For whom the bell rings: A back-to-school humoir

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

I'd lie wide awake for hours, wondering about my locker location, who my lunch table neighbors would be, what my teachers would be like, and whether my Trapper Keeper notebook was still in style or as antiquated as the unworn parachute pants hanging in my closet. My small canvas backpack would be sitting in a corner by the door, stuffed like a sausage with notebooks, pens and dormant anxiety.

I'd start the next day too nervous and too charged to eat breakfast and end it too exhausted and too intimidated to contemplate anything except dinner and sleep, usually in that order. Were it not for adrenaline and caffeinated soda, I'd never have made it through.

Now that Charlie's entering fifth grade and his sisters are starting second, I still feel anxious. On their debut morning of school, I survey my girls' pretty dresses and colorful hair bands, and can easily see the seeds of their teenage years being planted. As we cross the street together, I look over at Charlie's massive backpack, adorned with zippered pockets, water bottle holders, super-padded straps, and reinforced bottom, and think: Are we sending this kid to school or to Costa Rica?

While hordes of unfamiliar children race around us like idiots, I compare myself to every genial-looking, power-tied, flip-flop-wearing dad at the scene.

"Come on, Gloria," one man says to his wife, prying her from a young boy who shares his mother's hair. "It's not like we're sending him into the military."

I so desperately want to be a fly on the classroom bulletin board, to watch and observe everything going on. In more narcissistic moments, I want to steer my kids to success, so that they're volunteering the right answers, modeling perfect courtesy and demonstrating all the patience and poise I didn't display at all when I was in grade school. In short, I want them to be age-inappropriate. This is why teachers shoo parents away after the bell rings, or in some cases get restraining orders.

After all the kids go inside, the door closes with a loud click, and the parents creep away like zombies. Well, most of us. I keep my ground, staring at the big, open classroom window, estimating just how tall I could stand in the prickly bush below it.

The next time I wait with my children for those big red doors to open, I pledge not to bring my neuroses.

Next time, I'll just bring tissues.

Joel Schwartzberg is once again looking forward to the first day of school. An award-winning essayist, he's the author of "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" (