Today's soundtrack: We're Going to Be Friends, The White Stripes, White Blood Cells, 2002
And so we jump –
We leap, we fling ourselves at the new school year.
Our shoes are a bit too new. The backs of our heels are horribly chafed. Our smiles are bright and earnest and expel more energy than is wise. This isn’t a sprint, this new school year, oh no, it is a marathon and we are going to need to pace ourselves. But right now we are full of nervous energy. We take that first metaphorical lap way too fast. We say “Hi” to everyone. We are exhaustingly likeable. . My tie is cinched up too tight. The Big One’s Hello Kitty lunchbox is blindingly white. There is no way that we will be able to keep this pace up.
And so, on this first day of school, out on the playground at that very first recess, we run into each other, the Big One and I. She is with her kindergarten class. I am attempting to steer a giant amoeba of second graders away from physical and psychological injury.
“Anyone up for four square?” I gamely call out, tossing out a giant rubber playground ball. There are no takers. Soccer is what they want to play and every one of them streaks towards one innocent soccer ball out on the playground. Can we get through this first recess without a skinned knee or anyone feeling left out?
“Whoa!” I say, instinctively covering my head as two sets of little legs tie up, sending their respective bodies cart-wheeling through the air and then onto asphalt. Incredibly, the little bodies bounce up. Again they begin chasing the ball. They radiate enough energy to power a breakaway Russian state.
“Papa!” says the Big One. I jump and turn and look down, whiplashed by the cognitive shift. It is the Big One and, next to the second graders, she doesn’t look so big. She looks incredibly little. Her pigtails are lopsided. Her skirt is riding up in the back. She grabs onto my leg. She hangs from me like a koala starving for eucalyptus, testing my new belt’s ability to remain around my waist.
The new school year melts away. It is summer again and I am back to my role as papa. Every ounce of my being wants to right her crooked pigtails. I fight a pathological need to adjust her skirt and to spit on my thumb and rub at cookie grime that has collected around her mouth. How will she make friends looking like this? Social isolation seems inevitable.
“Hey,” I say.
“That’s Joe,” says the Big One, she is pointing to a group of kids. “He has orange hair and guess what. He can walk and hula hoop at the same time.”
“You know I’m working, right? “ I say. I’m being a teacher right now. O.K.? You get that, right?”
The Big One looks at me, squinting out of the corner of her eyes. I have previously seen her do this while contemplating other inexplicable and improbable adult phenomena such as facial hair and news radio.
Just then the soccer ball bounces up and over the fence. It bounces among cars that are looking out for Slow Children. The children groan.
“Freeze!” I yell at a dangerously helpful second grader. I point at him and hold him in place with a Jedi force known only to teachers, willing him to cease in his quest to chase balls. It is like asking a golden retriever to heel at a tennis game. I must act quickly.
“I’ve got to go,” I say to the Big One, unsuccessfully rubbing at her mouth grime. “Look, there goes Joe. Wow! Look at him go!”
And so the Big One is off. She is chasing down a new friend from the first day. As a father, I want to watch her go and ache with nostalgia and love her for who she is and who she will be. I want to watch her as she runs off on her own. But today I am a teacher first. On this first day of school I have no such luxury. The second grade only has a half hour for recess, a lot of nervous energy to expel; the soccer ball is bouncing away.