Our kids are beyond elementary school now, so we pretty much kick them out the door and change the locks at the end of each summer. But for those parents and their children experiencing the first day of kindergarten, well, that is vastly different. Parents taking their kids to kindergarten on the first day tend to linger. Kindergarten might be in my family’s rear-view mirror, save the fact my wife currently teaches in the land of finger paints and story time, but I remember our last first day of kindergarten quite well.
We’d already been through it twice. Maybe our lingering at the school that day had nothing to do with letting the kids go. Maybe we knew it was our final walk into a room full of innocence and unbridled enthusiasm, and that the seriousness of real life and real school was waiting right down the hall in first grade.
On our last first day of kindergarten, Wilkins asked me to escort him to class, leaving his mother to deliver his twin brother to a different room. I was honored, because he usually hung closer to his mom. He even allowed me to hold his hand as we wandered down the hall.
We had barely crossed the threshold of the classroom and introduced ourselves to his teacher when I spotted a potential problem. I kept the pleasantries with the teacher to a minimum, figuring we would be talking at length over the course of the school year, and steered my little man to his desk. A coloring assignment was waiting for him.
I watched for a few moments. He was coloring a family. The mom was red, the father was purple, and he colored the little girl black. His hand was hovering over the gray Crayon for his brothers when I spoke.
“Wilkins, do not look up, but we need to talk about one of the other children in your class.”
“Really?” he said. He set the gray Crayon down, but did not raise his head.
I spoke in a low voice. “There is a girl on the other side of the room who is a little bit different. I want you to know about it before you see her, but I do not want you to look right now.”
I could see his neck muscles flexing as he fought to somehow twist just enough to view the room without appearing to do so. I moved around him, making sure I was between his desk and the girl in question.
“What is it, Dad?” he said once I blocked his view. “What makes her different?”
“Well, she’s missing an arm.”
His eyes widened at the prospect of such a glorious thing to marvel about. Then he nodded and picked up the gray Crayon.
“Do we know how she lost it?”
“No, and we are not going to ask about it today,” I said. “It is the first day of school. Show and tell will not be about her lack of an arm. She might be nervous, just like you are. I don’t want you to bombard her with questions. Or say anything about it. Not yet. OK?”
“I mean it. Not a word. We can talk about it after school.”
He nodded, suddenly intent on the coloring. I stayed with him for a few more minutes, then slipped into the hall. My wife met me between the classrooms; we were switching before turning them loose.
“Jacks is fine,” my wife reported on the twin I was headed to see.
“Wilkins has a girl in his class with only one arm,” I responded.
Then my wife was past me, but not before I saw the look of concern on her face. It wasn’t the biggest deal in the world. Except we both knew that our son was a torrent of inquisitive energy. He has a huge heart, and would not knowingly hurt anyone. But he sure would be curious. And he would act on that curiosity. And this wouldn’t be the general curiosity you see in most kids, but a laser beam type focus directed at this child and her lack of an appendage.
I could only imagine the questions he would ask once he was turned loose on her. “Does it hurt?” “How did you lose it?” “Do you get lopsided when you walk or run?” “Can you whack someone on the head with that nub?” “How do you play Go Fish?”
It was my wife’s problem now. I checked on the other twin, Jacks, and everything was perfect in his little rule following world. I suspected the separate classes and brief respite from his brother would be a relief, even if he didn’t know it.
After that, I was supposed to meet my wife in the parking lot, but I couldn’t help myself. There were still parents milling around. I wasn’t in nut-job parental lingering territory yet, and the classroom was practically on my way out. So I stuck my head inside the door for a peek, and there was Wilkins, still coloring away. It was quieter. The teacher stood in the back of the room with one parent. A few other parents were still hovering over their kids. Then Wilkins saw me.
“Hey dad!” he yelled across the room.
I gave him a little wave, then held my finger to my lips. He colored for one more instant then looked back up at me.
“Oh yeah,” Wilkins yelled. “I met that girl with one arm. She was born that way. Her name is Harper. She’s right over there.”
My eyes drifted across the room. Everyone, the teacher, the remaining parents, the kids, were all looking at me.
Harper beamed at me, and gave me a wave with her nub.
Harper and Wilkins became fast friends. They were a good mix. She was a tough little no nonsense thing and seemed to dial back some of Wilkins’ energy. And, as expected, we got to know the teacher quite well, with numerous meetings and conferences spread over many an afternoon for the entire school year.
And while we’re well beyond kindergarten now, some things haven’t changed. Wilkins recently produced a sheet of paper at the dinner table. My wife read it and frowned. It was a behavior interaction plan. Wilkins had been too talkative, and he had been blurting out answers in class when he had not been called upon. His new teacher was putting a plan in place to address his issues. Wilkins was supposed to write his teacher a letter to explain why he was engaging in such talkative, impetuous behavior. When he mentioned the letter in the form of a question, neither parent had much of a response.
“Tell her you just can’t help yourself,” my daughter offered.
“You could say that all that noise is deep down inside you and you feel like you will explode if you don’t let it out,” my oldest son said.
Jacks, his twin, spoke around a mouthful of chicken. “Just blame it on our triplet brother you ate in the womb.”
For once, Wilkins said nothing. Perhaps he was pondering his own behavior, and wondering why he was like he was. Even more, perhaps he was wondering why the person he has always been could be at such odds with institutions like a school, or a library, or a hospital or a museum.
Being married to a teacher, I understand better than most what they deal with on a day to day basis. As a parent I will continue to support the educators who are trying to teach all of my kids in an imperfect system and without a whole lot of help from many of the parents. But I often feel like we are trying to shoehorn this particular kid through that system. The most important thing for me is to get him to the other side without completely changing who he is. I want him to ask questions to the point of being a nuisance, instead of simply accepting something as the truth because someone said that’s what it was. I want him to continue to inhale information, even as he does so in somewhat non-traditional ways. And I don’t want anyone to pull him toward the mainstream, because they are convinced it will be good for him to be more like everyone else. Wilkins is unique, he is different, and he can be difficult.
After surviving that first year of kindergarten we took a summer road trip to Colorado. It was the middle of the night when I pulled up to a lonely toll booth somewhere in Oklahoma. Except for Wilkins, the rest of the passengers were sleeping. He had been carrying on a steady dialogue from a car-seat behind me. Wilkins started asking questions about tolls, and empty highways and Oklahoma. I rolled down his window as I rolled down my own.
The toll operator leaned out to take my money.
She only had one arm.
To his credit, Wilkins said nothing. I received my change, thanked the lady, and we pulled away.
Wilkins waited a few miles. When he spoke, his voice was heavy, and I knew sleep was finally about to overtake him.
“Dad, do you think that was Harper’s mother?”
I left the question unanswered, smiling to myself as we rolled through the night. I usually smile when I think about this child. What’s not to like? The drive of life continues with a kid who refuses to stay in his lane. We survived that school year. We’ll survive the ones to come. And Wilkins will live to talk another day.