More first days of school

by Debbie Carini

Seven years ago, I wrote what I thought was my last column about the first day of school—it was my son’s last first: the first day of his senior year of high school.

In that column, I reminisced about all the first days of school – captured forever in photo albums, random cell phones, and the “cloud” (wherever that is!). There are crisp clothes, uncomfortable new shoes, an unstained and fresh-smelling lunch box, and the myriad hair styles, gap-tooth grins and height disparities between two children born two years apart.

My son graduated from college in 2016, and served two year-long gigs in AmeriCorps, a program of the United States federal government. He greatly enjoyed his work advocating for young teens in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington. Then, he decided he wanted to continue his learning to earn, first, a master’s degree, and then a PhD in American Studies. He was accepted to a school all the way across the country. It had the potential to be the ultimate, and longest, ride to the first-day-of-school ever!

As a parent, there’s always a certain amount of anxiety when sending one’s young charge off to school. Another adult is taking over for six hours a day: will he or she find your child’s ticks—cannot eat anything green—endearing? On the most basic level, will my child eat the lunch I pack or be able to thread the straw on the Capri Sun?

This ride to school was a little different—a 2,836-mile journey punctuated by stops at irresistibly named places like The Corn Crib in Shelby, Iowa. I hate to think of myself as a coastal elite, but I’d actually never watched the National Tractor Pull Championship until I saw it on TV in our hotel room in Ohio.

We took turns driving. From the passenger seat, I looked over at my son and thought about the days when, from his carseat, he littered the space around him with Cheerios and crumbled cookies.

On this trip, I made more of a mess with my car snacks—Cracker Jack popcorn and artificially-flavored strawberry and orange sodas. I even melted an entire tube of Rolo candies when I left them in the car while we toured The Art Institute of Chicago. Over the long miles, we listened to Toni Morrison read her book, Beloved.

At our final destination, I helped him set up his apartment; as the ultimate test of our mother-son bond (after five days of driving through 13 states and consuming at least 20 pounds each of breakfast buffets) we put together an Ikea bed and…we’re still talking to each other, especially about what to do with the single wooden slat and three screws we had left when we finished.

There’s nothing quite like the trepidation of watching a child embark on a new adventure, whether it’s to kindergarten or to earn a master’s degree. “Please eat right and stay warm and learn new things,” you whisper to them as they turn and head toward their future. “And please know, I am always right here for you, ready with encouraging words, or even a bowl of mac and cheese. I’ve had almost your entire lifetime to drive you crazy, thanks for letting me drive you this extra little bit.”


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