I read the mimeographed sheet again. It instructs me that my child will need three Ladi pencils, an eraser, crayons and Elmer's School Glue.

The purple writing also tells me that I am not to accompany my child to the classroom on the first day.

My worldly-wise older children entering third and fourth grade have spent time in this school, but it will be Colette's first day in first grade. It is a familiar place. I know the particular school smell of the building; I call the teachers by name; I have sat for hours grading papers at the oilcloth-covered table in the faculty lounge.

I know the first-grade room well. But I need to see it again . . . to take the measure of Colette's future somehow. To judge the woman who will be her teacher by the pictures she has selected for the bulletin board; the placement of the desks; the smile on her face -- surely she will smile. An experienced teacher told me she never raised the corners of her lips during the first month. It had something to do with discipline.

Somehow I don't recall it being so difficult to send the other two off to begin their academic futures.

It's not as if my daughter is a stranger to educational institutions. She excelled in pasting and cutting in preschool. And indeed she attended kindergarten where she took that quantum leap of childhood: She began to read.

But kindergarten had been an extension of playing. My daughter slept through the hassle of getting the other children off to school. The morning routine revolved around shopping or cleaning or playing. Some days we simply watched "Sesame Street" until time for her afternoon classes.

It is not Colette who is apprehensive. It is her mother.

I watched the others go off to first grade, and suddenly they were exploding out of their size 6-X clothes, getting telephone calls and riding bicycles. They came home sassing their parents and trying out the new words they learned at recess. They came home their own people.

"I'm not ready for this," I tell my husband. I say that a lot lately. And he answers in his laconic and wise manner, "It will probably happen whether you're ready or not."

Somehow I've never been ready for anything: college, marriage, having children, letting go of children.

And the letting go is important, the preschool teachers warned. How the parent handles the first separations, I've been told, can mark the child for life.

One 5-year-old cried every day at kindergarten. And every day when he and his mother had a tearful reunion, she hugged him close and asked, "Did you miss me very much?"

Many of us parents asked that in our minds, having been coached somewhere not to voice the words. The answers we wanted was the impossible, "yes and no."

"No, I didn't miss you, Mom, because I am making friends and learning about the world and how to do things. I'm growing into me."

But at the same time, we yearn to be missed.

I have grown too complacent holding small hot hands; too content having someone crawl in my lap. And yet three children is all I want and need. Sometimes it is far too many.

The hugs and laughter were punctuated by awful, miserable times. Days I thought that I would go insane trapped in the house with my children. There is that side also. The children have been surly and selfish and demanding and hard work.

But if I let go of this hand, will it be over? Tomorrow, surely, they will be packing to move into their own homes.

I am reluctant to give up the joy that I have discovered in their childhood.

Although I complain daily, I have become accustomed to the appendages attached to my skirt. My personal growth stalls, smashing into another iceberg. I always complain. I complained often when they were tiny that I could never get away. I have a job now, I'm sending off this last child and gaining even more freedom. It's exactly what I wanted.

Why don't I feel better about it?

I'll cross off the school supplies I have assembled, and scream up the stairs, "If you don't get down here this minute, I'm going to let you walk."

The three of them will squeeze into the back seat of the car in a lump, fighting already. In the school parking lot, I'll watch as they race for the front door. Colette will be last.

I hope the teacher smiles.