Monday 16 September 2019

Barry Egan: 'Joy, tears, pride and heartbreak... it must be the first day of school'

This man's life

Stock photo: Getty
Stock photo: Getty
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The first day of school. As the columnist Glenn Collins pointed out in a 1986 article for The New York Times: "Are there five other words in the language capable of evoking as much anxiety and anticipation in children, words that trigger as many powerful memories among adults?" As a rite of passage, the first day of school is as evocative in 1986 as it was four centuries ago, when Shakespeare noted in As You Like It, Act II - "the whining schoolboy, with his satchel, and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school".

Thursday was our daughter's first day of school. Despite the Bard's emotive description, she went more than willingly. If anything, she was a particularly joyous, and unstoppable force of nature - with a giant school bag on her tiny back.

On that momentous day, we all went into the classroom together: the girl of the moment, her parents and her extremely curious little brother in his buggy. She hung her coat on the hanger with her name on it. She sat down at her desk with her name on it. She made new friends almost instantly. It was beautiful to watch it all unfold.

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It was only when it came time for mummy, daddy and her brother to leave that the tears started to flow. Nor was it just our daughter who cried tears of pent-up emotion. There were plenty of tears rolling down the faces of mummy and daddy too (and her baby brother as well, primarily, because the 19-month-old wanted to be fed). I felt those butterfly stirrings of anxiety for our daughter, seeing her angelic face looking at us as we walked backwards out of the classroom. It was heartbreaking to see her teary eyes catch ours, equally teary.

I hoped she didn't feel abandoned even for a second - watching us leave her with strangers - strangers that were moments later to become her friends.

I'd read somewhere that kids never forget that feeling. That first separation on their first day at school.

Yet, as some wise sage once said, firsts are best because they are beginnings; so learn as much as you can while you are young, since life becomes too busy later.

It was a big moment for her. And us. It was a sad moment, too, that our little daughter perhaps wasn't so little any more and was on her way to becoming a grown-up. It was the end of one part of her life and the start of another. But I was immensely proud of her as she walked in through the school gates for the first time at 9am. In fact, she didn't walk through the school gates. She propelled herself at great speed on her little scooter. Her parents and her little brother were behind her, trying to keep up. I suspect this will be a theme for the next decade or so: trying to keep up with our daughter.

She went to bed exhausted at 8pm on Thursday. Her last words to me as I finished her bedtime story and kissed her goodnight were: "You're very proud of me for going to big school, aren't you, daddy?" I answered that I was.

But pride was only the beginning of it. I was so happy for her when she woke at 7am on Thursday, with her pristine uniform laid out in her bedroom from the night before. And her school bag packed with a pencil case, books and a lunchbox, full of healthy treats.

Her first words as she ran into mummy and daddy's room that morning were an ode to the future, her future, as well as a kind of requiem of sorts for her childhood innocence: "I'm going to big school today!"

I have never seen a child so happy or so delighted about anything. She skipped down the stairs to have her brekkie.

Over her Weetabix, she poured her little heart out about how excited she was to meet new friends in the playground and in the classroom and how "today was going to be the best day ever".

She was right. Thursday turned out to be the best day ever. She skipped out through the doors of her classroom with a smile that more than suggested happiness and joy in its purest and most wonderful form.

She absolutely loved school, learning, books, colouring, language, the playground, her school friends, and, most of all, her teachers.

My own experience wasn't quite love as a kid in school. My feelings were echoed in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, a fiction essay published in 2011 in The New Yorker magazine, where "the school was a mill, whose purpose was to grind you into its product"; a place "where I must, as a matter of life or death, keep my true self concealed".

I felt a twinge of sadness. The sands of time had slipped somehow through my fingers without me noticing it. It only seemed like yesterday that we brought her home from the hospital in a tiny cot.

Now she is a little lady who doesn't want you to hold her hand when she is crossing the road or tells you she can put herself on the swings herself at the playground now or can put her coat on herself or who wants a cup of tea - albeit a very, very milky one - with her breakfast, like her mother, or can tell the waiter what she wants in a restaurant. The list is terrifying and grows by the day.

Where did my baby daughter go? The answer: to big school.

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