Dealing with my child’s first last day of school

This week’s blog post is by WDP co-host Matt Rocco, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood  of Chicago with Professor Foster (his “Brown Mom” wife), and their daughter Viva, for whom (to paraphrase Alice Cooper) school is out for summer.

In the fall, my Facebook feed is always inundated with pics of friends’ kids all packed up and off to their first day of a new grade. I try to click “Like” if I can. After all, I force my friends to “Like” pictures of MY kid all the time. Not to mention, I make them read my endless stream of blog posts … why not share this on your wall while you’re at it?

When I see the pictures, I can only imagine what kind of existential tailspin these first days put these parents into. Your kids are growing up, changing, and you as a parent are, of course, rocketing towards the grave. Whee!

What you don’t see as much of is LAST day of school pics. You get the occasional grousing about the kids being home all summer, declaring their boredom and eating all the frozen pizzas, but that’s about it. It’s an anti-climax — not a bang, but a whimper. So, I wasn’t prepared for Viva’s last day in her part-time co-op nursery school program to be an emotional experience.

I can’t say she hadn’t tried to prepare me:

“Daddy, on our last day, we’re having a PERFORMANCE!”

“A performance?”

“On the stage … and we’re singing songs for the parents and then ICE CREAM!”

“I can’t wait for your performance, sweetie!”

“And don’t forget the ice cream!”

Three quarters of my waking life are full of performances. My wife and I are in the Arts and have a huge amount of ennui towards shows. Plus, I seem to have used up all of the enzymes that allow a person to digest ice cream (part of that trip to the grave I mentioned).

I was ready to find her performance adorable. I was ready to videotape. I was ready to have my heart swell at the sight of my daughter belting out her ABCs.

But I wasn’t ready to have my heart broken.

I figured my deep-seated dread that my daughter will follow in our foolish, tap shoe-clad footprints would allow me to keep my stuff together as I watched her sing.

The curtain opened, and I looked over at Professor Foster, who was already in full ugly cry mode. I shook my head at her … silly woman, overcome by emotion. The songs were sung; my heart was warmed. I was ready for ice cream and the subsequent stomach cramps. But then, the video portion of the presentation started in — a video montage of the children playing, dressing up, playing games, making art, making friends.

I looked at the collage of pictures of the kids from the first day of school: Viva was still 2. She still had teeth crooked from a pacifier at the time. Many of the kids had bathroom accidents. They never said hello to one another, and the parents didn’t much either.

Now we were in a room full of friends and watching kids who paint, sculpt, climb, slide and wipe themselves. The song playing was American Author’s “Best Day of My Life” — not some awful, maudlin button-pusher about childhood like “Right Field” or “Butterfly Kisses” or a  sentimental light rocker like “100 Years to Live” — but an up-tempo song about hope and happiness.

And that’s when I noticed that my shirt was … wet?

Had I spilled my coffee? Had Viva wiped her hands on me? Had my wife finally stabbed me? No. I was in a full ugly cry myself. I mean HARD. Trembling, rolling tears, hands shaking. I’m talking run-on-the-bank-scene-in-It’s-a-Wonderful-Life-when-Mrs. Davis-only-asks-for-$17.50 crying.

She’d done it. My toddler had become a preschooler. And she’d done well, she and all her friends. They’ve socialized, made art, become more articulate, more patient, at least a little bit taller. And now her first year is over, and every year afterward won’t be the first anymore. And soon I won’t like new music and will eat dinner at 4:30 p.m., and then I’ll be dead.

My wife and I were seated in the back row, and it seemed at the time that the rest of the parents weren’t sobbing nearly as hard as I. Had they no souls? Were they so sleep deprived, cash strapped, anxiety laden and generally run over by parenting that there were no tears left?


The answer, of course, is that they were just facing away from me, also crying. Now, most of the other parents are neither Italian or in opera, so they probably weren’t crying QUITE as much like a Verismo clown tenor as I was, but they were still expressing as much emotion as I would imagine a room mostly populated by protestants can muster.

It was a room full of (decreasingly) young parents having the communal experience of watching their babies stop being babies, of hearing the little ones shout a musical mnemonic device for remembering the alphabet that is a harbinger of a parent’s eventual obsolescence. We were watching a masterfully edited, bite-sized summary of one of the most emotional years we will ever have in our lives.

And I was about to collapse from dehydration, I was crying so hard.

Eventually Professor Foster and I pulled it together, wiped out eyes and talked to the other parents. The kids, not fully cognizant of the major milestone that their little concert represented, not fully realizing that this was the first set of friends they will eventually only know via social media, not fully realizing that their metabolisms will never again be so fast and forgiving, slid Pete Rose-style into the ice cream.

The parents made like teens at the end of summer camp (minus the hickeys) and awkwardly exchanged contact information. We’ll meet again next year, if not at summer camp, right? And we’ll all stay friends? And everything will just keep getting better forever and ever, right? Right?

Viva tried to tell me today was going to be a big day, and I don’t know if the song in the video was true for her, but it was, for me, in its own little way, a bit of “the best day of my life,” too.

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