Wiped Out

This piece first ran in our local paper, the Valley News, on Finn's first day of school at Lyme Elementary. Yesterday was Finn's first day of eighth grade, his final first day at our little village school, so here's my love letter to his school, our town, and its traditions.

As a parent and a teacher, September has always represented the promise inherent in handfuls of freshly sharpened pencils and new beginnings. I adore the first day of school, I can’t wait for the arrival of my tanned, happy students, and oh - that first day of class, when anything is possible.

But this year holds special promise for me, as Finnegan, my youngest child, will step up on to the big yellow #2 bus and ride off into his new life as a student at Lyme Elementary School. It’s been a long time coming. I wrote about this day in a letter to my parents years ago, after attending Lyme Elementary School’s holiday concert. Ben, my older son, was in third grade, and therefore officially part of the night’s performance, but four-year-old Finnegan stole the show and set the stage for his future as a part of the Lyme community.

Dear Mom and Dad,

We attended the holiday concert at the Lyme Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on the risers, dutifully mouthing holiday songs with the rest of the third graders. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was engaged in his own little performance. He was manically twirling to a beat of his own, tongue lolling, arms all akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, any flicker of interest from the object of his affection, the golden-haired Ellie from his preschool class.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally, but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by everyone within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. It went on for twenty minutes or so. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, finally, mercifully, Ellie giggled. Finn froze, awaiting his prize. Ellie whispered to her mother, and a triumphant Finnegan was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap for the remainder of the concert. He practically glowed with pride. People in the stands around us exhaled with relief, smiled, and whispered quiet congratulations for our son’s hard-won victory.

Nothing, not even the middle school band’s memorable rendition of the Surfari’s “Wipe Out,” could surpass Finn’s moment of transcendent joy in that crowded gymnasium.

However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I look forward to every year, is the Lyme Elementary School First Day Assembly.

Students, tanned and shining with excitement, race about in front of the school while parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. The whole town mills about, swapping stories and catching up. At exactly 8:10, Principal Jeff Valence ceremoniously rings the old school bell and students congregate near their new teachers, each holding up signs decorated with numbers indicating their respective grade. Older students fall into groups easily, while the younger ones stick to their parent’s legs and nervously search about for familiar faces. Then, starting with the kindergarten, each class processes down the sidewalk and through the school’s front doors. Most years, the kindergarteners make it into the school under their own power, but every once in a while, the line of tiny children is punctuated by a mom or dad, clutching their weepy child to a moist shoulder.

This procession moves in to the gym, where Jeff introduces the teachers and offers up words of inspiration to the students and parents. He might even introduce a kindergartener’s love-tattered stuffed animal to the crowd in order to set a particularly insecure child at ease. Finally, he steps back from the podium and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. We all know it’s coming, we’ve seen it many times, but it’s always the best part of the year. All of the new eighth graders stand at the front of the gym with the kindergarteners in a line in front of them. The eighth graders, who just moments ago seemed so young and vulnerable, morph into hulking, capable giants alongside the tiny kindergarteners.

And then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through this first school year. This exchange has taken place for so long that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their towering giants were the weeping babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment, a real vow. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the relationships and day-to-day workings of the school.

I am in awe of this moment, and I can’t wait for Finnegan to be a part of it.

Years later, Ellie’s love for Finn has long since faded, but he is about to enter that gymnasium once again, where so many wonderful things will happen to him. School concerts, middle school dances, town meetings. He will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, and someday, vote in that room. As I send Finnegan off on his first day of school, I am so very grateful. For it is that gymnasium, those teachers, and the people of Lyme, who will bear witness to all my son’s future stumbles and soft landings.