There’s a tiny, almost undetectable breeze lifting two, maybe three, crisp leaves off the surface of the blacktop on the upper playground at Yick Wo Public Elementary as our principal raises her megaphone, and 200 children, all dressed in brand-new knife-pleated skirts or carpenter’s jeans rolled five fat times at their ankles, scurry to find their lunch-stuffed backpacks and try vainly to control the Brownian movement that anticipation of the first day of school has visited upon their narrow-chested bodies.
I hold my hand over my heart and turn toward the flag for the, oh, 3,000th time in my life, and it occurs to me that some of those narrow-chested bodies aren’t so narrow anymore. They’re taller, too, the ones I’ve been watching for the last five years, especially my own new fourth grader — as big as the fifth graders he’ll be saying goodbye to next spring as they’re launched into the hormonally charged outer space beyond elementary school. For now these boys might be content to crash each other’s Micromachines, the girls to earnestly chirp Spice Girls lyrics we parents hope they don’t yet understand (“If you wanna be my lover, you better get with my friends …”), but that’s all coming to an end sometime soon, as the first day of school makes abundantly clear yet again. “I can hardly wait — I can’t wait — I can’t — I don’t know what I’m waiting for!” my son burbled into the mirror this morning, purposefully wet-combing his thick blond hair into some mysterious “style.”
School is no bed of roses, we all know that. Maybe it’ll just be the undesired desk partner your teacher picks for you, the kid who laughs derisively because you’ve never eaten a TV dinner; maybe it’ll be a frustratingly endless experience of riding up against an ideology utterly counterpoised to your own. For parents, September means smiling through clenched teeth as you’re strong-armed into standing at an intersection for a three-hour shift, holding up a handwritten sign advertising “ScHooL cAr WASH.” And back to school will always be the frame through which you see the telescoping of time. Once the flag’s been saluted and the bell has rung and the last sweet notes of the song have faded and all of those young bodies, cloaked — for now — in the tissue of newness and anticipation, begin trouping away from you and through the doors, you might find, like me, you can hardly bear to watch.