The walk to kindergarten. Her straw-blonde hair peeking from below the brim of her big hat, her small hand beneath mine on the pram’s handle. Past the being-built house with diggers and dump trucks out the front; past the house with the rooster statue on the doorstep that her little brother calls “Uh! Doo!” because he can’t quite manage “cockadoodledoo”; past the tall green fence that crawls with snails after the rain (“snakes” he called them for the longest time, and I smiled at the scope for misunderstandings). Through the long grass where fairies hide, and on through Dandelion World. Past the bush where we found the nest. Round the corner – watch out for sprinklers – now look both ways and hold on tight as we cross the road.
The walk to kindy that we’ve made – there and back – twice a week for a year. But today there’s an ache in my chest. Two more days of kindy and it’s over. Isn’t it more often than not, you don’t see the significance of a phase of life until it’s over? Until the golden glow of nostalgia has glossed all the bumpy bits from your memory? A few months back, I was struck by a profound awareness that this, the kindergarten year, is a unique little piece of time for our family. I realised that I didn’t want it to just slip past us without grabbing the chance to savor these moments, to consciously imprint them on my memory. Drippy after-kindy ice blocks on the warm bricks by the clothesline. The treasured mess of wilted blossoms, crunchy leaves and twists of wool in the bottom of her backpack each afternoon. The partner-dance she delighted in teaching us. Yes, even the kindy pick-ups where she drives me crazy with never wanting to leave. I have loved this year because she’s loved it.
The year started with my painfully shy little girl crying hysterically and having to be peeled from my arms every morning when I tried to leave. It was gut-wrenching and it was frustrating. For four years every new experience, from dance lessons to Sunday School to childcare to swimming lessons had been met by extreme clinginess that – despite my very best attempts to remain positively upbeat and unruffled – left me feeling wrung out, disappointed, as if I was failing in my duty to prepare her for the world.
But this year something has shifted for my daughter. Nestled safely in the beautiful space amid the gum trees and the fairy garden, the mud kitchen and the pirate ship, she has flourished. She’s watched chicks emerge from eggs and caterpillars spin cocoons. She’s moulded clay and woven cloth and planted shrubs and listened to stories. And although, when pressed about her day, she will invariably say that she can’t remember what she did, I’ll wait and watch for the bright parade of new thoughts and words and songs to steadily stream forth: Japanese greetings, lessons on quantifying objects, surprising comparisons of adult and baby bones, songs of golden boats on silvery seas. She’s found the comfort of belonging, the satisfaction of achievement, the buzz of discovery.
If my daughter isn’t ready to take her turn talking about her hero in front of the class, it is okay just to whisper her thoughts to a teacher. If she’s really tired after a big week and some late nights, I know it will be fine to bring her in a little late. Kindergarten masters the art of gentle encouragement. Oh, there will be plenty of opportunities in life for her to be pushed that bit further, stretched beyond her comfort zone. There will be time for her to learn about winning and losing, success and failure. But now she’s just a little girl learning that she is secure and loved and capable and part of a team. Kindy understands that that’s the part you need to make rock solid first. And the best bit is that, at her own pace, my shy little girl is becoming bolder. Her teachers tell me that she now contributes to group discussions. There is a picture in the learning journal of her and her bestie dressed up as “fairy rabbits” dancing in front of the class. Every morning she kisses me at the gate, runs along the fence to kiss me again through the wire, then dashes off giggling with her friends.
Yesterday at home, I overheard her quietly singing to herself, “This is the best night, this is the best night of my life.”
“Where did you hear that song?” I asked her. It’s not a tune that gets a lot of airplay in our house.
“They were playing it at the Kindy Disco Dance,” she explained. This event was almost three months ago, but it was a very memorable occasion – not least because I was stunned to see my girl confidently skip onto the dance floor after telling mummy and daddy that we should leave. She continued, “Other Lily said, ‘this is the best night of our life!’ ”
“And what did you say?”
Oh my heart: the best night of the best year of her little life thus far. I’m not sad about her starting school, because how can I be sad about something she’s ready for and excited about? There are so many brilliant moments waiting for her just around the corner. But I’m sad about the end of kindergarten. And right now I need to sit here listening to the rain and holding my cup of tea and my sadness just a little while longer. I have loved watching my daughter love kindy. And while I have no doubt that the best years of her life are still to come, this one is going to be hard to beat.