The scent of ginger and baking grain drifted into the hallway, wrapping itself around the neat line of five year olds. The teacher turned to whisper to her class, “I think we’re close, don’t you think?!” Wide eyes and nodding heads agreed. And then, as we crept into the school kitchen, and spied the oven, our suspicions were rewarded. The gingerbread man was in the oven! How did he get there? The story must be true!! I believed.
This past week, my boys and husband followed the annual ritual of back to school. After the slow pace and loose plans of summer, it always feels like a jump into a cold lake at six a.m. Suddenly, we are all business and nerves. Backpacks stuffed with supplies to stuff into a desk identified with my boys name neatly written on a long tag. Lunch requests taken and packed into containers and ziplocs with hope of nourishing their newly tired bodies. First day of school outfits laid out; ironic shirts and basketball shorts, cool enough to stand out and fit in simultaneously. Checks written to PTSO, form after medical form for food allergies, bee allergy, and nose bleeds completed and taken to the school nurse, along with Epi-Pens and Benadryl that we pray are never needed. Bus stops confirmed. Husband’s schedule entered into my I-phone calendar. I know I’m forgetting something.
Sixth grade, third grade and Kindergarten. That’s where I’ll find my three this school year, in their respective classrooms, or in the lunchroom, or at recess on a blacktop not much different from the one I remember from my youth. I catalog all the things I need to do when I get home, waving as I leave each to their own worlds back with fresh from summer teachers and twenty five or so other kids the same age. I give brave, confident smiles and tell them each, “You’ve got this. I know you can do this. You’re great at being a student. See you in a bit!” I make it to the van before the tears well up. Hmmm. I thought maybe I’d done all my emotional work at the end of school last year. And during the summer.
But just as you can’t plan for every situation that may or may not happen at school, you can’t plan your emotional floods, either. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have one of those years where I can post a picture of me smiling on the first day of school; exuding a super-cool “Yea, kids are gone!” I talk a big game when I’ve had plenty of parenting time with my boys. (Read: get me out of here! Now.) But I miss them as soon as they are gone. It’s good for all of us to have places to go, to be on our own. I know that like I know my abc’s. It still doesn’t stop this mom’s heart from twinging at the sight of her guys hesitant, unsure smiles as I entrust them to someone else for more hours of the day than I will have with them.
Did I pour enough love into them this summer? Did the balance of encouraging words and loving responses outweigh the ones I regret? Did I spend enough time with each of them, on their own? Do they remember that they are loved no matter what? Did we laugh enough this summer? Is their self-worth rooted stronger in the love of their Creator this year? Because they will have storms. And bullies. Jokes they don’t get. Teams that won’t throw to them. Cruel words and looks tossed their way.
That day, after I cried in a church parking lot, I drove my empty van to Starbucks. I wanted to write, so I brought my laptop. I found I had no words. And the wi-fi was pissing me off. So I had my latte and breakfast with a side of rolling emotions and racing, looping thoughts instead: My youngest is in school every day now. Half-day Kindergarten, a rarity around here, and I’m thankful for the extra time with him. He’ll love school and his amazing Kindergarten teacher, and I’ll see him in three hours. My middle guy is in third grade. This is the fabled fairy-tale year of coming out-of-our- shell in my family. His teacher is so calm and caring and great I want to cry. He’s going to thrive. My oldest didn’t get the home-room teacher he wanted, but after meeting his teacher, I know she is God-chosen. I didn’t see many of his friends in his class. Well, this is sixth grade. They’ll be switching classes three times a day this year, to get a taste for the upheaval of middle school next. He’ll see his friends at recess. He’s going to love this year. More action, more responsibility, more field trips.
I can’t say that I had any moment of clarity that morning where I knew that “It Will All Be Fine”, like some typography poster on Pinterest. I’m not sure that being a parent offers that as part of the package deal. Because I don’t know. And it’s the scariest part of being someone who fiercely loves your children. But one thing I know from years of back to school days is that the bravest thing you can do is to let them go anyway. This is the part I never thought about when I desperately wanted children to hold in my arms, or when I held each of their warm bodies close to me on their birth-day. This was not in my dreamy vision of my boy’s childhood stories at all as I read picture books to them, their sweet arms curling around me. That someday, I would be left with empty arms.
We weathered the first week of school. Four days packed with notes and papers and hungry, tired boys. Yesterday, as we ate lunch out in the fall sunshine, I asked my kindergartener what book his teacher read. With a sly smile, he said “The Gingerbread Man.” My eyes lit up and I couldn’t contain my excitement. “What?! And did you search for a gingerbread man who said, ‘Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man?'” And then he told me the tale of his adventure. This. This moment. Thousands of these sparkle in my mind, light my soul, and make me laugh out loud with joy at how beautiful these boys are. And that is something I couldn’t have dreamed of in my crazy-happiest of dreams.
I’m think I’m going to go make some ginger molasses cookies now. I’ve developed a craving somehow. Eat some dough, and bake a few too. And, if they let me, I’ll catch my boys up in a tight hug. I do believe reality is sweeter than make believe.