School Clothes

Here’s a short essay I wrote for Cleveland Magazine. It took on new poignancy as I wrote it and my granddaughter’s school (which she loved) closed because of the virus.

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To my mother’s surprise and delight, I made the newspaper on my very first day of school.

The night before, she’d twisted my stubbornly straight hair onto aluminum rollers, so in the morning miraculous curls framed my face. She buttoned me into my new plaid dress with the crisp skirt and round white collar. She buckled up my new shoes. I was her oldest child, the first she sent out into the world, and that morning everything about me was as close to perfect as she could make it. 

The other kindergarteners must have been driven to school, because I rode the school bus with only one fellow passenger, a little guy with a brush cut and a cool Hawaiian shirt. I’d never seen a Hawaiian shirt before, and it added to the immense wonders of the day. When we got to school, I wasn’t the least surprised to find a smiling reporter ready to snap my photo as I came down those tall bus steps. If any event in my life thus far was worthy of being immortalized, it was riding shotgun on a school bus.

In fact, the reporter was there because the two of us were brand new students at the town’s brand new elementary school. When the photo appeared on the front page of the local paper, my mother proudly bought extras for all the relatives. She pasted a copy into the family photo album. It grew yellow and crumbly, but my smile, my dress and curls endured. It’s clear that when my mother sent me off into the big world for the first time, she did everything she could to show how loved I was. The photo’s caption could have been, Take good care of this child! 

For first grade and the rest of my elementary years, she sent me to St. Hugh of Lincoln Catholic School, where we wore uniforms: navy blue jumper, white blouse, and a clip-on bow tie. That crazy bow tie! It was the only part of the get-up I liked, though by the time I was ten, I was sick of it, too. I hated the monotony of that uniform, but she insisted on keeping it neat and tidy. I remember her ironing my blouses and scolding me to polish my perennially scuffed saddle shoes. She even made me wash the shoelaces. I was lucky, really. Though uniforms were supposed to render us as equal in the eyes of the fashion gods as we were in the eyes of God Himself, we managed to establish our own hierarchy. Some girls got new jumpers every year, while others wore theirs till they grew too small, the fabric thin and shiny. One unfortunate classmate, a tall, craggy girl, had a mother who sewed her uniforms. She no doubt grew up to be gorgeous, but in sixth grade her unusual looks and homemade clothes doomed her to the land of outcasts. Today this breaks my heart. I pray her mother never knew.

When I sent my own children off to school, I could never achieve the polished perfection my mother did. I strove for clean and matching. I made sure their hair met a brush once a day. Civilizing children is no small task and I often worried I was failing, but at least I could make sure their sweaters had no holes and their shoes were on the right feet. Like my own mother sending me off on that first day of kindergarten, I could signal to the wide, indifferent world: these children are cherished.  

By now those children are long grown, and I should be exceedingly wise. Books are not defined by their covers, beauty is more than skin deep, and while clothes can be very nice things, they do not make the man (or woman or child). Yet I’m thinking about all this as my first grandchild’s first year of preschool has come to a premature end due to the coronavirus. Back in September, her mother, my daughter, asked me to go to the school orientation. I was delighted to be part of another first day. My grandchild is shy. She’s a thinker and dreamer. She looked forward to school, but she was wary, too. I was glad I could go along and help ease her in.

That morning she dressed herself, ready in a jiffy. I was the one who opened my closet and froze. Blue jeans and t-shirt? Slacks and knit top? What kind of Nana should I be? Would this make me look like an aging hippy? Would that make me look stiff and boring? On that first day at a new school, I was anxious to present myself as the perfect grandma, whatever that meant. I wanted the other adults to approve of my grandchild’s Nana.

It was ridiculous. I wanted to laugh at myself, but I couldn’t quite. It was embarrassing to still be so self-conscious. Yet now, thinking about it months later, I see it a little differently.  Nothing about raising kids is simple. It’s a terrible tangle of love, guilt, worry, and hope. The world is a precarious place where nothing is certain. It’s no wonder, really, that when we send our children out on their own, we grasp at whatever we can, no matter how flimsy, to protect them. A new dress. A hand-made jumper. A pair of polished shoes. A bit of armor, a badge that says, Take good care of her!

Who knows what my grandbaby will remember about her first day? Probably not her crooked pigtails or unicorn t-shirt. For that she’ll need to look at the photo I took.

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