Puppies and elementary schools mix like salt and water: so well that it’s going to take a strong force to separate them again. Because of this, on Thursday morning this past week, my dog and I diverged from our normal morning walking route because my dog is a puppy and the elementary school down the street was celebrating the annual American ritual of The First Day of School.

School districts in Texas are geographically smaller than I expect them to be. My commute to work is only fifteen to twenty minutes, and in it, I drive through three to five separate school districts, depending on the route I take. These districts in neighborhoods that I consider mine in one way or another never agreed to a single first day, and instead stagger through August like a drunk man through a crowd. This gradual approach to what has previously been for me a clean cut, a 180-degree turn, a sudden and dichotomous change has made me see this ritual very differently than I have before.

How many other transitions in life are this many things at once? 

We all see the start of school coming from miles away: backpacks go on sale around the same time as American flags and bags of charcoal. If you believe you’re going to live to see tomorrow, you probably also believe that you’re going to see the first day of school. And yet it sneaks up on us every year. Can you count how many beleaguered utterances of “It’s back-to-school season again already!” you’ve heard this month? And how many times have you asked a kid “When does school start for you?” As much as the mindfulness movement shows how little time humans spend in the present, August shows us how little time we really spend in the near future, too.

Sending your own kids, especially young kids, back to school has got to be a relief to parents everywhere. You can go back to work and not think about how much you’re spending on daycare or summer camp. You can get chores done at home without having to listen to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood in the background and eat leftover Easy Mac for lunch. But of course, sending your own kids, especially young kids, on to the next grade can feel like sitting on a dock and watching the wind pull your beloved floating toy boat away and out of reach for good. Yes, you knew it would happen, but somehow it also snuck up on you; yes, it’s exciting, but yes, also, it is heartbreaking.

Going back to school as a kid is one of the best things in life. The smell of new notebooks, the crisp feeling of new pens, the excitement of new clothes are all unmatched by any other joy in young life. But summer is so often children’s favorite season because of the relatively untethered freedom and power of choice you so rarely feel at other times of the year. That first day of school, your parents want to take pictures of you at the bus stop, and you desperately want them to pretend that you’ve been this mature forever and to mark this occasion with as little to-do as possible.You want this exciting experience to look like a movie set and your parents know that now is fleeting, and somehow you’ve both got to compromise somewhere.

I sucked my thumb until I was eight or nine, I think, and it janked my teeth all up. So when I was little, I had a lisp. I am also told, that when I was really little, I didn’t care for the letter “L” and frequently replaced it with the letters “W” or “Y.” My older brothers and their children had similar, though unique to them, speech-related peccadillos, and they all blend together now in family stories. My niece sounded like she was New Jersey until she was four or five: her daycare at my mom’s work was “Choich School” and my name was “May-ie.” 

Gradually we all got our fine motor skills to accept vernacular English and the gorgeous midwestern accent, setting aside our childish work-arounds for phonemes we couldn’t understand.  This usually happens around the time we entered daycare or Pre-K, because other caring adults in our lives who were trained to help us grow up saw it as a benefit to us that we sound at least like some agreed upon aggregate of the other children. 

Always though, the first time we came home to demonstrate that the “I yike it a yot”s were gone, someone, probably our mother, cried. Secretly to herself, quietly in her room, but painfully and really because this beautiful moment of us moving onwards and upwards was perhaps one of the first in a string of awful reminders.  Reminders that her job as a parent was to stand on a dock, not just watching us as we floated away, but to help us do it, to encourage us to push off, and not to grab us back and keep us safe and dry and hers eternally.

How many other transitions in life are like this: inevitable, beautiful, a blessing, and a pain so deep its aches reverberate through generations. 

The answer is likely both “so many” and “too many” and that is the most human thing I’ve ever thought. Life and time may be circles and cycles, but each of us is so small and short-lived that the things we care most about appear linear and finite. It is a weakness we can never train away, a failure we can never overcome, and possibly the piece of our existence that brings us closest to God and to each other.

Tomorrow my dog and I will be circuitous on our morning walk, I’ll drive at a crawling pace through three to five school zones, and I’ll go to schools to pick up discipline records and meet new administrators. I saw it coming, but it snuck up on me. I love it and I hate it. There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

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