I’ve always known I would be an emotional mess on my child’s first day of school. I used to joke that I shouldn’t even be allowed at drop-off that day because my emotional display will be too embarrassing. While in reality I know internally I’ll feel like the embarrassing mom, outwardly I will handle myself appropriately. Until I get back into my car and out of his sight - then I will pull over and sob my heart out before I gather myself and drive the literal quarter of a mile home to feel sorry for myself, eat my feelings, and count the minutes until I can leave to pick him up.
As funny and relatable as that imaginary (or inevitable) scenario might be, and as much as we can all understand feeling sad that your baby is off into the world without you, I think most people sending a child to school for the first time in the United States specifically, can also relate to another common emotion we feel as we send the most precious thing in the world to us - our children - into schools this year: fear.
I don’t mean fear of my kid getting bullied, or fear that they won’t make friends easily, or fear that they won’t like school. That’s normal. Everyone with a kid in school feels those things. I am talking about the fear that every day I drop my child off at his American school, I have to wonder if he will come back to me alive and well. Between COVID-19 and this country’s gun violence epidemic, I can’t reliably send him into that building every day and guarantee he will come home without the virus, or without a bullet wound. I can’t even rely on the fact that he’ll come home at all.
I moved to the United States from overseas as a pre-teen in the mid-90s, and one of my most vivid memories of my early years in the USA was watching the Columbine shooting unfold on the news. I watched in horror, wondering why we had bothered moving to a country that was seemingly just as dangerous as the one we’d left. I learned then that this was not a common occurrence here, and that Columbine had shocked the nation.
Until it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence here, and school shootings would - very quickly - stop shocking the nation. Since Columbine happened in 1999 there have been almost 300 school shootings in the United States, and counting. Many have mused openly about how the massacre of kindergarteners and first graders at Sandy Hook in 2012 somehow failed to activate a sense of urgency across this country regarding gun control measures, and I had hoped with everything in my being that by the time I had to send any of my children into a school there would have been some movement on this issue, but here we are. And nothing has gotten better.
In fact, it’s worse. Now, in 2021, when we send our kids to school, not only do we get to worry about them getting shot, we also have to worry about the uptick in COVID-19 cases as the delta variant ravages the unvaccinated population, a.k.a. our children.
There is no way the schools can control children touching each other, or getting close to one another. There is no way the schools can prevent anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers or COVID-deniers from sending their children to school to put everyone else’s kids at risk. There is no way the schools can possibly manage the personal health decisions of each family with children attending (nor should they), and there is no possible way for us to know that every staff member is vaccinated, or at least taking other preventative measures. I have, until now, been able to keep all three of my children relatively safe and away from risky environments, even going so far as to homeschool my oldest through kindergarten due to COVID last year. This year, he needs to go to school, in person, and I know there’s only so much I can do to control how safe that environment is for him. And ultimately, for the rest of my family. I also have two children who are preschool age and below to protect from this virus, which is about to become ten times harder because my oldest will now be going into an indoor petri dish five days a week and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
Like I said, I’ve always known I’d be sad when my kid went to school the first day. Jokes aside, my actual plan right now is to drop him off with a brave and supportive smile on my face, give him all the best advice I can about how to stay safe and have fun, and drive home. Then I will spend the rest of the day counting down the minutes until I can go and pick him up because that’s when I can start protecting him again and stop feeling scared.
I wish for a day in this country when all we have to fear as parents sending our kids to school are bullies, making friends, and kids not loving school. I wish for a day when we can tell them we’ll see them after school and not have a nagging voice in the back of our minds wondering if that’s true. I wish for a day when we can just feel sad that our kids are getting bigger and starting school, and not being scared for their health and safety.
And I guess I also wish I can hold it together when I drop him off in two weeks and don’t totally humiliate him on his first day. Fingers crossed.