AT THE VERY END, at the point where he saw what he called the "big boys" in the playground, he admitted he was nervous. It was then that he held my hand tighter. But up to then, he had done just fine, fooling me with his nonchalance, even saying "Let's get this show on the road" when he bounded into the car. As it was, we got to school 15 minutes early. As it was, I was the one who was nervous. After all, it was his first day of school.
Oh, what a cliche. Oh, what a hackneyed day - a page out of Huck Finn or something. This is what I thought. But then the old symptoms came over me the night before. I couldn't sleep. I checked off all the usual reasons and none of them seemed to apply. Things, by and large, were going well, but there I was doing my old tossing and turning number, trying to stomach and then the back, writing a few dozen columns on the ceiling, knocking off a cosmic thought or two, watching, eventually, the sun come up like thunder out of Prince George's County across the way.
It was no wonder. For weeks I had been talking up this first day of school, thinking a lot about it myself. I don't recall my first day of school, that first day at nursery school where we made tom-toms, or the first three years of actual school, but I remember the first day of the fourth grade because it was a new school in a new town and it was a disaster. We had moved early that summer and I had spent some time exploring the area. One of the things I had done was walk off the way to school. I was determined to go by myself and when the first day came I did just that. I simply took off.
Everything worked according to plan. The half-mile or so walk was a snap and I arrived with time to spare. There seemed to be a thousand kids in the school yard, none of whom I knew, and lots of teachers, most of them women, most of them what we used to call battle-axes. They started to organize things. Orders were bellowed. Children lined up. Down on the cement, the numbers of the classes had been painted, but there seemed to be none for my class. I went from line to line, asking and then asking again, hoping someone would tell me where I belonged.
Suddenly, the lines started to move into the building. One by one they peeled off and in no time at all the fourth grade classes were on the move. In a moment they were gone and then a moment everyone was gone and I was standing in the schoolyard by myself, my confidence shot, panic rising within me. I fought it - God, how I fought it, but the tears came. They exploded from behind my eyes and they ran down my face and I just took off, running home, my chest pounding, finally blurting the story to my mother - word, gasp, word, gasp. She understood and took me back.
That was the worst day, but none of them were really any good and even in college I managed once to report to the wrong gym class. The basketball coach was in the middle of the floor, saying something like how this was college, understand, not high school, understand, and we were expected to be adults, understand. I was tip-toeing out of the room when he spotted me and he called me to him and he said to no more than a thousand other freshmen that I was just exactly the sort of idiot he was talking about.
So now it is years later - me and my son in the car on the first day of school and I am thinking of all this and I am a trifle nervous. But not him. He is cocky. He needs no advice, no counsel. He has been ot the school to check it out, see his room, meet his teacher. The other kids have told him he will get no homework. He takes his time upstairs. It is me who is pacing in the living room.
When we gto to the school, he tells me he will go in by himself. "I know the room," he says flatly. He is adamant about me staying in the car. He runs off, up the stairs and disappears into the school. I follow, I walk down the hallway, looking for him. I hear a voice: "Daddy." He is worried. He is in the room, but here is no one there. Everyone is in the ayrd. He takes my hand and together we walk to the playground. "There's big boys here," he says. The grip tightens. The teacher approaches. She kneels in front of him. "It's your first day," she says. "Are you a bit nervous?" He nods his head yes and she leads him away.
Bert Lance was not the only to have a rough time yesterday in Washington.