two weeks, driving back and forth between here and school. Tonight I will pack up everything we own here (it is not much) and set it up in a new, again temporary place. I will stack the boxes of winter boots and coats and sweaters in the landlady's spare room, the one full of the sounds of bats in the walls.

The moon has been waxing for two weeks since we got over the worst of our homesickness. By the time it disappears once more Abigail will be 8 years old. It will be time to move to our new house, a short walk from the tiny school. The girls will have become adept at the little routines. When that homesick feeling gripped so tightly those first few weeks, I thought we would never be able to stay. Now we are in a new phase I can't quite believe I will work through. I feel so separate from the girls for hours at a time, alone in my worry, wondering how they will make their way, torn between fierce pride and lingering fear. For both of them, the day was significantly better than expected, and I was there to celebrate that with them.  Since I am the one who has done all the leaving lately, why do I feel so left behind?


  1. It is called.... giving your girls the gift of wings which allow them to fly (away from you & bill).

    I think it is much easier to be the receiver of the wings then it is to be the giver of the wings.

    I am so proud of Grace & Abigail!

  2. You can do it Momma! You're all so courageous.
    Thinking of you all often..