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First Day of School Jitters

With a new baby in the house, my husband and I tend to be absorbed by her milestones: First Tooth (very late), First Uninterrupted Night's Sleep (even later). But our 5-year-old is hitting milestones too  -- though they're generally not the sort a parent might wish to record for posterity. No preprinted baby book includes a space for First Bald-Faced Lie or First Public Act of Graffiti or First Deliberate Peek at the Opposite Gender's Genitalia During a Game of Doctor.

Somehow I've managed to survive these firsts with a degree of equanimity. But my son did reach a frontier recently that sent me plummeting into the depths of gloom, one that I've seen coming since before he was even born: The First Day of Kindergarten. It's one thing to explain to a child the importance of truth, privacy, and respect for other people's belongings. It's another thing altogether to send him out into the world for seven hours every day without the comfort of a parent, to present him for evaluation by a series of strangers who won't think the way the back of his neck smells is the most intoxicating scent in the world, who won't be stunned every day by the absolute miracle of his smiling, luminous eyes.

On the day that long-dreaded milestone finally arrived, we packed a favorite Beanie Baby, a few snack crackers, and a particularly fine fossil of a crinoid into his bright-yellow backpack and set off. That sweaty little hand gripping mine as I tugged open the heavy doors of the school building just about broke my heart.

It's not that I'm against formal education. I've spent 30 of my 35 years in schools, and with very few exceptions I've loved everything about that life. I like the smell of chalk and freshly sharpened pencils. I like the way sunlight through a wall of windows seems to set fire to every particle of dust that floats in the rustling classroom air. Most of all, I like the people  -- the eager, hopeful teachers and the nervous, hopeful pupils  -- who begin every new school year full of promise.

But in many ways, my son is not like me. He hates puzzles and little worksheets. His attention to quiet indoor activities can be measured in minutes, whereas outdoors he can spend a full hour squatting near an anthill, studying its residents. School, I knew, would be a difficult adjustment. I did my best to inspire enthusiasm. We bought him new shoes and a new lunch box and a special first-day-of-school T-shirt. "You are going to love kindergarten," I assured him as the big day approached. "Daddy and I loved school so much we didn't want to leave. That's why we became teachers."

"I wish you were a geologist. I don't think being a teacher is a very good job."

"And in kindergarten you're going to make a bunch of new friends," I continued, ignoring this attack on my profession.

"I have plenty of friends already."

"You can't ever have too many friends, honey."

"Oh, yes, you can have too many friends. You can have so many friends you don't have enough days in the week to invite them all over." He had a point.

Saving his best for the very first day, he climbed into our bed and snuggled between us long before it was time to get up. "I've decided not to go to kindergarten after all," he announced in the dark. "I think I'll miss my parents too much."

Over his head, his father and I looked at each other. My husband coughed a little. "We'll miss you too, buddy," he said finally, "but you're going to be too busy having fun to miss us for long."

Later, walking down the long hallway crowded with supply carts and hundreds of children wearing new shoes, my little boy held tightly to my hand. When we reached his classroom we saw, in the back of the room, a little girl he's known all his life. I stopped just inside the door to fill out some forms for the teacher, and my son went to join his friend and her mother. When I glanced up a moment later, he was laughing.

By the time I had filled out three forms and made my way through two dozen kindergartners and their milling families, he had discovered a science display on the counter under the window. He was picking through a box of seashells when he noticed a huge pickle jar filled with yellowing formaldehyde. Floating peacefully in a coil at the bottom of the jar lay a dead corn snake.

My child, the budding naturalist, was ecstatic. He and another little boy who had wandered up began speculating enthusiastically about the possible cause of the snake's demise. "He isn't smushed, so he couldn't have been hit by a car," the other boy offered. "There aren't any fang marks on him, so I don't think a wolf got him," my son mused. I started to edge away. A group of kids closed ranks around the pickle jar. My brand-new schoolboy and his brand-new friends all seemed fine. There's nothing like a dead snake to cheer up nervous kids.

When the teacher blinked the lights to signal the parents that it was time to leave, my son gave me a distracted kiss, his eyes eagerly watching his new teacher with the Raggedy Ann & Andy earrings. I herded out with everyone else, but then tiptoed back a moment later and lurked briefly in the doorway. Not a single child was crying. They were all sitting around the edge of a multicolored rug. A little boy was whispering something in my son's ear. The teacher smiled beatifically. Raggedy Ann & Andy bobbed up and down as she spoke.

Meanwhile, standing out in the hall, I felt my face flush and my throat tighten. All of a sudden I was crying like a baby  -- the baby my boy would never be again.

Margaret Renkl is a poet and teacher who lives in Nashville.