The first day of school: A closed book to endless possibilities

If I had a little one starting “big school” on Wednesday, I’d be worried. No, more like afraid, very afraid.

And no, my anxiety has very little to do with the state of South Africa’s education system.

The minute I stepped on to my primary school’s yard for the first time, um, many, many years ago, I knew I’d discover a lot of things by myself that my parents could never have warned me about, regardless of how much they loved me and wanted a pleasant experience for me on my first day.
First of all, there were way more kids than I had imagined there would be, the school was huge, and the noise!

But it’s the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen that makes the experience so memorable. Soon enough you catch on and realise that a lot of the things that happen are not exactly what you’d signed up for.

With a whole bunch of young children comes a whole bunch of different personalities.

Allow me to “warn” all first-timers’ hard-pressed parents—they are responsible for their wellbeing after all—of the personalities that dwell in the world they’re throwing their offspring into.

The bully
I have to start with this kid, because, if he doesn’t make your life hell in the first year of school, he will definitely do so in the second year. He sets boundaries from the onset: you mess with him, you’re dead. This is the kind of “dead” reserved for primary school playgrounds and may amount to nothing more than giving up your lunch every day, no questions asked. The teachers may or may not do anything about his behaviour. Either way, life goes on.

Mommy’s little princess
Sure, Cinderella feels lost in this new, unfamiliar world of homework, timetables, pencil cases and pencils. But, unlike her peers, her feeling of bewilderment has to do with more than just homework. First of all, why don’t they have dungarees in pink? Preferably the same pink on her favourite Bratz T-shirt? I know you said I can’t take Barbie with me mommy, but you didn’t say why. And mommy, who are my new friends going to be? Do they know how to say my name?

The recovering crybaby
She listened to the gloomy stories by relatives over Christmas lunch. Similar to the princess, this thumbsucking, adorable little creature is just at the point of getting over the fact that mommy isn’t going to spend the entire first day with her at school. She’s fighting the urge to grab mommy’s dress, but oh, it is soooo hard! Why do the other kids seem so content? Some are already on the playground! How I wish I had their confidence! I know mommy wants them to think I’m ready for all this, but she knows as well as I do that I AM NOT AT ALL HAPPY ABOUT THIS!

The conceiver
This is a reasonable little oke. His motto? There’s really nothing to be nervous about. Things could have been worse. I could have had to start school in another year. It’s good that I’m starting in 2010. The parentals mentioned the winter school holidays were going to be longer this year, thanks to the World Cup, whatever that means. I can only hope. Hope is what will get me through this first term, hell, through this day! He also has a pretty good idea of who belongs the the above-mentioned personality pigeonholes.

The first-day-at-school experience is best expressed in one of my favourite films, Robert Duvall’s Angelo, My Love, starring a young Angelo Evans, whose first day is one goof-up after another. Angelo, however, shows a temperament rarely found in people of his own age: he handles his business like a pro and, adults take note, there’s no messing about. Watch a clip and judge for yourself.

As writer Wendell Berry said, “When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.” So first-timers do not despair. Trust me when I say there’s a pretty good reason for school, and it should take about 12 years to figure it out.

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