My younger daughter is nervous. She begins kindergarten next week. It's a very big step. So many unknowns.
I tell her I understand. "I was a little boy too, once, you know." There's a pause, a look, a cuddle, a coax. Ah ... there it is! That glorious (if, at the moment, somewhat parsimonious) smile.
A part of her is soothed, but another part of her is still struggling. It can't stop itself. It's the engine of her emerging consciousness coming to grips with what she knows is approaching. (Children do tell time.) I'd better get comfortable, I tell myself, because this won't be a quick chat. She's increasingly engaged now in that uniquely human journey, the one into the land of what might be. What might be ... behind the new door ... of the new room ... of the new building ... of the next part of her life?
She's not aware of it, but I'm going through exactly the same thing that she is. So she strains to get me to see it through her eyes. "It's different for you, Dad. You're not a kid!" She buries her blond tresses deep in her pillow.
How I love this child. How special and dear she is. How brave and considerate and truly kind I have seen her be, in the five years she has been with us. How sweet and wonderful -- and vulnerable -- she is.
I cast around for reassurances. How do I shield her from the jagged edges of her frightening new world? "But, honey, everyone feels the way you do. It's normal." After the words come out I wonder, is that true? Or am I only saying that to console her?
Anyway, at the moment she's not that interested in what other people are feeling -- although she is starting to soften a little. I sense that her natural talent for empathy is letting her make, at least, a cognitive leap from her own isolation into the greater world of others' feelings. But it is getting late (parents tell time, too), and I'm going to have to drive this buggy home. The whip, remarkably, is close at hand.
"And you know, I really do know how you feel," I say and look in her eyes. "I'm starting school next week, too."
"Yeah, but you're going to be," she emphasizes, "a teacher."
"That's true," I say, "but I've never done it before, either. Just like you and kindergarten. So believe me, sweetie, I'm just as scared as you are."
There is a silence.
We're so alike. Both so afraid of how we'll look, of what others will think of us, of how we'll meet all the expectations life thrusts upon us. Will the chinks show, or the shine?
And what the hell is this middle-age, graying neophyte, this absurdly old rookie, doing back in school in the first place? Oh, yes, I know a little something about half the subject matter I'm supposed to be teaching, but I have scant experience in imparting it. And I'm mostly clueless about the rest, though I'm cramming like I haven't had to in 30 years. How am I going to stay one step, if not one day, ahead of the kids?
And what about these kids, anyway? They tell me it's a tough school. I hear about absences, tardiness, referrals and suspensions; about kids who will nod off in the middle of class, and about some who will just stop showing up.
I think of all of the lives that are coming my way so very soon, and I try to remember when I was their age and going in their direction.
"Don't let them get the best of you early on," my new colleagues tell me. It's high school in the new millennium, and "it's nothing like it was when you were in school."
But as I hold my daughter, I realize that some things will always be the same. It's the first day of school, for all of us. And all those other parents' kids are thinking -- and feeling -- the same things we are. Will they be liked? Will they make it work? Will we all be safe enough to take off the armor, work through the fear and find a new home? Perhaps if I remember that -- if we both remember that -- our first days will go a little easier.
She looks up at me. I can see she finally believes that I feel, at least a little, of what she does. She's sleepy. It's time to close the barn doors.
"And the night before my first day," I ask her, "would you do something for me? Would you tell me, 'You can do it, Dad'?"
"OK," she says, and she hugs me.
And so, we lie together for a little while longer, father and daughter, silently facing the same what might be in the waning days of evanescent summer. What might be ... behind the new door ... of the new room ... of the new building ... of the next part of our lives?