Last night Mia was sitting on the counter while I puttered around in the kitchen. She was talking about the last science project of the year, due two days before the last day of school. It involved dropping an egg from the roof in a box designed to keep it from breaking. I was only half paying attention. She said, “I can’t believe I’m leaving this school in seventeen more days.” I nodded and said something like I know or It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? And then she said, “Do you think anybody there will remember my name?”
I looked at her. She was staring back at me, and she had that intent, serious look on her face that indicates big emotions held in check. “Of course they will, sweetheart,” I said, and put my hand on her head. “Are you worried about that?”
She nodded and started to cry.
Next year she’s not going to the middle school the rest of her friends are going to. She was accepted to Hanger Hall School for Girls, a private school focusing on grades six through eight. She was thrilled to be accepted, and with its smaller classes and more intensive curriculum — not to mention the female-positive aesthetic which characterizes the place (when I visited the first time I noticed the walls were covered with biographical posters the girls had done, all focusing in women in history — Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Coco Chanel, Hillary Clinton … ) — I’m thrilled she’s going there too. On the day she received her acceptance, as I was tucking her in that night, she said, “Daddy, tonight I’m going to dream happy dreams about middle school.”
I’m fairly certain that sentence has never been uttered before, in all of human history.
Nevertheless, the reality of it is beginning to sink in. She’s worried about being forgotten. “I feel like I’m drifting away from my friends,” she said, citing two in particular. “I don’t think people even know my name.” She thought for a second, and said, “They just know me as the sensitive girl.”
Which is code for the girl who cries easily.
I assured her that she was leaving a much better impression than she realized, and that we all tend to think of ourselves more harshly than other people do. I told her to gather the names and phone numbers of her friends so she could stay in touch; we would have sleepovers and picnics. Regarding the impression she feels she’s leaving behind, and the friends who are already starting to drift away from her, I told her I did not find friends who lasted more than a year until I got to high school. And I reminded her that one of the good things about going to Hanger Hall, with all its new faces, is that she could have a fresh start. She didn’t have to worry that because she cried a lot in the third grade, everybody still remembers it and judges her for it. She could present the face she wanted to present, and begin anew.
Of course, you always carry yourself around with you. I was struck by how many of her fears are the ones we carry with us our whole lives. How they reflect my own fears when I stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night. I don’t want to oversell the idea of a clean slate to her; I am well aware of the dangers of learning too well the lesson of flight.
But sometimes it is just the thing. I have reinvented myself more than once in my life, and most of those times I have been been invigorated by it. I can be excited by the prospect of radical change because to me it suggests the possibility of a better paradigm; but then, I have my own life to teach me that. This is brand new for Mia. She has been at this school and known these people for a little over half of her life. She’s both excited and terrified. She’s both elegiac, and crackling with possibility.
It’s a strange and humbling thing, watching your small child wrestle with truly adult emotions. You give lots of hugs. You guide as best you can. And because you know there are hits that cannot be avoided, you hope that it’s enough.