"I not goinga school today," Peabody said to me this morning as he chewed a clean, crisp slice of an early-season apple we'd bought at the farmer's market yesterday. He's said this every day since we first put his big sister on the bus one morning two weeks ago. He floats the idea out as a mixture of question and statement every time, and each time prior to today I've said, "No, not today, but soon," with a hidden cringe of dread for the day I would have to answer differently.
"Yes, today, you are going to school," I responded gently, but with what I hoped to be the right mix of firmness and empathy. And then, internally, I ducked, waiting for his tears, his shrieks, that typical four-year-old negativity redoubled in conviction by his long-standing ambiguity about school. They never came. He bit off another piece of sweet fall flavor and chomped at it for a moment, before climbing backwards off his wooden bar stool and heading up the steep, turning staircase to his room. He's big enough now to make the stairs creak a tiny creak.
I arrived on his heels to find him scaling his great-grandfather's dresser (now his), and peeked from behind the door-frame to watch him carefully bat down the sturdy brown box that contained his equally sturdy and brown new school shoes. He half-climbed, half-leapt down behind his treasure, knelt before it and tossed the box's lid aside to pull out one suede and leather shoe, hold it up to his face then to his nose. He noticed me and peered over the shoe into my eyes. I just held his gaze and looked down at him, a keen expectation in my gut like the pause at the top of the highest peak in a roller-coaster car. Where are we going with this?
"Dese shoes smell GROSST," he asserted, and took the second out of the box. I braced myself again, and then exhaled as he breezily asked, "Can I wear dem to school today?"
And with that, we were just bip-bop-boop getting dressed and ready for the first day of his "junior year" of preschool. It was raining, so we three piled into the car and drove Bean down to the bus stop. As her bus glided away through a damp canopy of umbrellas and waving mothers, we buckled up and headed off out of the neighborhood towards his school. He chattered brightly, not even a whisper of anxiety in his voice. I answered him through the veil of my almost-alone, tip-of-the-solitude-planning thoughts. Halfway there, by the drugstore on the corner, and he broke his steady banter briefly, collecting up another batch of thoughts and questions.
"Can I go into school by myself? An' you stay inna car?"
I actually giggled out loud. He cannot be serious! Is he serious?
"Ummm... You want to go into school without Mama?"
I was stymied. What just happened here?
"Well, buddy, since it's the first day and I haven't seen your teachers in a while, I think I'd like to go inside and say Hi to them today. I'll let you go in by yourself on Friday, okay?"
We parked and walked to the door of the school, and he grasped my hand, pulled back a bit as he spied teachers and students inside, smiling out at him. But he followed me inside and hung his backpack on the hook under the bright banana sticker that bears his name. His class theme is monkeys. Yes, of course it is.
We looked at the class's resident mouse, in a cage at the back of the room, and I could tell my boy was ready for me to go in the same way that he sometimes feels ready to get a BandAid off a boo-boo, but dreads the ripping.
I hugged him. He hugged back hard. I kissed his sweet round nose. I drank him in as I wondered to myself in half-a-second thought if these teachers can see what I see in this little boy of mine. I know in my soul that God created my heart to love Peabody most and best, yet what speaks out of those expressive, soulful eyes, the amazing range of expressions he commands with just the flick of an eyebrow or the slight pucker of a lip -- wouldn't they completely captivate anyone with a heart?
I let go and leaned back, but he came close again with warm arms around my neck. I just let him hug and closed my eyes into the moment. Again we parted, and over his shoulder I saw his teacher, watching with understanding. He turned and saw her too, and flickered his best I'm not smiling smile at her - obligatory pout painted over a growing willingness he'd rather we didn't know about.
But we knew, the teacher and my son and me. And I could walk out, and even look back at him, and know that he's going to have a worry-free day, going to be undeniably himself, going to say something funny and probably inappropriate about poop, going to walk on his tip-toes when he's hurrying, going to only wash the palms of his hands before snack, unless someone reminds him to wash the backs too, going to ask for more, going to want to know where the pink car is, going to sing "Thriller" or something by Katy Perry during free play time, going to be delighted to hear "Sticky Bubblegum" for the hundredth time.
And then he's going to greet me in three hours with a face-splitting smile and the sweetest Mamaaaaaaa! I've ever heard. And I will realize that I have missed him deeply, even though the truth is I popped a gleeful imaginary wheelie as I drove out of the parking lot after that last hug.