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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week First Person looks at heading back to class, something that’s always challenging, even without a pandemic.

The buzz emanating from the kids inside the bright classroom failed to lure my daughter in.

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So, too, the teacher’s warm smile and outstretched arm.

Valerie clutched the palm of my right hand and her new grey sundress with lemons squeezed against my right thigh.

She shook slightly. I tried desperately not to cry.

It was her first day of Grade 1 at her new school, in a new language.

I was only in the bustling hallway because the school bus to her French school – which my children were excited about riding – didn’t show up. I had to drive them instead. New sneakers squeaked on the freshly polished floor as other teachers shuffled students into their classrooms. Her brother marched down the hall to junior kindergarten without a care in the world.

And my daughter’s fear ricocheted off my soul.

The unknown and uncontrollable beyond the classroom door overwhelmed her, paralyzed her, prevented her from progressing toward the new adventure that awaits.

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She’s usually a brave kid who is never afraid to go down the steepest slides, take hard falls, go on roller-coasters or jump off tall heights.

This was different.

Her hand squeezed mine tighter as the teacher reached out a second arm, while flashing an even wider smile her way.

As parents, we’re not supposed to be our offspring’s best friend. Our job is to channel our efforts into arming them with the tools they need to be safe, curious, kind, confident and well-adjusted little humans.

That mission can be hard for me. I’m often anxious about their well-being and obsessively – and unfairly – comparing their behaviour and development with other kids. Over time I’ve learned to let go of the instinct to over control their lives and shield them. I’ve realized that if I put too tight a box around them, they will find their way out or suffocate in it.

This year especially, parents will need to dig down deep to relent control. We will need to trust. For me, the unknown brings a torrent of worry. What will the school experience be like? How will their teachers cope?

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As my kids progress in the school system, I’ve found other ways to soothe my active mind. I lean heavily on conversation.

I’ve learned to ask them strategically specific questions.

“Was school good today?” is a subpar question eliciting a predictable shrug or the dreaded one-word answer. Yes. No.

Smart questions include: “What did you do in gym or music class today?” “Who did you play with at recess?” “What did your friends have in their lunch?” This typically generates clues into how they’re doing or what’s on their mind. I don’t really care that little Samantha had a peach yogurt. I care that my questions trigger anecdotes about moments of their day.

I always try to answer their questions, too, regardless of how mundane or repetitive. I tell them if I don’t know something and ask them what they think. We listen to a lot of talk radio, which often leads them to asking questions about what the hosts are saying – perhaps not right in the moment, but eventually.

This year I’ll continue to find time to meet their teachers and be as present as possible for any school events – even if I’m not interested in the activity. Last year, my wife and I joined a handful of parents taking a 30-minute dance lesson in the school gym – taught by the principal – while the kids attended movie night. Yes, I did sweat awkwardly through the cha cha, but I also earned a few valuable moments with the principal to talk about my kids.

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All these conversations help me uncover little clues and offer insights into the part of their lives I don’t see.

Sometimes, though, I know I just must let go as I did back on that first day of school two years ago.

To help my daughter that day, I opened her school bag and took out the tiny pink Croc. We’d put it in the night before. It’s the same one she wore as a newborn, which had hung for years as a good-luck charm from our car’s rear-view mirror.

She took it from me and rubbed it with her fingers.

I took a deep breath, got down on one knee and looked into her teary eyes. “We’re proud of you. Be brave. I know you can do this,” I said quietly.

When the classroom door closed, I walked back to my car and cried.

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I wanted to sit there all day, waiting to see her at recess to make sure she’s fine and playing with someone, anyone. I thought about taking a quick peek into her classroom’s outside window. Her smile would be comforting.

Instead, I call my wife: “That was really hard.”

As she gets older, there will be many doors luring her through. Some will be exciting and important, others risky and dangerous.

I won’t always be there to hold her hand, but I will wonder if I have done everything I can to prepare her.

Adam Grachnik lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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