In the car on the way to my daughter’s first day of middle school, Madeleine wants to review again what she’s going to do this morning to kill time until her classes begin. She’s not as fidgety as I’d feared, and she speaks in a clear voice, chanting her locker combination once more. The drop-off area is actually in the same parking lot as her former elementary school, and I’m relieved at how normal it feels to be pulling into this driveway, the same place she’s been dropped off for six years already now.
As I pull the car to a stop at the curb, she is blinking a little too quickly, trying to distribute nervous tears before they gather and spill. She manages to pull herself together and we hug. And it is only when she pulls away that while I know in my gut that she is ready, I suddenly realize that I am not. I don’t want to leave her here. I don’t want to watch her walk up that pathway alone. Panic flutters about within, my own tears threaten to spill, and I am grateful for my dark sunglasses. Can she see that I am struggling to hold it together? Can she see that my chin wants to tremble? Does she notice that I am shaking as I help her into the straps of her new backpack? More than anything, I don’t want her to notice what’s going on with me. This brand of anxiety is highly contagious.
She manages a nervous smile and signs “I love you.” I return the gesture, but when the door slams shut and she turns away, I jump and feel myself shatter inside. Gasping for breath, I watch her walk away, alone, until she disappears beyond the curve, obscured by boulders and scrub oak that surround her new school.
I want to leap out of the car and keep her company until that first bell rings. I want to watch again as she tries to open her locker. I want to make sure she can navigate the crowds and find her way. But I can’t. I have students of my own, several miles away, who need me to be there for them, and I cannot stay. I hear a voice that sounds like my own saying, “You’re letting go of the bike. It will be ok.” And I put the car in drive and pull away from the curb.
Tears stream down my face, and I try not to sob. Somehow this is even more difficult than leaving her that first day of kindergarten. And as I wait for the stoplight to change I remember why. I’ve taught middle school. I know what a critical time this is for her. I see the faces of a few former students, those I couldn’t quite help navigate these deep waters, and I wonder where they are today: Prison? Stuck in a cycle of poverty? Dead? Or did they somehow exceed society’s expectations? And above all: are they happy? In those tough-but-sweet faces, I saw too much freedom and not enough support. No boundaries followed swiftly by arbitrary ones. It was easy to notice what I perceived as failures of parenting, back when I wasn’t a parent. It was easy to prescribe the cure-all for what ailed these kids, these kids that I was capable of loving only to an extent.
Middle school is a crossroads for all kids. Which paths will they seek out? Will they follow, or will they lead? So much is determined in these short, volatile middle years. Now that I have my own middle schooler, I realize (again) how much parenting is like feeling your way in the dark. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing. I go by my gut. I ask others. I read and research. I monitor and adjust. And I hope that I make more good decisions than not. I want her to make her own path, so that when hers intersects with other paths, that she’ll make wise choices. I want to make sure she has enough breadcrumbs to find her way back, too, though.
Somehow I make it to my school, and I pour myself into my teaching, manic energy fueling me through class after class. And when I see Madeleine – finally – at the end of the day, the light from her smile melds this mother back together, and I exhale as the details of her day bubble up with exaggerated gestures and laughter.