The Rockwood Files: Back to school angst

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Our 12-year-old groans every time he sees a back-to-school commercial, which lately seems to happen once every five seconds. (I can’t blame him. When adults go on vacation, the last thing we want is to be constantly reminded that our regular jobs are about to start up again on Monday morning.) So my kids are milking these last few days of freedom for all they’re worth – wearing pajamas until noon, playing Marco Polo in the pool and enjoying lazy evenings without a hint of homework.

back-to-school3The kids may think I’m ancient, but I’m young enough to remember the special brand of angst that comes with the first day of school. The one that stands out most in my mind is the night before the first day of fifth grade.

Fifth grade was a big deal because, in the town where I grew up, it was a kid’s first departure from the sheltered simplicity of elementary school. It was separated from all the other grades and housed in a building across town – sort of like Lord of the Flies, only with backpacks. I’m not sure if school officials set fifth grade apart because there was no room in the elementary school building or because they wanted to protect the rest of the town, just in case all that pre-teen hyperactivity were to spontaneously combust.

I spent the last half of the summer of 1983 worrying about what I should wear on the first day of fifth grade. It had to be something way cooler than what kids wore to elementary school – that much was certain. So my mother took me back-to-school shopping at the Belk department store on Main Street and I found a red and white outfit made by Esprit, a brand that was uber-cool for 10-year-old girls. The jeans had this red belt that put the final, fashionable touch on what I hoped would be the outfit to launch me into fifth grade popularity.

The night before the first day of school, I laid out my new outfit so everything would be ready to go the next morning. But where was the cute red belt? It was missing! I double and triple checked my closet. I looked in the laundry room, the shopping bag, the car, and every square inch of our house. It was just gone, and I was devastated.

My mother kept saying something ridiculous like, “Just wear a different belt,” as if that was the obvious solution to a trivial problem. And I didn’t have enough tearful words to explain to her how my entire fifth grade identity and future happiness hinged on that one red belt that was now, in a cruel twist of fate, lost forever – probably floating around in the same black hole where stray socks, sunglasses and signed permission slips go.

More than 30 years later, it seems absurd that I shed tears over a red belt the night before fifth grade, but it made perfect sense at the time. Because the tears were really about fear – of the unknown, of not fitting in, of being in a new situation that you don’t feel old enough to handle. And of course there’s always the dread of dealing with “the jerk,” and every school year tends to come with at least one of those.

Sometimes we grown-ups don’t give kids enough credit for just getting through the first day of school. Every year it’s like clearing another emotional hurdle, and any number of things – like locker location, homeroom assignment or even a missing red belt – can trip a kid up. The first day of school requires much more than notebooks and No. 2 pencils. It takes guts. For all those kids facing yet another new adventure, good luck and Godspeed.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

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