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Family Time: Back to School Jitters

by Robin Rieger

I’d start with the same encouraging words the closer it got to the end of August, when the anxiety over the new school year would first present itself.

“You’re going to be fine.”
“You will have a nice teacher.”
“It’s not that long of a school day.”

Still, the tears would fall and the clinging would begin and continue for weeks into September. As a parent, it’s an emotional scene. And I am relieved our two kids start each school year pretty confidently and without much ado.

I, on the other hand, did not do as well and have apologized plenty of times to my mom for what I put her through every September from the beginning of kindergarten until about fourth grade. Those earlier words of encouragement were what I would repeat to myself over and over to ease my own fears that ruined many school mornings in our house.

Take my first day of kindergarten at Jacques School in Edgewater Park. I remember feeling scared and nervous as I stood on the school blacktop with my mom waiting with the rest of the kids to go in and start my day. Things quickly went from bad to worse, though, when I realized there was more than one kindergarten class and my two friends were in the other one. UH-OH! They got in line and went in one classroom and I was supposed to get in line and go in the classroom next door. With my safety net gone, I put on the brakes and would not take another step. My sobbing had turned to bawling right in front of my classroom. My mom tried her best, smiling, using words of encouragement, and then probably a few more desperately spoken through gritted teeth to get me to join my class. But I wasn’t budging.

The principal joined us in the hallway. Surely he could convince this red, teary eyed, hysterical child to go in her classroom like all the other kids. Here’s an idea, let’s have the teacher come out and take Robin in by the hand. It was worth a shot, except I was so upset, when the teacher bent forward with a smile on her face and her hand extended to take mine I slapped her! I can still see her recoil, gasp and march back into the classroom holding her chest. Needless to say I was in big trouble. My teacher wasn’t the only one who got a whack that morning. I chose to finally go into the classroom instead of to the office with the principal. My poor mother!

The start of first and second grade began in similar fashion but without a right hook to the teacher. The closer it got to September, the more I would dread each passing day of summer vacation. I couldn’t stand that slight weather change that began towards the end of August. Back-to-school shopping left me nauseous. I never wanted to buy anything ahead of time that reminded me of the impending doom. I swear there is a scent called “The First Day of School.” Often a certain smell reminded me of the classroom odor and that would also turn my stomach.

I wasn’t a bad student. I liked to learn, had fun and loved my teachers (even the one I struck), once I got over the hump of the separation anxiety. But it was a tough and lasting battle.

At the start of third grade, I can remember my mom pulling up to Magowan School, right next to Jacques. Of course, I was bawling in the back seat of our car. “Get out of the car Robin; you can do this,” my mom said. This time, my older sister was there with me, too. She got me out of the car and walked with me as I cried all the way to the door of the school. Once inside the hallway, she walked me to my classroom door, opened it and pushed me in, as I was still crying.

This was the same year I thought if I could be a follower of other religions, I could miss more school days. I remember our teacher telling us not long after the start of the school year that the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur would be celebrated the following Monday. Since students who celebrated the holiday would be excused from school that day, she wanted anyone not coming in to raise their hand. My hand went up and stayed up. ‘Whew!’ I thought. ‘I’m not coming back to school until Tuesday.’ Later that night my mom sat me down and explained that my teacher had called. The teacher thought we were Catholic (we are), so imagine her surprise, and my mom’s too, when I indicated I would be celebrating a Jewish holiday instead of coming to school Monday. Needless to say, there was no three-day weekend for me.

Thankfully I grew out of the anxiety. In fifth grade, I felt just what my mom and older sister experienced with me when an errand for my teacher took me to the art room. My little sister was in class there at the time. When she saw me she stood up, called out my name and started crying. I did my best to console her using the same words I used to say to myself.

They came in handy for me again when our kids started school. While my kids didn’t suffer the same anxiety I had when I was young, as a mom, I felt the old familiar pangs.

On her first day of preschool, our daughter walked away from my husband and I, smiling and waving as we fought back tears in our eyes.

Years later, our son seemed to experience a little anxiety in second grade. On the first day he was excited, standing on the black top with his friends, but when the time came he wanted to stay with me instead of go in with his teacher. At her suggestion we let him lead the line, each of us holding his hand. She thought me letting go at the playground would be a good idea instead of closer to the door. Though my son was reluctant to release my hand, he did.

And for the next several days, he experienced some tears in the morning but his teacher let me know he was OK in class. One morning he insisted I walk him right to the school door. I watched him head down the hall towards his teacher. When she greeted him he wrapped her in a big hug and she reciprocated. She smiled at me over his head. I had tears in my eyes but I wasn’t worried. I told myself:

“You’re going to be fine.”
“You will have a nice teacher.”
“It’s not that long of a school day.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 6 September, 2014).
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