The Last Day of Kindergarten

I meander through Home Goods, filling my cart with quirky treasures for our new home. In the office supply aisle, I grab a felt message board on a whim. Two weeks later, on the first day of school, I pose my brand new kindergartner for some snapshots by our front door. She beams as she holds up the message board: First Day of Kindergarten, 7 August 2019. The tight pigtail braids she requested that morning graze her shoulders. She wears her collared shirt and plaid jumper proudly, nervous but so brave. We park in the back of the school lot and trail in behind the other almost-on-time folks. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance and morning prayer together, then I watch and wave as my firstborn and her 13 classmates follow their teacher inside the classroom for the first time.

***

High-pitched giggles and exuberant hellos fill our home office as each little face pops onto the computer screen. These kindergartners have missed one another, and spending less than one hour a week together does not feel sufficient when they are used to seven hours a day in each other’s company. I sit to the side so I am out of view, there mostly for tech support if needed, and smile as I listen to them share stories about their week and present show-and-tell items. My daughter’s eyes light up when her beloved teacher reads a story. When it’s time to end the call, no one leaves the screen until the teacher ends the session for everyone, lingering because it will be another week before they see each other again.

***

The kids are surprised when I tell them we are going for a car ride today. As we pull into the school parking lot, I reach for my cloth face mask, ready to strap it on if needed. My daughter waves when she spots her teacher at the curb. I pull up next to her and roll down the window.

“Good morning!” I greet her cheerfully as she holds up a huge bag of my daughter’s school supplies, art projects, and yearbook.

“Here it is!” she says. “Can I put this in the trunk for you?” I nod in affirmation and opened the trunk for her. After she puts in the bag, we all say our goodbyes. I wish my daughter could hug her. I wish I could hug her. I hand her a thank you card through the window and pull away, wondering when we will be on school grounds again.

***

My daughter races inside and immediately starts pulling worksheets and crafts out of the bag we received from her teacher. She’s most excited to find her yearbook, which allows her to see all of her friends’ faces together again. She asks me to read the message written inside the front cover in her teacher’s neat handwriting, and the tears start streaming. As I read the message aloud to my daughter, I have to stop to get my cry out. My kids stare at me, unsure how to respond.

“Mommy’s okay,” I reassure them. “These are happy tears and sad tears mixed together because I am so, so proud of you! And I’m also so sorry that you couldn’t be with your teacher and friends these last few months.” I can’t tell them that the tears are also from exhaustion and anxiety, from wondering if and when we will be back in the building for preschool and first grade. I am overwhelmed by the resiliency of my kindergartner. I’m grateful for a teacher who has cared for and loved my daughter this year. I am hopeful for the future while also grieving the parts of “normal” life that might never return.

Eventually, I rally and finish reading the sweet message. “You did a lot of fun things this year! It was a good year until we had to be home, huh?” I wait for her response.

“Yeah…and there were even some fun parts while we did school at home, too.”

I appreciate her sweet heart and wonder if she really enjoyed it or if she is trying to appease her emotional mother.

***

Although we got her graded work and yearbook back several days ago, tomorrow is officially the last day of school. No alarm clock will go off, we will not have to race through breakfast to be on time or search frantically for khaki shorts in dresser drawers. No one will gather around the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance. No one will hug their friends or teachers goodbye.

I stay up late to ready our felt message board so we can take a picture on the last day of kindergarten. I think about all that has been sandwiched between the first picture with this felt board more than eight months ago. Kindergarten gave my daughter instant friends after moving to a new place. It gave her confidence as she learned to traverse the monkey bars without fear at recess. It gave her the gift of exploring new worlds through reading. The abrupt ending of her in-person education during kindergarten is something she probably will remember forever, at least vaguely. I will be proud to tell her how well she adjusted, how her resiliency at five years old amazed and humbled me. I will tell her how we used our computer and phone to keep in touch with classmates, how we sent old school “snail mail” to her teacher and other friends, how she did show-and-tell during a Zoom call. I will ask if she remembers the time we paraded by her teacher’s home for Teacher Appreciation Week.

When I recall this time in our lives, I will remember the challenges and uncertainty. I will recall the grief I felt for my daughter, who didn’t get to hug her teacher goodbye at the end of the year or celebrate her birthday at school with her classmates. I know that when I look at my daughter’s picture from the last day of kindergarten, I will remember how we still celebrated pajama day virtually, how she and her brother ate out of lunchboxes at home, just for fun. I will picture her classmates’ smiling faces as they used webcams and cell phones to connect with friends. I will remember how 14 kindergartners taught me about finding joy in the hard places.

***

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Together, Apart.”

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