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It’s been about two weeks since Marlo started kindergarten at the same school where Leta attends fifth grade, and if you were to ask her how she likes it I’m not sure which of the seven different answers you’d get. One day she will tell you that it is her favorite place on earth and she would like to live there. The next day she will tell you that the boy with the green shirt shoved her during lunch and because of that no one should be required to attend school ever. Or she’ll reveal to you that mischievous side of her that I have documented so frequently here and say with a completely straight face, “School? I don’t go to school. There is no such thing.”
On the first day I was worried that the drop-off would be difficult given that her drop-offs for the majority of preschool were filled with tears and resistance. But I guess the novelty of attending the “big kid school” overrode any of her fears. There was no crying, no pleading. She didn’t transform into an octopus and cling to my leg. It helped that her teacher who has worked extensively in early childhood education programs redirected each kid’s attention away from the doting parents toward the colorful rug in the middle of the room. It was magical to watch, like she was the fairy godmother in Cinderella waving a wand and making everyone’s worry disappear.
I may or may not have sung “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” under my breath as I skipped away. And then turned right back around and asked if she could transform my yoga pants into a killer ball gown.
Things remained this way for two days, and I was hopeful that it would continue. But on the third morning Marlo refused to enter the room and began crying hysterically. I knelt down, hugged her and asked her to tell me what was wrong.
“Please don’t leave,” she repeated again and again in my ear, her arms gripping my neck. I told her that I understood what she was feeling and assured her that I would see her right after school. We’d spend the entire afternoon and evening together. Her teacher saw this happening and when she came over and touched Marlo on the shoulder, Marlo reluctantly let go. She entered the room willingly, but looked back at me the entire way with sadness in every muscle of her face. Drop-offs continued to play out exactly like this.
There have recently been some very significant changes in Marlo’s life including this new school, a totally new routine, a class filled with kids she does not know, different winding hallways, and walls lined with towering lockers. She is processing a lot for a five year old. Even Leta is having to make adjustments. The work in fifth grade is significantly more intense than it was in fourth grade, and she’s slowly adjusting to the new rhythm. But instead of showing her frustration by crying at drop-offs she comes home every day, throws herself on the couch, and… wait for it… declares that life is totally unfair.
I hug her, assure her that everything is going to be okay, and then I tell her that I’ve ordered a book about American history so that I can help her understand the proper definition of “unfair.”
I immediately consulted with a social worker about Marlo’s separation anxiety, and she gave me a couple of ideas about helping to ease her worries. The first thing she had me do was sit in a chair behind Marlo and face her away from me. I then asked if she could see me. Naturally, Marlo whipped her head around and said, “Of course I can. You’re right there.” I told her to turn back around and close her eyes. Then I asked her the same question again. She threw both of her arms out from her sides to indicate that this game was just so boring and without turning around bellowed, “YES!”
“How can you see me?” I prodded.
“Because I know you’re sitting in that chair!” she answered.
At drop-offs I can remind her of this exercise. I may not be in the room at school with her, but I’m at home sitting in my chair. And she can see me in that chair.
Then the social worker told me that it might be beneficial if, in addition to being able to keep a favorite toy in her backpack, I have a few pictures of us together or pictures of some fun vacations and activities for her to access if she gets uneasy at school. So I printed out a ton of my Instagram photos—some of me and her together, some of her with her sister, some of our vacation to Minnesota, and a few of the dogs—and taped them inside a notebook (you could use something similar) with enough space around each one to let her doodle and draw and add stickers if she wanted to. I don’t normally get crafty like this, but this activity filled a lazy Sunday morning where we lingered around in our pajamas for far longer than is probably socially acceptable.
I went a step further, printed out a photo of the three of us together and taped it to the inside of a brand new lunchbox (the photo is laminated so that it won’t fuse with a sliced peach). At first I thought I wouldn’t tell her and just let it be a surprise when she got to school, but I didn’t want it to trigger any waterworks right there in the middle everyone’s goldfish crackers and juice boxes. So I had her help me affix it to the inside of the top of the box.
“At lunch you can pretend to share your banana with Leta!” I said as we finished the project. She started laughing hysterically because she was in on the joke, because she is very aware of how much Leta hates bananas. I won’t be surprised when this lunchbox returns home and Leta’s face is smeared with banana.
She’s been attending school with these two things for a few days. When the bell rings I lean down and remind her to see me sitting in that chair, and then I point first to the notebook in her backpack and then to her lunchbox and say, “We are with you always.” I emphasize this by holding my palm over my heart and then reaching that same hand over to hold it over hers. I think she’s still trying to get her footing, but the tears have eased up a bit. She remains a little uncertain, but I think that if I keep reinforcing these things and encourage her to express her feelings to me that things will get better. Growing up is scary, but everything will be okay.
Everything will be okay.
Those words were spoken to me by my mother during so many transitional and frightening moments of my childhood, and they always made me feel better. Now it’s my turn to pay that forward.