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First Day of School Might Make You Cry for All the Wrong Reasons

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 have slowly affected even how we start the first day of school.

For whatever the reason, there was a significant period in my life that I rarely cried. I just couldn’t. So of course when something did move me to the point of tears, I’d sit up and take note of the occasion and learned that I can be a sucker for some things.

Reading aloud the ending of certain children’s books to my kids, like The Polar Express when the narrator can no longer hear the jingle of the Christmas bell, chokes me up every time. I  bemoan that loss of magic in all of our grown up lives, and am fairly certain I’m reading it more for me than the child I’ve got clamped down by my side. And don’t even think about pressing “play” to watch The Blind Side without passing me a box of Kleenex first. That movie just leaves me feeling so hopeful for the lot of us.

When my son was set to graduate from high school in June, I told the kids’ dad that I thought I might get very emotional watching our son receive his diploma. “Oh yeah,” said our teenage daughter, “it’ll be like Toy Story 3 all over again.” The fact that my son and that fictional Andy, whose toys were a staple in our own house when the kids were young, were going off to college at the same time was more than I could bear watching the movie.

Yesterday was the first day of school in these parts, and aside from the very obvious reasons why I might celebrate the occasion more than my birthday, Christmas and Oscar night combined, I just happen to love the opening ceremonies, so to speak, at our elementary school.

The routine has remained basically the same in the approximately 13 years I have had a child in the lower school in our small town. Parents and children pour into the multipurpose room looking for their new teachers’ names and greeting friends and neighbors after the long, long break. It’s happy and chaotic but then the quiet sign goes up, the children more attuned to the raised hands at first than the grown ups, and the door officially closes on summer and opens on the new school year.

And then I hear it: the opening chords of “This Land is Your Land” strummed on the music teacher’s guitar, and I get a lump in my throat the size of a basketball and tears start to prick my eyeballs. The kids chime in and before you know it, the song is over and they’re filing out with their teachers to their classrooms and you’re left just as you’ve been dreaming of for three months: alone. But it’s a little sad.

Even after all the years – dating back to when I had two little ones in tow for my oldest child’s first day of kindergarten – it still grabs my heart as I now stand unencumbered to bid farewell to my fourth child. I think it’s a combination of the innocence of the moment -- in the song and in childhood – with the overwhelming sense of how fleeting it all is that makes me so teary each year.

I think it’s that loss of innocence that sometimes moves me to tears watching or reading anything to do with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Of course I cry for all of the husbands, fathers and sisters of friends and neighbors that were lost that day. But I also weep for the invisible line that has been drawn for us between life before and after Sept. 11.  

Before that day, I would never have considered taking my shoes off while walking through an airport. I don't even want to walk barefoot through my own house. And if an earthquake shook the East Coast, my first thought wouldn't have been that an enemy wishing our country harm was the cause. I'd have thought I'd overloaded my washing machine.

My son came home from his first day of third grade yesterday and brought with him a backpack full of forms and letters that required my immediate attention.

A letter from the school’s superintendent reminded me of the world we now lived in. She welcomed families back to school and explained that the school had not intended for us to barge our way in that morning as we had done so many times in the past. Both schools in our district, along with countless others throughout our country in this post-Sept. 11 world, have tightened security procedures so that now visitors must be buzzed in by office staff through the front door. Our parental avalanche of excitement for the start of school was clearly a breach of the new security system and we needed to abide by the rules.

After leaving school that first day, I consoled myself with the thought that I would have one more opportunity to relish that yummy start to the year before my little guy moved on to middle school. But now I think that that ship may have sailed.

We live in a different world where anything can, and has, happened and standing by your child and singing, “This land was made for you and me,” at least on the first day of school, is a thing of the past. And that makes me want to cry.

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