Fall Sunday: What Kids Carry With Them To School

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I drop her off, and it’s the same scene every day of the first week. All the other kids sit down in their seats quietly, excited about kindergarten. Not her. She is wailing, and hanging onto my leg, telling me I can’t leave. Please Mom, don’t go. I peel her arms away and walk out, a lump of despair in my stomach, a huge ball of guilt and anxiety wound tightly from the early morning hours leading up to the drop-off.

She has a huge pink backpack with her, carrying her lunch, sweatshirt, rainjacket, bottle of water. But that’s not all she is carrying. She is also weighted down with her anxieties: What she will wear? How many friends she will or will not make? What she will be expected to do and learn? How she will navigate her day on her own, who will pick her up, what might happen that day?

My stomach hurts,” she told me this morning. “I don’t have any friends,” she said. “Well, only a couple.” How did a 5-year-old learn to be so nervous, I wonder. What are we doing wrong as parents? Our 3-year-old bounds into every new classroom or social situation with a casual confidence that amazes me. But not her. Does she get her anxiety from me?

My husband and I talk about it in the evening. I was nervous about going to school, too, I confide. I still don’t like crowds or parties. Even as an adult, social situations give me pause. I wonder, is it my fault? Did she inherit my social awkwardness?

I would never have cried at school, though. I avoided attracting any attention to myself, knowing it would only make it worse. I put myself in a protective shell of silence that would only crack when I got older, thanks to adult beverages or very comfortable situations with close friends. “No. She gets it from me,” said my husband solemnly. “I completely freak out when I’m nervous. I used to get physically ill before exams in college. I almost had a breakdown when all my friends tried to convince me to go skydiving.”

It makes a very interesting case for nature vs. nurture. It must be something genetic. Despite all the coddling, all the security of family, she is still a wreck. She somehow is wired by DNA with both of our weak strands. Fortunately her brother was created with some recessive genes from somewhere else, some distant cousin or aunt with natural confidence and social grace. He has developed with the same coddling and security, but none of the anxiety.

What do other children carry with them into school and beyond? Think of all the kids who come from a less-than-perfect life at home. Kids who have just one parent, or parents who are trying to learn English, or families who struggle financially. She’s lucky, I think. Why does she feel this way? There are so many bigger and scarier thresholds she is going to have to cross in her life. New classes, new experiences, losing family members, hitting puberty. I hope we can equip her with better things to carry with her than just the things she carries this year. For now, I slip her favorite stuffed animal into her backpack. I scribble with a red marker on the inside of her left wrist, a heart tattoo. Look at this when you feel sad, honey. I’m right here. And I love you. One more thing she can bring with her, but hopefully this one is weightless, to give her some buoyancy today.

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