First Days (or “To Hell with Mitch Albom and his Bullshit Flat-Earth Nostalgia”)

About to board the bus for her First Day
About to board the bus for her First Day

Tuesday was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. At 4:20, when her bus finally arrived, she didn’t get off.

The driver checked, first calling out from the front, then shushing all of the kids and calling out again, then finally going seat to seat down the length of the big yellow bus.

My daughter wasn’t there.

Don’t worry—this is an “all’s well that ends” situation: Due to a printing error her First Day of Kindergarten name tag didn’t have her bus number printed on it, and subsequently she’d gotten on the wrong bus.  She ultimately wound up exactly where she should have been, all smiles and in fine fettle—albeit about an hour and a half late, following two bus transfers, and thanks to the intercession of three bus drivers, two transpo office workers, four school admins across two buildings, and one teacher. (The second day went smoother—in part because a neighbor kindly took it upon themselves to assign their first grader the job of making sure my daughter always sits next to her.)

You’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!“, but the thing is, my son (now 11) also never showed up at the end of his first day of kindergarten. I can’t even properly recall how that came to pass, now, just that he didn’t get on any bus at all.  This may have been due to some confusion about aftercare (which required he take a different bus to get to a different locale)—

Retrieving him up at the end of his First Day.
Retrieving him up at the end of his First Day.

but I seem to recall that the geodesic dome he’s on in the pic had something to do with it, too, being strategically located right next to the bus loading area, but on the far side of a hedge tall enough to block the play structure from view, but not thick enough to prevent a kindergartner from slipping through.  An attractive nuisance if there ever was one.

Incidentally, his fish—a beta named “Electric,” given to him by an older boy who’d won it at a Labor Day fair, decided he didn’t want some stupid fish, and had thus stood in a gazebo and called out “Who wants a fish?”—had died that day while my son was gone at his first day of school.  That would be lamely symbolic if it wasn’t just a fact.

Point being, the boy was fine, as you can see in the picture.  He was more upset about the fish, and even that didn’t last.

Anyway, you’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!

But I don’t know that I was terrified then either, because I remembered the end of my first day of kindergarten.  I remember it clearly, because it occasioned what I now recognize to be the first truly adult thought of my life:

I was the only kindergartener that rode my bus.  The “safety” (one of a small cadre of fifth graders given fluorescent orange Sam Browne belts and tasked with holding doors, keeping the halls orderly, and making sure the little kids found their buses) led me down a long cinderblock-and-linoleum hall, where kids were other kindergarteners were lined up under construction-paper cut-outs of school buses.  He stopped me in front of a red paper bus, taped high above my head on the wall, and said: 

“This is your bus.”

He walked away.  I stood there, alone, staring up at the two-dimensional red paper school bus, and thought to myself:

“How the hell am I supposed to get home on a paper bus?”

I tried to puzzle this out, and had a brief, vivid moment where I imagined myself shrinking down and flattening out like a Shrinky Dink™, transforming into a big-nosed black-and-white cartoon character (basically the kid from that 1980s Tootsie Pop commercial).  Cartoon me moseyed up to the bus, the door accordioned open—just like the door of the real, steal, three-dimensional bus I’d ridden to school just after eating lunch with my mom (back then it was half-day kindergarten, and I had PMs)—and I climbed aboard. Then the paper bus chugged to life and cruised down the wall in a little Pig Pen-esuque swirl of penciled diesel fumes.

In that moment, and for a moment, I entirely believed in that scenario. It was the only thing that made sense. And then I recall thinking:

Nothat can’t be right.

Soon enough another safety came and lead us kindergarteners, lined up like ducks, down to the turnaround where the real steel yellow schoolhouses were similarly lined up, and I discovered that my bus was identified with a number (that I could not read) written on a sheet of red construction paper—hence the red paper bus on the wall.  So, sort of a semiotics lesson built into that first day of school to, I guess—although it was a bit above my head (pun? joke!

Point being, kindergarten was my first time out of the home place, in a meaningful way.  Going to kindergarten, among other things, meant my first brushes with anti-Semitism, with both the quiet, constant terror of bullying, and the quiet heroism of the few bigger kids who tried to stand up for you.  And it was my first taste of solitude, being left to think my own slow, long thoughts in the intervals between assigned activities—something that I still treasure very much.  I wasn’t me before I was finally left alone to be me.

But none of that was on the First Day.

On the First Day I had to grapple with staying calm when faced wth a seemingly impossible scenario: Here, kid, you’re six now; figure out how to ride a paper bus home.

In a lot of ways, my life has been a series of brief intervals separating moments of distorted, disconcerting reasoning–and in which the only thing that separated me from a Very Bad Turn of Events was that simple first adult thought: 

“No, that can’t be right.  Calm down and think this through.”

It’s the only useful response to the apparently endless string of Kobayashi Maru that make up our lives.

Not that I knew any of that then—for chrissakes, what do you expect?  I was six; it was My First goddamn Day.