Several times over the last two weeks, family and friends have documented their children’s first day of school and posted their photos on Facebook. I’ve enjoyed viewing the First Day photos of their children and grandchildren: candid and posed shots of excited expressions, book bags full of new things, stories of tears shed (parent and child). All of it took me back to my own children’s First Days …Looking at the pictures, I could just about smell new Crayola’s and crisp, clean sheets of paper. Those days ended much too soon for my liking. Yet, other than a little reminiscing, I didn’t think too much about the start of the new school year. Not until yesterday, when my niece Rebecca shared a photo of my great-nephew Carter walking away from her and into his school for his first day of four-year-old Pre-K. It’s a sweet, wonderful photo of our little man proudly and independently taking long, confident strides down a long walkway; a strong, right-handed grip on his lunchbox.
But I saw more.
The photograph provoked an emotion I had not expected. It stopped me in my tracks. Did Rebecca see what I saw? Perhaps, but probably not fully, not yet. How could I tell her what she had actually captured? Should I try to explain what I saw? Sweet, brilliant, handsome little Carter-Man was in the photo, for sure. But there was an older boy there as well. And a young man.
The older boy held a set of car keys firmly in his hand. The young man walked with casual determination on foreign soil. Both had their backs to the camera. All three were Carter. But they could have been anyone’s son. Or daughter.
In reality, the older two Carters’ were only visible to my mind’s eye, but I saw them clearly. Sixteen year-old Carter. Twenty-two year-old Carter. Time happens that quickly, it really does. Not so much when you’re in the middle of it; during the living of it. In its present form, time seems to dawdle; move sluggishly. It’s after the moment, not immediately after, but later, that you realize how quickly it slipped away from you.
All day I thought of Carter’s photo. I thought of his mommy watching him walk away and I remembered what that felt like. Without being told, I knew she had watched him until he was out of her sight; watching his back… should he need her. I thought of how there will be other days like this, when she and Justin, Carter’s dad, will watch his back as he walks with great anticipation towards future things: cars, airplanes, girls. A bride. Perhaps they’ll watch with Bulldog pride as he walks toward the same revered arches they once walked through; wave goodbye to his back as he moves to another state. And always, they’ll be watching until he’s out of sight, watching his back…just in case he needs them. That’s what parents do…
I shared Rebecca’s photo with a friend and told him how it made me feel. He said he understood: “I felt the same way when I saw this photo of Jon”, he said.
We have no experience at parenting until we are parents. That’s how it is….we’re clueless in the beginning and for many years thereafter. We’re amateurs….the most intense on the job training you can imagine…for the most important work you will ever do. We make mistakes, because we know no better. In the beginning, we don’t understand how fleeting a span of eighteen years actually is. We don’t realize how abruptly those little arms will outgrow our own; until they do.
I know Rebecca and Justin give lots of hugs and kisses to Carter and his baby sister, Cooper. Most young parents do. Still, to them and all parents, I would give this advice: Give more hugs…lots more. Read more books together. Give longer back scratches. Snuggle longer. Because those little ones aren’t little for long. And one day, a day that will sneak up on you, you’ll be experiencing your last, first school day.