First Grade

This month we celebrated our first born going to first grade. I know that it’s a right of passage and I remember the changes that came with being a first grader but I don’t remember it being such a big deal.

In Bavaria most elementary schools are walking distance to the communities they serve. Some students, who live further away, take the public bus to school, but in general, students are strongly encouraged to walk (or later to bike) and parents are gently but clearly encouraged to let them.

The idea is to walk with your first-grader so that they can learn the route and get used to it. After a few weeks when they know the way and they’ve gotten to know the other students who walk the same route, they are supposed to walk on their own.

But I mean first-graders are 6 years old. That still seems pretty little, right?

Well let’s go over a few of the other traditions that go with first grade in Germany. As per-usual a list is sent home ahead of time with all the school supplies that they need. The list contains the typical supplies but also things that I don’t remember my parents having to buy for me. For example, each student arrives the first day with their own watercolour paint and brushes set, their own clay set and their own set of crayons.

First graders also need a relatively large, ergonomic back pack that they will use for the entirety of elementary school (4 years.) This is not on the list and is purchased in the months leading up to school’s start. I don’t even know how I found out about it. I think I heard people start asking the kids if they’d gotten theirs yet and that was my cue to google it or ask a friend. It is a big moment when they go to a fitting for this back pack to make sure they choose the one that fits best. And it’s an even bigger moment when the mom looks at the price tag and sees that it costs upwards of 150 Euros. (It’s easy for me to write about it now but I about choked when I heard it the first time.)

Then on the first day of school, which is really more like a ceremony, each child receives something called a Schule Tüte. This thing is a bit reminiscent (in shape) of an upside-down dunce cap but it functions like a cornucopia. It’s personalised, decorated and filled with gifts and necessities for the school year. (I turned to Etsy to find one, but you can find them in grocery stores and drug stores as well.) This thing can also be expensive and it’s big and cumbersome to carry.

So now getting back to what I was saying about a 6-year old being kind of little–imagine yours with a huge expensive backpack and a large ribboned cornucopia walking up a hill for 15 minutes to get to the first day of school ceremony. Then picture first-graders from all around doing the same thing and somehow it sounds like a comedy show or a parade.

But actually it’s pretty neat. People smile as you pass on the street. Some passersby even shout, “Congratulations!” Friends and family send cards and gifts, people write messages–all of them congratulating this newly minted first-grader. In pre-corona times grandparents and god-parents and friends all attended the first day ceremony, eating cake and drinking coffee and maybe even drinking a glass of bubbles to honour of the occasion.

I really felt like this was a lot of overkill. Quietly I kept thinking, “Is this really such a big deal?”

The first day ceremony was nice and then the first week when she had homework every day was kind of a novelty. My very first “back to school” night was interesting and as fun as sitting in a mini-chair wearing a medical mask for two hours can be. It was nice to meet the other parents and the teacher and get to be in the classroom. Now I know my way around and I’m on a bunch of mailing lists. I’ve also gotten very familiar with the walk up and down the hill dropping her off and picking her up.

From a certain perspective it’s just something that needs to get done. They have to get used to walking to school and we have to walk with them until they do. During the first week we met another first-grader on our route. She and her mother walk with us each morning. We moms lag behind, letting the girls lead. We let them look both ways and decide when it’s safe to cross the street and only remind them if neccessary. There are mornings when I’m tired and it’s cold and I think, “won’t it be nice when she can just go on her own?…”

But slowly it has dawned on me why this is a big deal. It turns out, walking up and down the hill is not just a task to be completed. It’s not just an exercise for my physical health–it is an exercise in letting go. And so while we might be getting closer to a sort of freedom, what we are really getting closer to as we walk each day is the cutting of a cord that has been attached since she was in utero.

Each time we walk we are teaching them to begin to trust themselves instead of relying on us or any adult for that matter. We are helping them, encouraging them, even applauding them for tuning their own instincts and making this break from us. When the break is complete we will never do it again. They will not have to get used to walking to school again next year. Once they realize that they don’t need us to walk with them, once they feel secure on their own, they will never go back to relying on an adult in order to do this task.

I have a first grader and in a few days she will have the tools to know that she does not need her mommy or another grown-up to be ok. It will be the first in what is hopefully a lifetime of trusting herself and using those tools. Suddenly I feel like this is a very big deal. I feel proud of us both and terribly emotional about it. There have been other milestones –getting out of diapers for instance–but this is the first one that has struck me so deeply.