Adventure, Children

I Hear that Train A-Comin’

When I hear that whistle blowin’
I hang my head and cry.

-Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Bug has been in the Froggy class since January 2011. Same songs, same routine, even some of the same classmates. The wide-windowed preschool room with its labeled cubbies and bins of blocks has been a security blanket during a time of adjustment for his family. On Tuesday morning, all of that changes. Bug will walk into before-and-after-school care in a whole new place with kids he has not met yet. He will board a bus he has never ridden and start kindergarten with a teacher he has only seen at half glance from a face buried in my side.
I took the day off work last week to accompany my little boy on a final visit to both schools. He lingered in the doorway of each new classroom, hanging back from the buzz of activity. He clung to my arm and pressed his body into mine as if trying to crawl back inside.
That safe place is no longer big enough for him.
“Mommy,” Bug said to me on the way home. “I think I’ll stay in the Froggies for one more year.”
He is already going to be one of the oldest kids in his kindergarten class, with a birthday falling just five days after the county cut-off. He is a lumbering giant, tall and lean and towering over his peers as he roars around the playground. There is no “one more year.” This is happening. The train has left the station.
I tell him I am going to help him through it and that it is a big change but new friends and adventures are waiting for him. I tell him that his daddy and I aren’t going anywhere. That his doggy and his grandparents will still be waiting for him every night.
All of this telling is just white noise. His experience will be his own, and it will look entirely different than anything I try to craft. I understand that reassurance does not live in the picture I try to paint of how this will unfold. Rather, it is simply in my presence. If I can offer any comfort, it is in staying calm and standing loose when he turns back towards me to find his home base. It is in the sound of my voice, chattering out its quiet encouragement. It is in the three books at bedtime, the three songs, the way we walk the dog every single day whether we feel like it or not.
One of the greatest gifts of childhoods is one we most lament when we are young: we don’t have any say over our lives. I remember being little and hating the sense of powerlessness over my circumstances. When we are small, so many of us want to be grown up so we can decide for ourselves what to do or not do.
Alas, having a say is overrated. While Bug has no freedom to fight the change coming next week, he also has no obligation to initiate change of any sort. His freedom, then, is in being released from the struggle of having to make the tough decisions. The new beginning is here. My little boy is already packed up. The Powers that Be have bustled him aboard. The whistle blows, and off it chugs.
For the lucky ones, being young means not having to check the timetables or even agonize over taking the trip in the first place.
Of course, Bug is anything but powerless. He has a great deal of say in how this journey goes. Does he adapt to the rhythm of it, or does he fight momentum? Does he find a new set of travel companions in the dining car, or does he sit in a corner booth, yearning for what was left behind? In some ways, the capacity to determine the quality of an experience is more powerful than any illusion of authority. After all, we each move along a path only fractionally of our own making. Perhaps the only real influence we have over any of it is how we choose to behave at exactly the point where we find ourselves now.
In any event, Bug will be grown up soon enough. Give it another blink or three, and he will be the kind of free so many of us are: free to grow or stagnate, free to take risks or stay safe, free to lift his gaze or put on blinders. He will make choices that will have long-term consequences, and I will be unable to protect him from harm. Also, he will do breathtaking things I could not have imagined. Like all of us, he will occasionally hunker down in his personal version of the Froggies long after he should have hefted his knapsack and struck out for something more his size. Like all of us, he will occasionally board the wrong train altogether.
So, I tell Bug that he is starting kindergarten next week, it is happening, and he will find his way. My firm tone belies a roiling beneath. Down under my words, I hear another voice whispering. It asks a question for my ears alone:
If no one is here to tell me the next step is inevitable and that I have no choice in the matter, how do I determine it is time? If I can choose to stay here, buried in the warm folds of my own security blanket, how do I will myself to let go?
I can certainly allow myself to continue moving along familiar pathways. Looking and looking for a way to let myself off the hook, I retreat from the most frightening choice. I cross my arms, plant my feet, and say, “I think I’ll stay in Froggies for one more year.”
It is easy to find permission to persist in doing what I have always done. The problem is that the room does not have chairs big enough for me and the bins of blocks no longer challenge me. Outside those wide windows, something is coming my way. Even with my fingers stuffed in my ears, I can’t block the sound of that whistle blowing.

If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over a little,
Farther down the line

Maybe it’s time to decide. If my little Bug at a mere five years old can step on board, perhaps his mommy is brave and strong enough to do the same.


From the Mouths of Babes

At the end of preschool’s garden themed week, a picture of flowers with hand-print petals came home along with a plastic bottle terrarium containing threads of newborn sunflowers and beets sprouting from damp soil. This was also stuffed in the bottom of Bug’s backpack. An afterthought? Maybe an infant thought. Maybe a thin strand of desire nosing through the surface of things just long enough to catch the light.


Everything is Built on Sand

Tee’s name popped up when the phone rang, but it was Bug’s voice on the other end. “Mommy, can I stay at your house tonight?”
Unprecedented. While Tee and I have been sharing Bug’s time exactly 50/50, he always, always, asks to stay at his Daddy’s. Sometimes just reminding him that he gets to spend an entire weekend with me will reduce him to tears.
At the house we share, Bug has his own room. Bunk beds, toys everywhere, free rein in that one space. At his daddy’s, he also has bunk beds, toys everywhere, and free rein. What makes his room at his dad’s house unique is that he shares it with Tee. His favorite man sleeps deeply right under him all night, and that man does not stir awake when Bug climbs down into the warm comfort of the big bed in the wee hours.
Bug’s request would have been more of a surprise if I had not known the big news of the day: Ms. Song had announced she would be leaving on an “adventure.”
Ms. Song is Bug’s touchstone. A Mary Poppins in mom jeans, she has been the most constant presence in his world for over a year. It is a rare thing to stumble across a sharp-minded and big-smiling person who teaches preschool because it is her calling, not just because it is all she could get. Every day, Ms. Song greets every single child in her class with a big hello and a hug. She calls the children by name. She requires the same joyous and personalized attention of every staff member in her classroom.  Her gift is the ability to attend with precision to each child’s unique capacity to manipulate scissors, pronounce Rs and Ls, and channel strong feelings into words and positive behaviors. Ms. Song knows the kids.
And she is leaving.  A new teacher starts next week. Bug gets about seven months with this next one before the big transition to kindergarten.
Parents want to shield their children from the sting of loss. Even knowing it is important for young people to learn how to navigate disruption, the instinct is to create stability. Even false stability, at times. What parent can stand watching a kid’s heart break? What parent does not want to rush in to balm the wound and whisper promises impossible to keep?
Adaptability is a requirement for thriving in the world as it is, and parents have an important role to play in helping kids learn the mechanics of it. Still. It hurts to see our little ones grappling with big feelings. Against that squeezing desire to protect is the knowledge that kids learn life is not so certain and nothing lasts forever. They learn it despite us. Often, they learn it because of us, even when we think they are not paying attention. They are paying attention. They always are.
The desire for things to stay fixed is as powerful as it is common, and its power can be crippling. When the pink slip lands or the divorce papers arrive or the landlord announces she is selling the place, even the strongest among us feels seasick, no matter how well equipped we are for the ride. The urge is to deny or to hide. Nuanced language and the experience of survival can help us handle the upheaval accompanying transition. As for handling it well? That is a talent that few master.
Children learn how to deal with change by watching grownups. Do we fret and avoid, or attend and apply care? Do we give voice to our feelings to the point of wallowing, or do we decide, that’s enough, and climb back on board? Do we practice straddling that uncomfortable threshold, both by bidding farewell to what is behind us and by welcoming what is to come?
What do our words and behaviors teach our kids about resilience? About adaptation?
Usually, Tee and I stick to our schedule, but we agreed to let Bug have his wish this one night. A room of his own may not appeal as much as one that is shared, but it is still his. Sometimes, a person just needs to touch familiar things to know they are not slipping away. At least, not for the moment.
I picked Bug up at his one house and ferried him over to his other house. On the way, we spoke lightly about the idea of “mixed feelings.” This is a familiar refrain, but, like those lullabies, it bears repeating. I tell him I have mixed feelings when he goes away for Christmas or summer break. I am happy that he is having fun with his cousins, and I am sad to not be with him. People can feel several things at once, even if they are very different things.  I remind him that it is fine to be happy that Ms. Song gets to go on an adventure and also sad that she is leaving.
I remember when I first introduced this concept to Bug when he was just about three years old. He pondered for a few minutes then piped up, “Like pistachios!”
Uh, really?
“Yeah! They are salty AND crunchy!”
The five year old in the back seat offered no such clever analogy. He simply absorbed my words (I have to hope) and changed the subject to our weekend plans.
Back at home, he proceeded to torment the dog, chase the kitty, ignore his grandparents (after checking their whereabouts), and jump on the furniture. Same bedlam, different day. I noticed, though, that he called out to me repeatedly throughout the evening. “Mommy? Come look.” And, “Mommy, where are you?” And, “Mommy, help.” With his talismans in hand – his flashlight, his pirate sword, his box of coins – he managed to settle down next to me, listen to a chapter of Peter Pan, and hum along to the three songs I sing before bed. It was a late one, but he made it to sleep. Eventually.
Ms. Song and the school have done their best to make the transition smooth.  The low-drama announcement preceded a few farewell rituals. The kids and teacher alike created little memory boxes with tokens of one another. Ms. Song is leaving behind her bear puppet, Oso. The kids can talk to him if they get sad, and he will send the message to Ms. Song.
Come Monday, though, Ms. Song will be gone. For the moment, Bug’s mommy and daddy return to their rightful place in things. Perhaps we are not just his touchstones, but the cornerstones of his forever shifting world.