The end of the primary school years

You know that feeling, where you wake up and for a split second the world is as it has always been, and then it descends with a weight; the knowledge that something significant has ended and that life will never be the same again.

Have you had that feeling?

I’ve had it before in my life; after the death of loved ones, at the end of relationships, when I was leaving a much beloved job where I had been so happy.

I have it this morning, I feel a bit sick. I woke up at 2 am then at 5 and now at 6 even though I had promised myself a lie in on this first day of the school holidays.

I woke up, for a moment felt ok, and then remembered that my days as a primary school mum ended yesterday when my youngest son left primary school.

I feel so sad.  I remember a cousin talking about this transition when her youngest left, and how significant it felt to her, but of course, hearing it from other people, is not the same as experiencing it yourself.

When I moved into this village nearly 20 years ago, the primary school was a factor.  Even though I didn’t have children then, I knew that if I did have kids, I wanted to be able to walk them to school.  The day came when I could.  My eldest started there 11 years ago, just 12 weeks after my youngest was born and so for the first term and a half of his school life, I was home on maternity leave and so could walk him to and from school each day, with the baby hugged to me in the sling or as he grew, in the pram.

I so wanted to be a school gate mum.  My mum was.  She didn’t work until I was well into my teenage years and so even when I was old enough to walk to school alone, she was still there as we came through the door and I wanted that for my kids.  She came on school trips with us at primary school, and came in to hear kids read and I wanted to be that, to be involved in my children’s lives.

It didn’t work out that way; at least not to the extent that I had hoped.  I had to return to work when each other kids was 7 months old and it broke my heart to leave them, so young, with childminders, even though they were lovely and the boys grew to love them.  For a year at one point I had to work full time and I hated it, hated not being there as they came out of the gate, to hear about their day.

Kids talk most as soon as they come out of the school gate, at least mine do, on the days when I haven’t been there, they have forgotten, or moved on and so talk less.  I’ve really juggled work as much as I could so that I can work part time and so that I could be at the school gates as much as possible; this year mainly I’ve done 3 after schools and one walk to school, which is better than a lot of working parents manage, but still feels like so little.

The thing is, I love my work, I love the people I work with and the kids I coach and teach.  I feel like a make a positive difference and that I’m doing the things that I’m best suited to doing.  I feel really grateful for that.  I also appreciate that because I’m a teacher, I’m not doing what so many of my friends are doing; juggling expensive childcare over the 6 week break.

But all that doesn’t stop the sadness.  I was 40 when I first arrived at the school gates.  Now I’m 51.  One was a babe in arms, now he’s making speeches in church about his time at school.  Time has passed.  Life has passed. Quickly.

And I think primary schools know their kids so much better than secondary schools do.  Both my boys have been nurtured and supported by staff who have known and liked them.  They have both had teachers they could laugh with and who knew them well enough to banter about football teams and music.

Primary school is so formative. It is where my boys learned to read and write, where they learned about science and maths, about countries and animals, about computers and the environment.  They have learned about getting on with people, about taking care of the younger kids, about being spokes people on various councils, about competition in the many sports on offer.  So many of the social and emotional skills they will need in their lives have come from primary school.

Then for our family personally, this school held us steady during the very rocky divorce, it was a stable and calm place when home life was the opposite.

At yesterday’s leaver’s service, the head said goodbye to the families who were leaving as well as the kids and I cried.  I cried because she school has held me too.  I feel like they have helped me raise two boys who I am proud of, I have been there in times of trouble and found support, I have celebrated successes there.

What struck me yesterday, as I was crying later alone, was that primary school has also given life a rhythm and a structure much more than secondary school does.  I have tried to get to harvest festivals, pantos, Easter services, sports days and the walks to and from school, when I have been able to do them, have given life a pattern, a structure, a sense of connection with the seasons and the times of day.

It has also given my connection with community.  When eldest left, he pointed out that I wouldn’t have some of the close friends I have, were it not for the school gates, and he is right.  But it’s not just the parents I am close to that matter, it is those who I nod at, those who I pass the time with, those who I talk to every day I’m at the gate.  Most of these people are not close enough to be ‘friends’, yet their presence has linked me into the village and I will miss the 10 minute conversations and the smiles and nods.

I like knowing which kids belong to which parents and having my son’s friends say hello to me by name.  I know this too will change.  My eldest son has been at secondary school now for 4 years and I’ve not really met any of his friends let alone their parents; I am an outsider to his life, in a way which I wasn’t at primary school, then I was much more part of it.

All of which is why I have that sicky feeling and have tears pricking and pinging.

I know that moving away from your parents is a normal and desirable part of child development and that youngest son is more than ready to move to high school.  He was sad yesterday and knows that although he will see some of the kids he is moving up with, that those relationships will change and that although we have the phone numbers of some of his closest friends he is saying goodbye to, a play-date once in while is not the same as seeing them all day, every day.  He is sad.

And I can’t protect him from those losses and that sadness any more than I can protect myself.  Life is full of endings.  This week at my own school I have said goodbye to colleagues, one in particular, whose leaving will drastically change the dynamics of a the teams we work in.  In September, not only will he/ they not be there, but new people will be and with that there will be changes.

The Buddhists would nod wisely, as they know that life is suffering caused by attachment to things.  I am very attached to my son, the primary school, even these colleagues and their leavings make me sad.  But I know I have lived through endings before, felt this early morning weight descend before and know that at some point I won’t feel it as I wake.

Someone said, with the best intention, ‘When one door closes, another door opens’ and whilst I know that to be true, I don’t want to rush away from the closing door prematurely in order to avoid the sadness.  Grief and mourning are signs that something precious has been lost and it has and I want to honour and reflect on and appreciate that.

I will never again have kids at primary school.  I will never again walk my children to school.  I have been to my last sports day, my last Christmas play, my last harvest festival, cross country, swimming lesson, and leavers service.  I will never again know all the kids in my child’s class and recognise their parents too. I will never know my children’s teachers well enough to chat to them over the end of term bar-b-q.  I will never read another school report from someone who knows my child so well having spent every lesson of every school day for two years with them.  I will never again hold small hands and listen to stories of football and friends, school dinners and learning as we walk down the track home.

That is hugely sad and I feel bereft. I have a lot more crying to do.  But that’s ok because something important and beautiful has ended and grief is the price we pay for love and attachment and I would not have missed this time for the world.

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