On the first day of kindergarten, my daughter was so tired she fell asleep before we left the parking lot, though I woke her up for ice cream before we headed home.
On the second day of kindergarten, OY! She walked out of the house wearing her school t-shirt and a pink yarmulke. Her backpack was nearly as big as she was.
On the third day of kindergarten, my memory gets fuzzy. Life just kept on happening. Days shingled into weeks, and weeks fused into months, and now here we are, on a beautiful day in June, at the end of her first year of school.
Her hair has gotten longer, and she’s wiggled nearly half of her baby teeth loose. She discovered the bars on the playground, and she created new and different ways to play the Alphabet Game during our commute. She can now keep score when we play Sleeping Queens, and she can understand the words that I spell out to Daddy.
This past Thursday, she experienced tremendous loss when her class chicks, which she and her friends so lovingly cared for over the course of their incubation and infancy, flew the coop for greener pastures. She named them. She held them. She chronicled their youth in a journal. She accepted them when they pooped in their water. She taught me all about oviparous animals, and even defined the word “oviparous” for me when she astutely observed I had no idea what the she was talking about. On the day of their departure, they flocked to her to say their goodbyes.
She was devastated. She worried that they would be scared; she bawled as she spoke of how much she’d miss them; and (this part is so touching) she was distressed about the anxiety and panic they’d experience while living a life without her. She screamed that she’d never eat meat or eggs again (except for the occasional Happy Meal, go figure), and she’s thus far been true to her word.
Her grief was palpable and moving. I tried to assure her that they’d be OK. I coaxed her to understand that they needed to grow and live the life they were meant to live, and that part of loving something, or someone, is knowing when to let go.
My assertions, I admit, were a bit lackluster.
I am about to lose 17 chicks of my own—my students. I have spent the past 10 months nurturing them, caring for them, and loving them. I delight in them during the day, and I worry about them at night. I call each one by name, and know them by heart. No one could ever, EVER be as important or dear to me as my own daughters, but the children I teach are nevertheless my own, and I grieve at the end of each school year as they grow up and grow out of my classroom.
Third graders are destined to become 4th graders, and 4th graders are meant to become agents of change in a world that needs them to be so. My students celebrate their transition (and summer vacation!) with the kind of enthusiasm one expects of a person preparing for a new adventure. I’m helping them to pack their bags, and I am listening to them merrily speak of the good times to come, but all the while I am besieged with my own kind of grief. I worry that they will meet with troubles that I can’t help them negotiate.
I ponder the pitiful emptiness of the classroom that’s left when they vacate the premises. I heave a deep sigh knowing how much I’ll miss their laughter and questions and appeals. I’ll even miss forgiving them when they gang up on me and make me feel inadequate. And finally, I fret that no other teacher will ever feel the kind of affection and loyalty that I feel for them.
Of course, that isn’t true. On the first day back next year, they’ll hug me in the hallway before they enter their new classrooms, and they’ll come to hang out when I’m on duty at recess. But before too long, they’ll adjust to their new life and fall in love with their new teachers, and their new teachers will fall in love with them, and soon enough, when they bump into me in the hallways or the stairwells, they’ll just step aside and continue on their way.
That’s expected and OK. I’ve survived the same for many years, and I, too, move on to love and care for a new brood of chicks every September. I am as happy with them as I’ve been with all the others, and as dedicated to their care. However, I never forget the ones that leave my nest. There is an imprint in their wake; I can’t help but be changed for good. And once they’re gone, I keep a watchful eye. I delight in their successes from afar, always hoping that I’ve played a small part in making them possible.
So I understand. I really do. And I won’t dismiss my daughter’s loss as trivial nor will I discourage her theatrics. She needs to feel her way through everything. I want her to bless the departure of those babies and wish them well on their journey. I want her to think of them fondly and often. Doing so doesn’t weaken her or make you chicken-hearted. On the contrary, it’s an affirmation of strength. She needs to be open to every experience, even the ones that are painful. All love makes you vulnerable; if it doesn’t, it’s not love.