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The First Day of School [How Do You Find Where You're Going?]

Posted Sep 06 2011 12:34am


As of tomorrow, my newest Kindergartner! He’s got his birthday crown, a plastic spoon and a butterfly crafted out of paper and a pipe cleaner for security. (Jelly Bean is, as always, just along for the ride.)

“Dear God, please don’t let the popcorn machine be gone!” my 5-year-old sobbed tonight as he said his bedtime prayers. I looked at my husband and rolled my eyes. This child is known for his histrionics (takes after his mama!) and his love of junk food so it was fitting that this was what he was most worried about the night before his very first day of school. (In the same prayer he also said, “Please don’t let mom lose me at the State Fair again” and “Bless me not to die like Jesus on the cross because that’s really gross.” To explain: he lost himself at the State Fair when he ran away and I found him, not to mention it happened over a year ago so I have no idea why it made an appearance in tonight’s prayer. Second, he’s kinda right about Jesus.)

“The popcorn machine won’t be there tomorrow,” I said when he finished. “It was just for the open house.”

His big eyes immediately refilled with tears as he wailed, “But I need it! I don’t know how to find the right door without it!”

My jaded mom heart immediately cracked as I realized that I’d explained to him during the school tour that his kindergarten classroom was the one right down the hall from the popcorn machine. He was terrified that his compass would be gone and without the one landmark he knew he would be lost in a big, scary school. One little boy against the world. With nothing but his trusty popcorn machine to save him.

Do you remember your first day of school? I do. I remember I was too scared to ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom so instead I just peed right in my little plastic bucket seat. They called my mom and she had to bring me a new pastel dress with a new pair of brown ribbed 80′s tights. I remember feeling bitterly disappointed in myself.

But chances are your first day of school was a very long time in the past and yet I think we all hang on to some popcorn machines. Even as adults we hang on to these markers that tell us who we are and where we’re going. Even when they never gave us the right answers in the first place.

My weight is my popcorn machine. For so long – from grade school, even – I believed that that number defined me and without it I was lost. It took on a life of its own as I imbued it with so much more meaning than ever rightly belonged to it. It turns out that there is really only one thing your weight can tell you about yourself: how much you weigh. It can’t tell you if you are beautiful. Or if you are a good person. Or if you are trustworthy. Or smart. Or good at sports. Or lovable. It can’t tell you what kind of job you’ll be good at (unless you are a Victoria’s Secret model). It can’t even tell you if you look good in your jeans. What a stupid popcorn machine that is.

And yet I’ve let my weight tell me all these things about myself and more. Not weighing myself for the past year(ish) has forced me to pick new markers to tell me who I am and where I’m going. These new measures are much less concrete than a three digit number and sometimes I’m tempted to go back to the simplicity of judging every part of me by that single standard. But tonight I heard myself answer my son. “Honey, you don’t need the popcorn machine! You have everything you need inside of you – you are smart and capable and you know how to find your way without it because you’ve done it before. You’ll be just fine. And until you are sure of that, I will walk in there with you. I will hold your hand but you will lead the way.”

Do you remember your first day of school? Do you have a “popcorn machine” you’ve had to learn to navigate without? Have you ever tried talking to yourself as if you were a child that you loved? (Geneen Roth first introduced me to this and I’ve found it to be very powerful. We forget how to be gentle and nurturing with ourselves as well as we are with small children.)

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