Separation, The First Day of School

A couple of weeks ago, early Monday morning, I was pacing around my apartment, completely preoccupied–actually, obsessed might be the better word–with my son’s departure for college the next day. I knew I was going to see him later in the afternoon for a couple of hours, but when I realized he was going to be boarding a plane in less than 24 hours, the reality of his leaving seemed almost too much to bear. I was buzzing with all sorts of feelings. I needed to take a walk, work off the overflow of adrenalin I was piling up inside myself. I walked out of my apartment building and straight into the great swirling river of humanity out on Broadway.

So consumed was I with sadness over my son’s leaving and memories of other, past separations, I had forgotten that this morning was opening day for the New York City school system. Of course, there was no good reason to remember it; my daughter was already 23 and my son was far from being the little boy I once had to walk to school. But, as soon as I hit the street, I saw them. Everywhere… Children and parents getting into cars, walking, waiting at bus stops; repeating the great Fall ritual that seems to have been going on forever.

I knew all about this first-day-of-school routine. I’d done it all before with both of my kids; pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, Junior High. Even I myself, somewhere back in the earliest days of antiquity, had once had a first day at school. But, given the massively dysfunctional nature of my family, it was very likely that I had just been handed a lunch box and told to find the school myself.

As I walked up Broadway, I could feel the expectation and the excitement, the fear and the sadness in all these hurrying people. And of course, as I remembered vividly from my own experience, it was much worse for the first-timers; the parents who had never let their kids go off all day with strangers before; and the kids who had never been sent away for hours at a time to be with people they had never seen before.

One qualification here… There is one group of parents and first-time school kids who already had this experience of separation. I’m talking about the depressing Upper Middle Class tendency in my neighborhood for both parents to go off to their IMPORTANT careers all day (and sometimes half the night and some weekends) and leave their little children with baby-sitters. This is something you can see all over the city, and I have to say I have never really understood it. What’s the point in having a kid at all if the first thing you do, sometimes within weeks after they’re born, is hand off the child to a total stranger. Especially, I wonder (is this my old-fashioned prejudice at work here?), how could a mother leave her baby or two-or-three-year-old with a woman hired to play with them and feed them? Whatever the reasons, these poor kids already knew what it was like to be dropped off with strangers all day; so, presumably, this ritual was not much of a shock to them.

Well, back to First-Day blues…

Since I was so engrossed in my roiling feelings about my son going off, and, as I said, it so painfully reminded me of separations I went through when I was a child, I felt I could sense a great jangling hum of anxiety and fear all around me; the kids who had never before faced such a startling and overwhelming change to their routine. Going from individual care, parent or even beloved baby-sitter, to the collective mercies, and not always such tender mercies, of teachers and a mass of strange children.

Sure, it’s not all bad. There is the natural excitement and curiosity of The New, of going out in the wide world to see what there was to see. I think that the more “normal” a kid is–the more adjusted to reality–the more likely they will look forward to being with their own tribe, as it were; that is to say, other kids; the Sibling Society. But still, no matter how well prepared emotionally, they have to have the same kind of fear that Columbus’s crew had, sailing across the ocean into the unknown. Who can really say what awaits them? They wonder who will comfort them, who will understand them. Will they be ignored, will they be ridiculed? And how much harder it is for the ones that know, despite whatever good and consistent love has been given to them, that there is something a little different or odd about them?

This fear could seize any kid who is new to a situation. It doesn’t have to be the first-time kindergartner. It could be, for instance, an eleven-year-old headed for her first day in Junior High.

I saw one girl walking with her father. She was very long and tall, like a young giraffe; long thin legs, very, very long arms. You noticed her immediately;she looked almost like Olive Oyl.

So tall was this girl, that you could, at a distance, have taken her for fifteen or sixteen. But the immediate tip-off on her real age was that she was holding her father’s hand; no teenager is going to do that. Her father was about six feet, but he was big, stocky, overweight. Must be her mother, I thought; her mother’s the tall, lanky one.

Now one day, and maybe not too far into the future, this girl might be beautiful but now she’s a bit of an ugly duckling. When she hits that playground, some of the boys, most of them shorter than her, most of them afraid of sex and girls in general, will make fun of her.

And the girls, no less cliquey and potentially vicious, trained by magazines, television and movies to “know” what sexy is (Brittany, J. Lo), will see her as not exactly One-of-them. So, unless this gangly girl has charisma, or brilliance or a lot of self-confidence, she might wind up on the fringes or alone. More likely though, assuming she is within some statistical range of normalcy, she will just, as most kids do, find a friend or two on the edges of the group; a friend who is also ?different.? And they will become fast friends, sharing every whisper and laugh, every bag of junk food they buy for lunch.

As I pass this girl, her face flushed with excitement, I can see that she is secure in her father’s love. She has that, and most of the time that’s enough to get you through anything. Her father knows, because maybe he’s been through it himself, or seen the reaction to his daughter before, that his girl is going to have to go through something difficult. And he feels this pain in his heart because he loves her. All of this is unspoken.

As I walk around the neighborhood, I see more and more of this great annual parade. The kids are all ages and sizes. Some are pretty or handsome, some are fat or funny looking; graceful or awkward, quiet and composed, or loud and twitchy. Most of them hold their parents’ hands. They look up at them, their emotions going up and down like a crazy thermostat. It is inconceivable to these kids that this big, strong, all-knowing person will not be there if they need something–anything.

I passed one little boy, with a patient mother. He was stomping about two feet ahead of her, little fists clenched, face scrunched and angry, looking like he was about to cry. Over and over he’s saying: “School is stupid! School is stupid!” And she, with that eternal look of forbearance and love on her face is saying; “I know. I know.”

At the bus stops, the kids are milling around. The ones who have been to school before, the seasoned veterans, with their back-packs and their hair pins and their decorated key chains, are looking for familiar faces, glad to see their friends again. But the first-timers and the ones who can never get used to the separation–even if they’ve been through it before–cling like they’re being sent away forever. One little girl–and I remember this because it happened with my daughter when I took her to kindergarten–had her arms and legs wrapped around her mother. These kids are like frantic monkeys. Loosen one arm, the other wraps around you. Pry loose a leg, and both arms grab you again.

Between the kid not wanting to let go, and the partial
feeling in the parent of not wanting to let them go; well, there is no stronger glue in the world. As all of us who are still trying to make our way through this strange world know this.

As I walk the streets, seeing all this parting, all this separation, it reminds me of my own childhood…

I lived with a crazy mother and a disappearing father; separations were constant and dramatic. I lived most of my life in a universe of cold distance and silent yearning. In the end, both my parents were removed permanently from me, violently and suddenly; and it was given to me to understand that I was in some way responsible for their disappearance.

And so, I imagine that I have a special knowledge about separation and loss; that I know how terribly precious these ritual moments can be–having lived most of my own young life without them. And later, having experienced them with my own kids; then being divorced and missing so many of these moments, day in, day out, for years… What I have stolen from my own kids and what I have stolen from myself?

All of this, the recollections, the guilt, is overlapping with my increasing fear and sadness of “losing” my son. Straighten up, Mike! Big deal; he’s going away to college, he’s not going to the moon; he’s not dying, for Christ?s sake! That’s the rational way to understand it. He’ll be home for the holidays. He still needs you. Right, thank you very much; now leave me to my irrational grief.

Beneath all these common departures occurring in great multiples all around me, omnipresent in these, after all, only temporary goodbyes, is that thing that always lurks… that subterranean river of dark foreknowledge that flows under everything.

These kids have to grow, of course. It is unnatural to try to prevent it, but there is something in you that wants to prevent it–even against your own best knowledge and natural concern for their best welfare. For as they grow, you grow. As they age, you age. And there lies the twist in the heart. There is something you know that they don’t–at least on a conscious level–that there is a limit to growth; a time when growing slows down, then stops. Mortality. Death.

I think this knowledge of mortality is resident in every act of separation. Each parting is a microscopic touch of death, just there, on the tip of a nerve ending. A quivering–invisible to the human eye–that is transmitted to the depths of the soul. But this parting, this splitting away, is also the very essence of growth itself! Mitosis, the splitting apart of the cell, creating new life; the eternal pattern; the daily sundering and rejoining, the under-rhythm of all life; together and apart, apart and together, world without end?

If you can?t adjust yourself (and I have never successfully done it) to this primal pattern of existence, then you will always be confused, always be suffering agonies from the slightest good-bye.

Watching all these parents and kids with their anxious faces, thinking about my son leaving tomorrow, feeling all this sorrow welling up inside me, I think there must be an ineradicable memory, in the blood, in the nucleus of each cell, that remembers The Great Division, the original parting: Birth.

And after this great parting, it all seems a mad, unbalanced and confusing scramble. But, installed in us, right at the factory, so to speak, is the mirror image of the parting process. There is, in all of us, an undeniable force that urges us to re-join.

Just as in a great symphony, with its pauses, its crashing slides, its soaring and diving melodies and bitter-sweet harmonies, there is, finally, a re-uniting. We live out the strange music of our lives; every chord, every change in temp; all the shifting of tone and color; cacophony, ethereal melodies, sublime harmonies, crashing explosions, all of this ends with a single, vibrant, uniting chord. The echo of eternity, repeated, over and over, till it passes beyond our sight and hearing?

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

– Mike Feder (New York City – September 22, 2003)

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