I wrote this blog post on the first day of school in 2003, the day my son started his last year of primary school. So many of you have been in touch about empty nest syndrome, or your feelings as your children start school or return to the classroom, I thought it would be a good idea to bring it back. Even though this post is bittersweet, I hope that you will find it comforting and reassuring.
The Last First Day of School 2003
It was the first day of school today. Both my son Alexander and I have been excited about today for a good two weeks. Alexander because he is starting Year Six, and me, because I crave the routine of the school year after a busy summer.
Yet suddenly the first day of school was upon us and I felt a sort of bittersweet regret. I had not thought about it before, but this is the start of Year Six, Alex’s last year at St Wystan’s School, his last year of primary school. A small, independent school in Repton, a beautiful, historic village in Derbyshire, St Wystan’s has been a haven for both Alexander and I for most of his primary school years. Originally established in 1926 for the children of teachers at Repton School, St Wystan’s is now a thriving independent prep school.
St Wystan’s is, in a lovely way, set apart from the world. The children still wear a very traditional blue and grey uniform, including blazers, ties and hats for both boys and girls. Although as full of youthful enthusiasm and mischief as any other children, the students at St Wystan’s are encouraged to conduct themselves with dignity and respect for others at all times. Words like “stupid” and “hate” are not to be used by anyone. Father Christmas is alive and well. Having your name written down in “The Red Book” is the worst of all punishments. Nothing in this small, sheltered part of the world could bring more shame.
On Our Way
For the first time in years, my son and I were on our own as we left for the first day of school this morning. Often my parents are staying with us at this time of year or my husband arranges his schedule so he can be around, but this time it was just the two of us.
Seeing him standing there in his uniform, I suddenly realised this was one of those moments I will never forget. His last first day of primary school. Will he even want me to come to school with him on his first day of school next year?
Leaving for The First Day of School
I hugged my excited son and he rushed out the door into the car. It was a gorgeous morning, pleasantly warm and bright. Driving out of the driveway, we turned and smiled at one another. Thankfully, this was not one of those rushed or disorganised mornings that involved shouting. This morning was a gift, and we were both happy just to be alive and together.
I wished my husband had not had to leave so early to drive to London so he could have experienced this first day of school too. I was sad my parents were not with us as well. Yet perhaps this morning was gift to me, one of the last chances I will have to be of such importance in my son’s world. I know that he will soon want much more independence and all my attempts at being a “cool mum” will all be for naught. Still, for this moment, I am important to him, as important as he will always be to me.
Driving through the small villages on our way to the first day of school, Alex chatted excitedly about what would happen, who would be there and what they would do. He has ten children in his class this year. Next year there will be more children in his year than in the whole of St Wystan’s School. I worry and wonder about how he will cope. But that moment was more precious to me than worrying, especially as Alexander turned to me and said, “You know, you aren’t just my Mum. You are a good friend.”
My throat caught, and I told him he is my good friend too. Dear God, please let it always be this way! Our children never belong to us, and trying to hold on to them too tightly is selfish in the extreme. My mother never clung to me; she always encouraged me to move forward in my life, even if it meant moving away from her. Yet I understand now why some mothers do cling, and I reminded myself of my promise never to put my son or anyone he loves through that kind of stress.
Arriving for The Last First Day of School
As we walked up the path to the school, I wondered how many other schools would have children quite so joyous as those I saw this morning. From nursery to Year Six, there was not one sad face in the group on this first day of school. We walked hand in hand, until Alex said he wanted to go and wait at the top of the steps with the others. I released his hand, gave him a hug and said brightly, “Have a good day!” However he refused to go any further unless I came and waited at the bottom of the steps, as I have every other year. I was touched that he wanted to honour our tradition, that he wanted to include me in this right of passage and not rush off on his own.
There were other faces like mine this morning, nine of them in fact, the mothers of the other children in my son’s class. Our children’s joy was contagious, but at the back of our throats there was definitely a catch. It was the last first day of primary school. Our children were growing up quickly. Also, we had become more than acquaintances in the past 8 years, but with our children going in many different directions after Year Six, it was our last year together too.
The headmaster walked through the assembled parents and children, talking to one and another here and there. I envied him for a moment. He will nearly always have first days of school. Then I caught a glimpse of his eldest son, not in uniform because he starts secondary school tomorrow. My envy was misplaced and unfair. We lose our children by increments, slowly at first and then at a pace that stuns even the most laid back parents among us.
The bell rang, and Alexander ran back down the stairs to give me a hug. In spite of this, he was the second child through the door.
I walked slowly back to the car, smiling and saying good morning here and there. In my heart I knew I had enjoyed a most wonderful morning, one I will always remember. I have often had doubts about whether I am the best mother I could be, whether I am patient enough, and how Alexander will remember me. Not this morning though, this morning, I felt on top of the world.
Alexander lives in near Cambridge, England with his lovely partner, Hannah, who he met at St Wystan’s School all those years ago. We are still very good friends.