Sarah Smiley: Sometimes it’s hard to watch your ‘little ones’ grow up

Begin with the end in mind. That's what the principal said at the orientation for next year's incoming high school freshmen.

Begin with the end in mind.

That’s what the principal said at the orientation for next year’s incoming high school freshmen. He was talking about knowing your goals and how he and the staff are dedicated to supporting and guiding you — our whole family, even — through the next phase of your education. But at that very moment, my mind went elsewhere, and I knew: I have done this all wrong.

I pictured your face the day we went to kindergarten orientation — your big brown eyes and toothy grin — and the way you eagerly explored your new desk and the pencil box filled with crayons. I remember it like it was yesterday. You had wanted a dinosaur backpack, but I couldn’t find one, so you settled on a Tyrannesaurus Rex shirt instead. Your hair was freshly cut, and when you sat at your desk, your shoes didn’t even touch the ground.

No, back then, I did not have this end in mind.

I guess I believed you’d always be with me. For so many years, you were an extension of myself, always under foot or close behind. That’s why I had to send you to public kindergarten, after all. Six full hours of not needing to answer “Why?” Yes, please! I couldn’t wait for my free time (if “free time” is defined as staying home with your younger brother and being seven-months pregnant with another).

The morning of your first day of kindergarten, you came to my room and cried. You didn’t want to leave me. You said you weren’t ready and suggested that you stay home instead. You promised to watch the History Channel and read important books.

What I told you was, “You have to go because it’s the law.” What I was thinking was, I’ve been looking forward to this day since the moment you learned to talk and never stopped asking “Why?” Now, for six hours each day, someone else would have to answer why the Earth has only one moon, why dogs see only black and white, why light bulbs get hot, why Richmond is the capitol of Virginia, and why …

Wait, how did I not see this coming?

Your new high school is the best big “small” school we could imagine for you. Here you will be supported and excel. The principal will know your name and welcome you with it each morning.

But when I heard someone say “SATs” and “graduation,” suddenly I realized what all this means.

And I’m not ready.

I don’t want you to go. Not yet.

I looked across the auditorium at the high school staff. There were teachers from every field: English, science, history, French, art, music, math. I thought of all the conversations you’d have with them, how you’d talk for hours about World War II. Suddenly, I felt jealous. Those teachers get to be with you six hours each day. They will answer all your “whys.” The coaches will see you in the afternoon. They will become your mentors, my partners in moving you closer to your goals.

Still, I will wait at the kitchen table and beg you stay.

I will never forget your red, teary eyes staring out the bus window as it drove away for your first day of school. We had never really been apart before that. But just as clearly as the moment is engraved in my memory, the image that haunts me regularly today, the one that can make me cry in an instant, is the one of you coming home on the bus later that afternoon. You stepped carefully down the large stairs of the bus, but once your feet were on the ground, you ran to me yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! I did it.” You wrapped your arms around me and said into my shirt, “Do I have to go back tomorrow, Mommy?”

How did I miss this? How did I not notice the moment we went from you clinging to me, to me clinging to you?

As we toured the high school, people said how quickly these four years will pass. “Before you know it, he’ll be graduating,” they said.

I wanted to punch a clock.

I’m not ready.

In the beginning, I never really thought about this end.

Dad tells me that I should be happy you are growing up. Your best years, he says, are still ahead. How did I not know that my best years will always be when you were running through the grass to tell me about your day?

I imagined your graduation as I sat in the auditorium. Maybe you have, too. But I bet we see it differently. I bet you excitedly pictured yourself embarking on your own and starting the rest of your life.

Me? I saw myself waiting on the sidewalk, a pain in my heart, because I never wanted this time to end.