Today, my children begin Kindergarten, an especially meaningful milestone considering their precarious start in life. They arrived almost fourteen weeks too soon, one weighing 922 grams and the other weighing just 760 (which is under two pounds).
Now, five and a half years and a combined eighty pounds later, Kindergarten is another indicator of how far they’ve come, their first major social transition. My twins approached this milestone with as much anxiety as excitement.
As I’ve discussed before, one of my daughters had been concerned about starting Kindergarten before learning how to read independently, which isn’t a Kindergarten requirement. Then, after the following conversation, we learned that another misconception about Kindergarten had added to her fears:
“Mom, I don’t want to leave you.”
“I don’t want to go away to Kindergarten, like you did to college. I don’t want to live somewhere else.”
I assured her that her new school is in our neighborhood, and she assured me that she would never go far away from home, not even for college. Her twin made a similar promise; however, being a natural adventurer, her tone was less emphatic.
I thought about these promises as I read a century-old letter from novelist and screen director John D. Swain to his son (featured on Letters of Note last week). Swain wrote it on the occasion of his son’s “dawning college career” at Yale, his alma mater and also mine.*
He noted the “unassailable barrier” between them, saying:
My son, my loyal and affectionate boy, some day it may be yours to know the pain, the unreasonable pain that comes over a man to know that between him and his boy, and his boy’s friends, an unseen but unassailable barrier has arisen, erected by no human agency; and to feel that while they may experience a vague respect and even curiosity to know what exists on your side of the barrier, you on your part would give all—wealth, position, influence, honor—to get back to theirs! All the world, clumsily or gracefully, is crawling over this barrier; but not one ever crawls back again!
Right now, there is no barrier between me and my affectionate little girls, and while I hope we’ll always remain close, our relationship will most certainly change between now and the time they go off to college, which may or may not be as close to home as they had “promised.” I am raising them to no longer need me. That’s the goal for the future, but I am thankful that that time isn’t now. Kindergarten is just a step towards it.
It’s a milestone that leaves me feeling a little like Swain did in 1908, when he declared in his letter, “I think I had never realized before that I was getting old.” However, with age comes experience and perspective, which Swain distills into advice for his son. Much of this advice remains true today, even for little Kindergarteners.
For example, taken somewhat out of context, Swain advises his son to think for himself, cautioning him against pursuing a path to satisfy a “mere filial desire to please.” He also tells him to never quit, saying, “That is all the secret of success. Never quit! … If you can’t win your race, at least finish—somewhere.” These words remind me of what my college Dean said as she faced an incoming class of anxiety-prone freshman: “the paper you turn in is always better than the paper you don’t.”
I will share similar advice and other guidance with my daughters in the coming weeks and years. They are beginning an academic journey like the one I began 27 years ago, though education has certainly changed quite a bit since my time. I went to Kindergarten well before Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other school shootings emphasized the ubiquity of guns; I went to school before No Child Left Behind forced schools to prize test scores over learning; I went to school before funding woes crippled many districts.
But I have never been a person who glorifies the past. To quote Thom Gunn, an edgy poet whose works my children probably won’t read until college, “I don’t regret the present. I don’t feel it’s cheap and tawdry compared with the past. I think the past was cheap and tawdry too.”
My educational experience was far from “cheap and tawdry,” but it had its share of disappointments and obstacles, such as an elementary school teacher who mistook shyness for stupidity. However, I had many great teachers, too, ample opportunities, and an experience enriching and supportive enough that we decided to send our children to same school district from which I graduated in 1999.
I want my children, one of whom I suspect is a budding perfectionist (often a debilitating condition), to take a long view of their education and of their lives. I want them to understand that many paths lead to success, which is based on how they define it, and that, no matter what, we will be there for them at every turn.
Do you have any advice to share? Is there something you know now that you wished you had known in elementary school?
*While on the subject of the past versus the present, it’s worth pointing out that no one of my background/gender went to undergrad with Swain or his son.