In preparation for my son Charles’ first day of school, preschool mind you, I ironed his green cargo shorts and favorite T-shirt with a picture of a bear riding a bicycle. It took longer to heat up the iron than to press his petite clothes. It was ludicrous, really, but I wanted my son to make a good impression with the other children. (Surely, the other 4- and 5-year-olds would notice if his clothes were rumpled!) If I could do nothing else to ensure a happy and successful first day, I could at the very least guarantee he’d appear freshly pressed.
Monday morning, I promptly delivered Charles to school at 9 a.m. I opened the door to Classroom number five, and surveyed the sea of parents and children. Twelve parents and 12 children filled the room, plus two teachers. The din of chaos reigned. Parents tried to separate from their clinging children. The teachers gave big hugs to their little charges. Some children cried in fear and dismay at the new circumstances. Other children yelled in delight at the smorgasbord of new games, toys, and arts and crafts.
I stood in the doorway, and a feeling clutched at my heart as tangibly as my son clutched at my torso. I’d so carefully prepared my son: He was well dressed, with a jacket in case the weather changed, and carried a packed lunch and his favorite book du jour to share with the class. But I’d somehow forgotten about myself in the mix. My jeans were unfashionably worn-out. I hadn’t bothered with make-up. My hair, well, it was its usual unruly mess. The feeling of anxiety about meeting the other parents hit me so hard, I almost clutched my son in return.
I looked at Charles’ small precious face. It reflected the newness of what could only be mind-blowing experiences for a 4-year-old so new to the social mores and taboos of our society. I bravely stuffed down my own discomfort.
I motioned to a tot-sized table filled with puzzles and suggested we play with them. I spoke calmly, but in an upbeat manner, as if luring a frightened animal. Teacher Nina sat down next to Charles and cooed to him about the puzzle, motioning for me to leave.
I left the table, and saw this as my opportunity to speak to another adult. Every parent seemed to be engaged. They laughed and chatted in a way that precluded others, or at least me. Were they all friends already? Was that even possible? We’d arrived at about the same time, only a few minutes ago, but they seemed so into the situation and each other. How had that happened so quickly? I felt dizzy. My heart beat rapidly. I had something akin to stage fright. I stood and stared. I slapped a smile on my face and hoped it was convincing.
I edged over to the two nearest parents. Of course, I’d met them at orientation but I’d promptly forgotten their names. How could I possibly introduce myself again when we’d just met a few days ago? They discussed the various afterschool possibilities the kids could partake. I couldn’t get a word in. My voice didn’t come; they were friendly but intent on each other.
I kissed the top of my son’s carefully combed head, said goodbye, gave a brief smile to the teachers, and I fled. On the way to the parking lot and my car, I was near tears. What was wrong with me? Why was I being so insecure?
Normally, in social situations, I was a confident person: bold, reassured. My job as a journalist reflected this. I enjoyed meeting new people, and speaking to them. What was holding me back? After all, shouldn’t I be worried about Charles? He was the one starting anew, not me. He had so little experience with the world that to compare our situations seemed almost heartless. Was it fair to be so worried about myself?
But I knew, if I was honest with myself, that Charles would do fine. He had a talent for making friends even at his young age. The teachers were caring and patient. Could you realistically ask for more?
Yet, I was stressed. Would I be able to make friends? Would I like the other parents, and would they like me?
In the car a memory came to me unbidden: being of some indistinct yet young age, watching other children interact while I shyly sat on the sidelines. I was instantly transported back to my elementary school days. Could my adult feelings merely be a flashback to childhood?
The next day at school, as predicted, Charles did fine. I was determined to overcome my newly diagnosed shyness. While Charles and a classmate Tara played with Magna Tiles, I turned my attention to the parents. Tara’s mom Sharon (I remembered her name!) was deep in conversation with Teacher Jenny. Should I interrupt? Would that be rude?
Another mom – I searched vainly for her name but could only come up with a vague letter C – attended to her sobbing son Adam. He didn’t want her to leave. There was no way I’d be able to interact with her.
A dad named Jeff, father of twins Carson and Sophia, hugged a mom I didn’t recognize, and looked genuinely delighted to see her.
I couldn’t spot an opening anywhere amongst the parents. I didn’t say hello to anyone. I gave up, mumbled something to the teacher and retracted. I felt as awkward as if it was my first day ever at school. I wrestled with this very real possibility that I was reliving my own, perhaps, traumatic experience as a child.
Back home I bumped into a neighbor and friend, Jon, father of two young children, a recent graduate of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and Executive Director of a non-profit organization that specializes in after-school programs for youths.
Jon is a philosopher at heart: introspective, thoughtful and wise. His perspective is always interesting. He could see I was downcast, and asked me about it. I broached the subject with him.
He smiled, gave me a hug. “We’re all just little kids at heart wanting acceptance,” he said.
Jon and I decamped to Peets, our favorite coffee spot. When we’d settled in, he made the observation, “Little kids release their vulnerabilities, and then they go all in. Adults have the social tools to make nice with each other, but there’s always the question of how to get to that next level of intimacy.”
I sniffled a little. Jon had hit the nail on the head.
He offered me a paper napkin. “Buck up!” he said. “There’s always next year!”
I groaned. He was right, of course. There would be years more of this very dilemma. Unless, of course, I homeschooled Charles!
The following days at school, I viewed the classroom as a petri dish of relationships. My tailspin of social anxiety floundered more easily. I noticed the drawn smiles, the vacant looks and the strained conversations of other parents.
Unnoticed, Adam’s mom had sidled up to me. Her British accent wooed me immediately. She stuck out her hand. “I’m terrible at names, but I’m Rachel,” she said. “It’s all a bit awkward, isn’t it?”
My sigh was audible, as if I’d been holding my breath. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Perhaps, this would be the start of a beautiful relationship after all.
Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.