The Gauntlet

Originally published as I Never Imagined Taking My Son to School the First Time Would Be So Brutal – Fatherly.com 10/15/18

My son and I stared down the long linoleum hallway at the horde of kids and parents rushing around in confusion. It was pandemonium: children crying, grownups stressing, and teachers’ assistants literally running around in circles, not sure why. My boy’s tiny palm sweated in my hand with a grip that was just a little too tight. A clock on the wall read 8:30 am, drop-off time. His eyes flashed back and forth to the teachers, the parents, and of course the door to his new classroom. It was his first day of school, or what we parents call, The Gauntlet.

“You okay, my man?” I said. He didn’t even look at me. “Did you see the courtyard? They got a ton of bikes!” It didn’t help.

Finally, he looked up at me with his soft eyes and a puckered lower lip. He said nothing, but I heard everything.What do you think you’re doing? You’re not leaving me here. What kind of a daddy are you? I grimaced and turned my head in shame. A few parents eyed me as they brushed by with their children clutching and screaming at their necks. What were they looking at? I was the only dad in a room filled with bawling mothers. Should I have been crying as well?

I hoisted him up and carried him down the chilly passageway. A little boy with a Paw Patrol t-shirt barreled past my leg with a sticky layer of snot and spit covering his face, making a desperate run for the front door. His mother screamed, knocking down a rack of dodge-balls in pursuit. The red rubber balls bounced and rolled as if they were chasing Indy and his golden idol. I plastered us against the wall to avoid a calamity. Better her than me, I thought, instantly disgusted with myself.

My son hugged me around the neck and said, “Daddy, I love you.”

He might as well have been choking me. I knew what he was thinking. Traitor! I trusted you!

I said what I could to distract him. “Your mom packed those awesome gluten-free rice sticks you like so much. Make sure you drink your milk so your mouth doesn’t fuse together.”

Ugh, pathetic.

“Are you staying with me today?” he said ignoring me.

I cursed his mother for being the working parent. Why must I be the one to suffer through this torture? She makes more, that’s why. “I can’t, but I’ll be right here waiting for you after school. I promise.”

A woman approached with a giant mound of curly red hair attached to her skull. It shifted slightly when she moved her head as if she used Velcro to hold it in place. “Is this Shane?” she asked.

My son stared at his new teacher, showing no emotion. Would he take to her or dart for the door? She held her hand out. He inspected it with caution, and then took it.

Sweet relief! Would it be that easy?

She led him to his new classroom. His back was turned for only a second before he whipped around to face me. There it was. The emotional cocktail that had brewed inside him suddenly forced its way out of every pore and orifice in his face. The cheeks were puffed and red, the eyes were wet and shaking, the mouth was wide open, but nothing came but a quiet hiss. The impending scream was so powerful it needed time to grow to its full potential like an over-inflated balloon on the verge of exploding. When it came, it came with a primal force unlike I had ever experienced. The pitch was almost too high for my human ears, but the fluctuation of tone pierced the air and found my tympanic membrane like a burrowing insect. My breath jumped in my chest and I froze.

Red reacted with the authority only a preschool teacher possessed. “GET OUT OF HERE NOW!” she shouted. She pointed to the front door and  hurried him away.

I hesitated. My son’s cries faltered for a moment. He knew what I was about to do. “I’m sorry!” I sobbed. “We’ll get Chick-Fil-A for lunch!”

Then, I ran. With no regard for anyone’s safety, I plowed through the frantic crowd towards my own selfish freedom. Elbowing my way through the masses, I escaped to the bright early morning sun blanketing the parking lot. It was quiet, except for a few whimpering parents and the cranking of minivan engines. I looked back at the school. My son was right. What kind of a daddy was I? He was alone amongst strangers, screaming and crying. The guilt was overwhelming. How could I have let this happen? I tried so hard to be a good parent: read all the books, took the classes, and even followed the blogs. Yet, there I was.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a text from Red. Already? I imagined the worst. Sorry, Mr. Dennis. You’re going to have to come get Shane. He’s become a disturbance to the other children. We’re operating a school here, not an insane asylum. Smiley-face emoji.

I couldn’t bear to open the message, but there was no way I could wait another second. Hoping I was wrong, I swiped across the phone with my thumb.

Almost immediately, my breathing relaxed and my blood pressure returned to normal. The screen lit up with a picture of Shane sporting a huge grin, Legos piled high in front of him, holding up a car he had just constructed.

My anxiety ebbed as I made my way to the car. I was proud of us. We had run the Gauntlet and emerged stronger than before. I put the key in the Aerostar and started her up, cranked the Wiggles album in the CD player, and smiled all the way home.

Advertisements