Yesterday at the pool, the air had a bite to it, causing both Maya and me to keep as much of our bodies submerged as we could, to the point of bobbing awkwardly just below the water line, stretched out in the baby pool.
And today after the rain cleared, the warmth largely went with it. At the park, it was possible to think of a light sweater with distinct longing.
In my small world, this end of summer has a pronounced bitter-sweetness. Maya is starting preschool in two weeks. It is a particular kind of beginning, the first year in which there is no “back” in back to school.
Up to this point, she’s been cared for by us, by a nanny and relatives based out of our home, which I realize is a very sheltered life. She’s never been to the hurly-burly of daycare, and has spent relatively little time around other children, with the exception of the four close-by cousins with whom she’s officially obsessed.
Hence, this beginning maintains an edge. It is an actual beginning, which is a rare thing, since most are colored by similar events before them.
And while I doubt that her play-based Reggio, two-days-a-week, co-op preschool bears much resemblance to Lord of the Flies, it nonetheless is the first time in which social consciousness may begin to be a force in the formation of her personality. Until now, she has never been:
- laughed at by others or teased;
- called upon to perform a particular task at a particular time;
- asked to conform her day to a predetermined schedule;
- spent any considerable time in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people;
- been characterized as anything by other people within earshot of her, etc.
In short, for Maya this is the start of a social mode of being that is utterly novel, in a real sense. It comes with embedded expectations of her, and eventually, for her.
Of course, even without preschool, by age three, many of these things likely should have occurred, and would have occurred. But the advent of preschool marks them with clarity, and even allows us some attention and ceremony around them.
And it does feel like a loss of freedom, even for me as an instigator and second-hand observer. Today in the car, Nina Simone’s powerful anthem of unfettered naturalism, Feeling Good, came on, stirred up by the magic of shuffle:
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
Contrast that with my much-beloved Adrienne Rich’s almost-clinical telling of the costs and benefits of a truly liminal moment:
Prospective Immigrants, Please Note
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
Of course, in the Rich poem, our courageous immigrant has a choice, and Maya has none. As parents, we hold all the choices still, and merely hope we’ve chosen well.
Then again, about growing up and, more tragically, starting to see ourselves with the double lens of how we are perceived by others, none of us have agency. I recall in high school, when we were encouraged to read a number of bildungsroman – novels about the passage from childhood or adolescence to the long twilight of adult life.
There is so much literary talent and attention spent on this moment, and so little on the earliest transition from a self-directed to a social being, perhaps because this initial stepping forth into the world happens alongside our meaningful first uses of language, and even prior to real memory. But if there is an “age of innocence,” surely this is it.
About school, I have as much ambivalence as most likely do. I remain deeply appreciative of certain teachers, and still have some friends from those faraway days. Yet when I think about it for any length of time, I also relive the harshness and bureaucracy of it: the way we watched those fundamentally humanitarian John Hughes films for clues about how to find, we hoped, our own comic forms of justice in all the petty mess.
Without learning and context, of course, we could never appreciate the transcendent. But still, as Maya enters the fray, stepping into the mundane of scheduling and schoolmates, I wonder to myself how to preserve her current intense presence in the world.
I once wrote a short poem, about an older girl tussling with these late-summer impulses and threats, poised in self-discovery. I was that girl, and the memory of bicycling up that steep incline is as clear as yesterday’s sunlight over the pool.
Serious child, it is September.
You are bossing your bike up
this hill, and worried for school.
Summer has you in her long arms
still, and her permissiveness
seems natural. She goes on musing
in your ear of mushrooms, sprung
from sleepy lawns, demure
and shining in the late light, echoing
an early moon. Or of last Sunday,
foreign in a Baptist church,
when sudden angels trilled
their brilliant wings, and took you,
for the first time, from yourself.