The day my dear little Charlie started school, February 2, 2009

IT’S 9.45am and I’m drinking champagne, eating muesli and crying alone in my house. Big, fat, salty, wet tears rise up from a place in my belly. I feel another wave of emotion envelop me. Embrace me. Slowly. Will I dive under this one or will I ride it? Can’t stop the waves. Better try surfing. Where’s my emotional Boogie board? Pass me that champagne and I’ll hang on for dear life. Now I’m elated. Like I’ve just run through a crepe paper banner. Some weird sense of achievement about something I didn’t achieve. It’s just a scientific experiment I’ve been observing for what seemed, at the time, to be a hundred years. But what now feels like a blink of an eye.

I feel lighter. But kind of emptier too. A burden lifted. A milestone reached. A millstone lifted. “I’ll probably be a bit emotional today,” I said as I cut fruit, wrapped cheese and slapped together sandwiches. “What do you mean emotional?” asked the 10-year-old. “Not sad, not happy, just open. Your heart’s open and your emotions are going in and out at the same time. Don’t be surprised if I cry.” “Don’t be such a wuss, Mum.”

My dear little Charlie, six years old, the monkey in a boy suit, started school an hour ago. And I can’t stop crying. The youngest of my three boys is now one of them. A member of Club School. Where things are gross or fully sick. Three kids, three lunch boxes, one drop off. Almost 11 years it’s taken, but we made it.

Dear little Charlie. Our third, just for spare parts we’d say. More like a pet than a child. Our mascot. The boy who once told me when he grew up he wanted to be flour. “A flower do you mean?” “No,” he said, “Flour, so you can make me into a cake.” The boy who wore a Spiderman suit for an entire year when he was three. He didn’t walk to school, he ran the first bit, got piggy-backed for the middle and ran the last bit. He’s not here covering the cat in stickers, digging worms out of the ground with a fork or asking me for more “staple ammo” to finish stapling the extension cord. Long story.

All at school. They’re all at school. I thought it’d never happen. The elders would say, “They grow up so fast, just enjoy them” but how can you when it’s so intense at times. So relentless. It doesn’t seem like a part of your life, when you’re in it, it is your life. It goes so slowly, at times you feel as if you are standing still, going backwards almost. But you are moving. In the tiniest increments. Invisible to the naked eye.

I realised this when I saw a mum down at the school yesterday with her newborn. The youngest of three boys. Yes, we should, but no, we can’t always enjoy it because we’re more than our children. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

I didn’t burst open when I expected. Parents and grandparents bumped up against each other in the prep room and bystanders wafted in for a gawk at the emotional roadkill. But everything was cool. No clinging kids. Just shaky parents.

“This is your last one isn’t it?” they’d ask, “How are you feeling?” I was pretty stoic. “OK actually. Maybe it’ll hit me later.”

We got to the staff room and the champagne was brown, warm and served in tea cups with milk and sugar so I decided to mark the occasion on my front deck with my friend spumante.

I thought it would be a big bang. But the sound of emotional tectonic plates shifting is quiet. It’s not the way I expected but when is it ever?

I never understood these “Oh God, my baby started school and I can’t stop crying” rants. I would think, “Get over yourself, read a book, get a job or go help migrants learn to read.” I’d tell people: “Cry when the last one starts school? Are you serious? Mate I’ll be dropping them off at the pick up-zone the night before and heading to the pub to celebrate.” Now I get it. But I still can’t explain.

We’ve made it. Where? I’m not sure. But somewhere. It’s not success or achievement but a rite of passage I am privileged to have experienced. I’m mindful of those who didn’t. The disabled kids who’ll never start school. The parents who died before tearing up at the sight of their child in an oversized uniform, carrying a gigantic backpack. And the ones, like my niece, who never made it to school age.



Charlie’s last day at primary school

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