My son is now me: The 1st-grade roller coaster

First Person: "In these last days of summer, my son Natan has suddenly begun to resemble an astronaut."

Back to School (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Back to School
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
In these last harried days of summer, my soon to be first-grade son Natan has suddenly begun to resemble an astronaut.
Preparations for Monday’s launch have been so complicated and stressful it is as if he were about to hurtle into space, into some unknown galaxy. The fact that we are immigrants and novice first-grade parents has only made it harder.
Forget about the emotional roller coaster, let’s just talk numbers. Remember it has been years since my wife and I sat in a math class.
In preparation for Natan’s first day of school, we shopped in five stores buying more than 10 books, special shirts and three kinds of special notebooks.
“What is a “smart notebook?” I asked my wife, imagining some new type of iPad specifically designed for a first-grader. Not quite an iPad. In fact, I couldn’t tell the difference between a “smart” and a “regular” notebook until my wife pointed out that there was larger spacing between the lines in the smart notebook in order to have more room for the teacher’s comments and to give children the option to write in larger and clearer letters.
I’m sure some educational study shows our son’s success on his psychometric exams in 10 years is directly a result of this purchase.
Notebooks, it turns out, can’t be naked in the classroom. They need book covers, in this case, 10 of them. With my personality, I would have been ready to say, let’s just get one notebook and the teacher will get over it.
But then my wife told me that there is a special session, where I can imagine in virtualmilitary fashion (I still remember this from my basic training) every item on the list will be checked for every student to ensure that no one starts school missing any critical supplies. What would happen if a child had four pencils and not five?
I remember that as a child getting supplies ready for first grade was overwhelming and gave me a new sense of responsibility and pride, but nothing like this.
Oh, and did I mention the humongous backpacks or, if you are on the dark side, (like many of our friends) wheely suitcases which many firstgraders are lugging around? There is already some culture shock.
Many parents rightfully worry about how the switch from playtime to academics will impact their child, but we are more concerned if he will make new friends.Will he be swallowed by the huge class size (even at a semi-private school), and by being in the youngest class in a school with five grades?
After three years in Israel, he is fluent in Hebrew and he will definitely not be the only immigrant child, but will he face other complex cultural challenges that were easily smoothed over in kindergarten (especially with the baggage of us immigrant parents)?
Now that he’s entering the real world, we will be less able to protect him, whether physically or in terms of him learning more about life’s complexities. Many immigrant parents also feel that kids grow up faster in some ways in this country and are forced to deal with violence, ethnic differences and fear more dramatically than we did as children.
On the other hand, we are so proud to see him so proud of himself.
He talks about kita aleph all the time, so much so that our two-year-old has insisted that he also wants to go to kita aleph and not back to his daycare center.
It is obvious that from his day changing to revolving around class instead of playtime, and from how much he grew up in kindergarten, that he will emerge a completely different person a year from now – and getting to watch up close as an observer is in and of itself a small revelation.
But maybe the most prominent emotion is that my son has finally entered an age which I remember so profoundly. In essence, he is me.
I have forgotten kindergarten. But for me, and many others, first grade is ingrained in our minds.
I can still recall the first person I saw when I entered the classroom, her name and face.
I remember my first friend, his name and what he looked like, even though I haven’t seen him in almost 30 years. I remember that I was super nervous in a new way as I walked into my classroom.
I remember my first locker (which he does not get, despite needing a smart notebook, and, did I mention, a humongous backpack).
I thought the teacher at the front of the room must be crazy if she thought I was going to pay attention to her for six more hours – after she had been talking for 15 minutes. I remember that if you behaved well, the teacher gave you a magical stuffed animal monkey home for the weekend. And lots of spelling tests.
My wife’s strongest memory is that her teacher walked into the class and immediately started talking to her and the class in Hebrew (she went to one of the few North American Jewish day schools that take Hebrew seriously).
She knew no Hebrew and had no idea what the teacher was saying, but being a law-abiding first-grader just assumed that that was what you do in first grade. She also remembers standing in lines a lot.
Mostly, we both remember that we started to think of ourselves as people and started to talk and act a little bit more like people.
I can’t say it has made me feel that much older or more responsible like when my son was born. And I haven’t really decided yet what to do emotionally about the fact that I am now watching my son live what was my life. But, ready or not, on Monday our family will be hopping on the roller coaster.