Yesterday was Jo Jo’s first day of kindergarten.
I wasn’t sure how much she grasped, honestly. We’d been talking about it at home, and last weekend I made a big deal out of showing her her new book bag and her new lunch box and her new school supplies. She’d gone to camp over the summer, but she’d had one of her preschool aides, Ms. Rosie, with her. This was all so, so new to her. And I was excited, but still worried.
She was very quiet at breakfast. I watched her, fiddling with her pancakes, her hair neatly plaited into two French braids.
She looked apprehensive as we all piled into the minivan to take her to school, and once we got into the parking lot she promptly starting bawling.
“It’s okay baby” I kept saying over and over, rubbing my face in her hair. And as I did so I remembered my own first day of kindergarten.
It was a typical New England September day, warm but with just a faint hint of crispness in the air. Usually my mom took me to school, but given the enormity of the occasion my father insisted on taking me himself. I wore a red jumper embossed with three yellow flowers over a white blouse, black Mary Jane’s on my feet, grasping my father’s hand. I remember looking up at him, in his brown hounds tooth suit, trying to keep up with his gargantuan stride. His fingers curled around mine, I felt so safe. Like I could conquer anything, even kindergarten.
As we approached the building, we ran into another little girl and her father. She had two long brown pigtails and freckles on her nose and as our fathers talked to one another, we glanced at each other and giggled. She was wearing a white ruffled dress with red polka dots and I remember looking at that dress with envy. I remember thinking that this little girl was someone special, and that I wanted more than anything to be her friend.
We got to the classroom. My father kneeled down and looked at me solemnly. “You’re my big girl. No tears today, right?” he said. (I’d sobbed my way through two years of preschool.) Normally I would have grabbed onto his collar and held on for dear life, shrieking that I didn’t want him to leave. But today was different. Today, there was the girl in the white ruffled dress, who held all sorts of promises.
I nodded. “Sure,” I said, and then the girl in the white ruffled dress and I looked at each other and began giggling.
Her name was Melanie, and she was my best friend for the next three years. We drowned our Sea Wees mermaid dolls in bubble baths and held tea parties with my Sindy dolls and occasionally shoved our Strawberry Shortcake dolls in the fridge (always a big surprise for my dad when he opened it up for his orange juice at 6 am). When I was 8, we moved to Michigan, and we lost touch, but we reconnected in middle school and during college and even in our late 20s, when we both were living in New York.
I so want that for Jo Jo. If you were to ask me my one goal for her this year, I’d say, even before all those IEP goals like her being able to recognize and write the alphabet or know her letter sounds or count to 20, I’d say it was for her to find her first best friend.
She’s never really had that. Other little girls adore her—at camp this summer, she was basically the Katy Perry of Sara’s Superheroes crew and they all jockeyed to sit next to her at lunch or hold her hand during music class. But it’s not the same. She’s like a pet, a mascot, and while I’m so, so grateful that they embrace her, I want her to have a true friend. Another little girl to giggle with at sleepovers in her purple Princess bedroom or to play camp with in her pink Princess tent or dress up with the Barbies that are still in their containers in her bedroom closet because I don’t think she’s yet developmentally ready to play with them.
Her first day of kindergarten was glorious. I couldn’t have asked for anymore more: she’s in a mainstream classroom with her own aide, a loving teacher, and excellent therapists. She’s fully included, which is amazing—that didn’t really happen in Massachusetts in 1978, when I started school.
And I tell myself that somewhere, sitting among the 22 other kids in the class, is my daughter’s very own Melanie, someone to hold hands and giggle with as they stand in line for music class. If she’s not there, maybe she’s in the classroom over and they’ll bump into each other on the swings during recess. Or they’ll find each other when they’re both pulled out for small group reading instruction.
I have to tell myself this. Just as I have to tell myself that Jo Jo will learn to read and write and ride a bike and do all the things that sometimes seem so daunting and overwhelming.
But it’s the thing I wish most for for my daughter. A friend.