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.