Thursday, August 16, 2012

Because I Said So: Launching youngest daughter in first grade has its hurdles

As a kid growing up with books of science fiction and black-and-white movies ful of creatures and oddities from outer space, my entire universe consisted of Earth and Mars. Sure, the Moon was there, but the Moon is a neighbor, as familiar to us all as the property fence or a dog's bark. But Mars is the next neighborhood over, familiar for its proximity, yet alien with its different trees, styles of houses, cars and people who look just like us, though they're not neighbors; not completely.

And yet Mars is close. Certainly close enough for alien beings to fly a saucer over for a cup of sugar or to sit on the porch for a spell and, eventually, eat that neighbor's dog. It's close enough for me to have thought as a kid that we Earthlings would one day put a craft, if not a person, on Mars. It was doable. Of course it would be possible, we put a man on the Moon and Mars is just around the corner from there, isn't it?

Probably a stranger concept to a 7-year-old boy than one day touching the surface of Mars is parenthood. Being a father was an entire galaxy away from where I was, and as alien as whatever that was that came from the ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At that age, there is no way a parent could understand what we feel, our fears, our interests, our complete inability to comprehend time and distance in outer space. And yet, when I took G to first grade last week and she melted into me with tears and pleading not to have to go to school, I knew exactly where it was she was coming from. It wasn't Mars, or even the Moon, it was a time and a place I remember well. It's another world called Childhood and it is as strange and exotic a place to me now as a planet called Parenthood seemed to me 35 years ago.

We're all explorers going through new worlds blindly whether those worlds encompass another planet, another continent, the next street over or being responsible for another little life. It's all exciting and, we find out, it's all very reachable. What we need to do is keep our eyes and ears open, learn as much about the landscape as we can and try to enjoy the ride.

This week's Because I Said So column from The Commercial Appeal:

Launching youngest daughter in first grade has its hurdles
Last week, I scattered my four kids like comet tails and left them with their various teachers at their various schools. For the older kids, this is old hat, they're pros who have been at this for years. They may not like it — in fact they don't — but they understand the routine and joined the countdown to the launch of another Memphis City Schools academic year.

But then there's Genevieve. She's the youngest and the most spirited, some will say. A challenge, her parents say. Things did not go well that first morning of first grade. There was a lot of clinging and tears, and even some desperate pleas for her sentence to first grade to be commuted. Alas, I left her there in the capable hands of Mrs. Armstrong and the whole Richland Elementary crew.

I came home, walked the couple of blocks back, and turned on the Internet to see that NASA's Mars rover Curiosity had landed safely the night before. Space exploration fascinates me, and I was enthralled watching video images from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, as the rover touched down and the scientists went crazy with exultation.

That celebration was rightly deserved. Those people landed a buggy on a planet 35 million miles away with more ease and less drama than I had landed my daughter in a first-grade classroom two blocks away. Granted, they're rocket scientists and I'm only a parent, and parenting isn't rocket science. Or is it? Maybe when scientists come upon a complex theorem that becomes easily proven, they say, "Well, it isn't parenting."

Adam Steltzner, a mechanical engineer with the laboratory, said the rover's landing "is the result of reasoned engineering thought." Reasoned thought is as unnatural to a 6-year-old as space travel. When told that school can be fun or that it won't last so long or that her friends will be right there with her, all she can imagine is an endless expanse of black sky, a vacuum of loneliness.

Upon re-entry into the school's atmosphere, while dodging other children and supply-laden parents, my daughter began to break apart, the heat from the classroom too much to bear; the promise of another school year built up until not even her protective khaki jumper could withstand the pressure and she exploded in a barrage of tears. And what could I do? I'm helpless. I'm a parent. I'm ground control, yet I failed to keep her grounded in any sense of safety and serenity, while floating there among her friends and siblings.

They call it the "seven minutes of terror." That's how long scientists had to wait upon Curiosity's entry into the Mars atmosphere before they found out whether their rover was intact on the surface of the planet. It takes us about seven minutes to walk to school in the morning, but I had to wait seven hours to find out that Genevieve did eventually compose herself, that she acclimated to the foreign surroundings of first grade and that her own curiosity about it all proved to be stronger than her home's gravitational pull.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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