Second Day of School

All at once, the streets are busy. Those late August mornings, tranquil and traffic-free, fade into an end-of-summer reverie. The city re-awakens and stretches her sidewalks to welcome the armies of small school-children carrying larger-than-laws-of-physics-should-allow backpacks. Their parents walk in step behind, sleepily pressing little ones along – or march brusquely in front, dragging sluggish children forward toward school courtyards that lay quiet and dormant all summer and now shriek with the collective noise of playing children. Everyone’s a little foggy, still operating on summer-speed, shaking out the cobwebs, rousing slowly to the reality of the rentrée and the routine of school and work. No matter the degree of excitement or trepidation any child might have about the return to school, the parents wax enthusiastic with proclamations of how great it will be to return to the groove of learning new things and seeing school friends. Inside, these same parents are thinking, “free at last.”

Who could imagine that after a nearly jobless (and rather agreeable) summer, an assignment would fall into my lap, a project coinciding with the advent of the first day of school? And that then at the last minute, De-facto’s assistance would be necessary too? Another nomination for negligent parents of the year award; we both missed the first day of school.

It wasn’t Short-pants we were worried about. She knows the drill, having been through more than one rentrée at this establishment. But it’s a new start for Buddy-roo, who not only changes schools this year, but gears up for the rigor of the first grade after lollygagging about in the ecole maternelle for three years. It’s the real deal for her: new school, new teacher, new classmates. The strong hand of one of her favorite adults would ease the transition, but she’d have to make do with the soft touch of her big sister.

The decision was not so difficult; De-facto and I cocked our heads to one side or another and shrugged. We do value the importance of rituals, and this is the kind of occasion that deserves to be ritualized. But when it was her real and true very – I mean very first – day of school, when she started at the maternelle, we were both there. We’ve helped her through lots of firsts. Isn’t it time she starts toughening up a little and handling her own? Aren’t we doing her a disservice by coddling her through the initiations of her life? And won’t accepting this work allow us to cover her tuition? (I think that was the clincher.)

“You tell her,” I told him.

Buddy-roo took it well. “Okay,” she said, “but will I still get a goûter?”
Assured that her snack would remain intact, she didn’t seem to mind. It may have helped that this all came down about the same time that I opened up the two shopping bags of school supplies to sort them between her and sister. Remember the excitement – a satisfied anticipation – of having new school supplies? Though these implements are used for schoolwork, not necessarily a favorite topic, when they’re just out of the package, unused and colorful, and the smell of a new school year rests upon them, it’s all good.

De-facto wondered why I hadn’t taken the girls with me to shop for the school supplies, speaking of rituals. Here’s why: the liste de fournitures provided by the school is so onerous, so entirely detailed and specific – down to the exact centimeter of each ruler (which must be made of transparent plastic and not metal) that it’s just plain easier to do alone. The first year I was tested in the art of buying school supplies, I took Short-pants with me and we fumbled around the paper-supply aisles of the BHV department store. “What’s this mean?” I’d ask her, but she had no more experience with French school supplies than I did. After reading the list again and again and getting nowhere, I finally nabbed a salesperson to help me decipher it. Short-pants stood by bored and restless. There’s nothing to choose. It’s all just a checklist of boring items: types and colors of pens permitted and not permitted, one of these being specific brand of fountain pen, refillable only with blue ink, notebooks made of a particular style of graph paper, paintbrushes of a stipulated size. Erasers are to be white. Blank paper sold in large pochette envelopes must be double-checked, to be sure it’s the correct centimeter size. It gives you a head-ache just to read the list, let alone to acquire its contents.

But it was all worth it when the living room floor was plastered with fresh packages of paper and colored pens and pencils, erasers, rulers, folders and books, and the girls jumped in a jubilant dance. Each time I pulled out a new item, a gasp of delight. “Wow!” marveled Buddy-roo, “I get my own glue-stick?”

Later I was busy drawing up a professional org-chart to navigate the girls from our house to school via several hand-offs – our early morning departure required Ricky and Lucy taking over the breakfast shift and then delivering the girls to the hands of other good friends in the neighborhood who have kids enrolled in the same school – the girls took inventory of their new supplies. And then one of those moments when it’s all justified, when the hassle and annoyance of being saddled with an tedious list of school supplies vanishes: “I’m so excited,” Buddy-roo said, wiggling her hips, “I’m going to school so I can learn how to read!”

That’s about as Alleluia as it gets, if you ask me.

The choreography of their first day worked flawlessly, thanks to reliable neighbors in the morning, and our trusted babysitter in the afternoon. An exuberant report that evening disclosed the details of the day: talk of old friends and new friends, who sat where and why, first assignments and new cahiers, and a whole slew of paperwork for me to fill out not once, but twice (but that’s another post) and in general we encountered a pair of enthusiastic students.

De-facto and I made up for missing the first day of school by walking them to school – the both of us, together, which is rare – on the second day.
walk_to_schoolBuddy-roo, having survived day one, knew the ropes. She fastened her shoes, hoisted her pink backpack on her shoulders, and sped down the stairs ahead of her sister. We walked along, the four of us, a family in full force, one amongst many in the army of families making the morning march to school.

Once there, we lingered, catching up with the other parents, waiting to watch the girls make their way into the building, waving back at them until the last possible moment. Then, hand in hand, De-facto and I turned and walked toward home, free at last.

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