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Recently, I was talking to a 5-year-old who just started kindergarten. He had on a red Spider-Man baseball cap and a super hero shirt with his name on it — a recent birthday gift, he told me. He had gray exercise shorts and navy blue sneakers with Velcro straps.
This particular child is one of the sweetest I know. He is calm and polite and respectful to his parents, who are in turn respectful to him. I wish so much happiness for his life.
One of my favorite things about my job is getting to talk to children about what’s going on in their lives. This little guy had not been to school until kindergarten started two or three weeks prior to our visit.
We talked about what he had for lunch. We talked about his teacher, his new friends, and what he was learning about, and then I saw his big brown eyes, under the red Spider-Man hat, looking up and off into the distance.
With my own children and with the children I talk to every day, I know this eye-shift means their stream of consciousness is taking a side road. I could tell his mind was clicking away, his voice momentarily quiet.
This is where kids usually tell me random facts about dinosaurs hatching from their eggs, or how their little sister broke their toys, or how their dog ran out into the street and scared them.
I’m always fascinated by the stream of consciousness that comes out of a young mind, as yet untarnished by the grind of daily existence. I love how they absorb their worlds. What they blurt out is either recent or important enough to take up valuable real estate in their minds.
“I have two days, then three days, then four days,” he told me, holding up his 5-year-old fingers in two, then three, then four fingers. Then he nodded, relieved to get that off his chest, and ready to proceed with our conversation.
It took me a minute to figure out what he meant, but this child’s mind works like mine, apparently, so I got it. I smiled at him and responded. “That’s right. You have to be brave at kindergarten for two days this week. Then you get three days off for the holiday weekend. And then you only have four days to be brave at kindergarten next week.”
Whenever I have something hard in my life, it’s much easier to break it up into pieces that are more manageable. Sometimes the wheels fall off at work and I have to focus on one patient, then the next, then the next, one step at a time until everyone’s taken care of. If I think about helping 25 patients at once, I might not survive.
With my daughter just having left for college, I have to focus on making it to parent’s weekend, and then Thanksgiving, and then winter break. If I think she’s not living at home for nine months, I might not survive.
Same goes for adolescents starting a new middle school. Make it through this day, and then this week, and then a month, and then a semester. Eventually someone will invite you to sit with him at lunch. Eventually, you will share a joke with someone in the hall. And finally, someone will invite you to his birthday celebration.
They have to face the first day of school each year, dance or sports or music tryouts, the first geometry test, the first driver’s education trip on the freeway. Walking into the lunch room without a place to sit. The first college party. One piece at a time, we all handle life and grow up.
When my own child started kindergarten, I asked him how he was. He said he was fine but “felt like the iPad at 1%.” How did he put in words at 5 years old how I felt every time I had a new social event to attend at the age of 38? How I still feel at 48?
I know we parents have 50 balls in the air at any given moment. I know we are juggling it all and, at any given time, could miss a grocery item, or a carpool pick-up, or a long-scheduled appointment. There is no break from parenting to-do lists.
But as we go into this new school year, let’s not forget about the kids who are trying to make it, too. They are also trying to make new friends, find their confidence, and get used to new schedules. They are trying to make it 2 days, then 3 days, then 4 days, just like we are.
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