By Joseph M. Hanneman
Written August 1998
It was one of those days that heightens the senses, tests emotions and really brings home the meaning, beauty and challenges of life. The first day of school in Racine was arguably like countless other August days in Wisconsin. Except this time it was my 6-year-old son Stevie heading off to a new life.
Much to my surprise, it was I who felt the impact. And ironically, I was the one who learned the most that warm August day.
While I had worked all summer to prepare Stevie for what it would be like to start first grade, I wasn’t ready for how it would affect me. I’d never thought much about it, frankly. Why should it be any different than kindergarten, or day care? But by the end of this hallmark day, I came to realize many things, not the least of which was just how much I love and admire my children and my wife.
As I watched Stevie get dressed for his first day of first grade at Racine Montessori School, he seemed to grow up right there before my eyes. His nervous look as he slung his backpack over his shoulders and walked to the car stirred old feelings in me, memories of stiff new outfits, hairspray and early morning front-porch pictures. As we drove the 5 miles to school and chatted about what first grade would be like, I saw myself in the back seat. Only braver. Still shy, but more sure.
Things were changing this day. Big things.
I walked Stevie to his new classroom and watched him put his lunchbox on the hall shelf. I felt proud of him. But I was nervous because I knew he was about to pass into a new phase of his life. I stood in the comer of the polished hardwood floor as his new teacher showed him his school supplies and sat at the table explaining the new routine. He looked apprehensive — just how I felt. But he was OK. I gave him a quick hug and kissed the top of his head, just like I’ve always done. I wanted to cry. I wanted to take him back home, roll back time and replay our years together. I wanted to once again play blocks, to have him crawl on my back, or run to me when I got home from work, shouting, “Daddy!”
Instead I stood in the doorway of this magnificent old brick schoolhouse and watched as the teacher’s aide snapped Stevie’s picture. More kids entered the room. A new school year. Time to go, Dad. It’s OK. We’ve got many more milestones ahead.
Until my dying day I will not forget that scene, a picture of my little boy sitting at that little table in a big place. It’s burned into my memory like a favorite page in a scrapbook, only this page is marked with a teardrop.
As I drove back home, I listened to Elton John sing, “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” on the radio and laughed. Too late. I realized our baby was on his way in life, a journey that would take him through science camps and football games, sleepovers, Boy Scouts and someday, dating. It had never hit me like this before. He’d be home by 4, still my boy. But older. Taller. More handsome.
He’s growing up. Didn’t I see it before? Never like today.
This was quickly becoming a day of epiphany for me. I got home and our 2-year-old, Samantha, ran to give me a hug with her enthusiastic shout, “Dada!” I realized more than ever how much I loved being father, a Dad. I treasured the morning, as Sam and I read books and played Dolly House. “Don’t read your paper, Dada,” she said. Okay, honey. Okay. Let’s read your books. Let’s play horsey. Let’s just sit. One day when I walk you to first grade I’ll stand in the doorway and remember today. And I’ll smile because I was here. I experienced it — and I appreciate it.
After Samantha and my wife Sue left to run some errands, I had more time to think. Clear and vivid thoughts. Almost revelations. Surely I knew all of these things before, but God chose today for me to really see them.
As I looked out our front bay window at the perfect blue sky and sunshine, I felt in my heart how blessed I am. I thought how much I admired Sue. The night before she and Stevie set up orange cones in the back yard and practiced soccer kicks for his upcoming foray into youth soccer. She’d just spent three hours in a clinic for new volunteer coaches for Stevie’s new team, the Bears. No hesitation for her. She and the other would-be coaches waddled around the practice field with soccer balls stuck between their legs, learning creative coaching techniques. I need to take on more things like that with such enthusiasm and energy. I draw strength from her.
I folded laundry, did some work on the computer and listened to CDs. Now James Taylor was singing to me, but this time I didn’t laugh. I listened to the soothing vocals:
Only for a minute, to find yourself in it, to wait by the stream, to drop out of your dream. Look on up, look up from your life. Look up from your life.
I keep hearing the song. I think it’s telling me something, especially on this day.
When Stevie got home from school, he looked different— and I felt different. He excitedly told me about volcanoes and melting ice and magic potion and Frisbee golf. Wow. Keep telling me, buddy. I’m here. I’m listening. All the while, Samantha sat on my lap, chiming in, “I go to school too, Dada. I do that, too.”
We ate ice cream sundaes and celebrated our momentous day. I was certain that I was the one who learned the most that day. For not since Samantha’s birth two years prior or Stevie’s in 1992 have I felt like this. The world stood still for just a moment. Just long enough for me to step off, step back and look.
While I saw many things I see every day, I thank God because on this day, I saw many, many things that I don’t. •
(This article was written in August 1998 with my intention of submitting it to my former employer, the Racine Journal Times. That didn’t happen, and I forgot about it until 22 years later, as I was digitizing some old journals found in the garage. Quite a find, indeed.)