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John Engel: Kindergarten: a rite of passage for parents, too

Last year, with hopeful eyes, daughter Zoe watched the neighborhood kids scurry to catch the morning bus, then dribble home at dayGCOs-end.

This year, she had her new purple backpack loaded and hanging next to the door by mid-August. Each day she showed us the pockets of her pack, checked her supplies, and practiced using the zippers. She planned her outfits and lunches, ventured guesses about her teachers, and wondered which kids would be in her class.

On the first day, hardly touching her breakfast, she stood by the door, fully dressed, hair combed, teeth brushed, and wearing her pack, an hour before it was time to leave.

By the time the big yellow bus arrived, a swarm of kids and parents buzzed about, and 29 pairs of little feet began to board. As a kindergartner, Zoe was one of the first.

Reflexively, Lori and I held Zoe by the hands, walked her to the base of the steps, and smiled at the driver.

Without looking back, Zoe let go of us and scaled the stairs. We proudly watched, our hearts still clinging to her. Moments later, the bus pulled out of sight.

Tears streamed down Lori's cheeks, my stomach felt hollow, and our younger, Adam, was unusually quiet as we traced our steps home.

Granted, Zoe is one of nearly 200 children in our town, and by my own rough estimate, 2.2 million nationally, who started kindergarten this year.

But Zoe is our first. Her arrival abruptly altered my life, for the better. Lori and I gladly placed her at the center of our universe. Nearly six years later, recollections of daily life, before Zoe, are elusive.

Now our wild-eyed nature girl is logging 30-hour work-weeks, not including commute-time, practicing reading, writing and arithmetic. She rides a bus we have never ridden, spends most of her days in rooms we have barely seen, and is under the supervision of adults who we hardly know. And she loves it.

As Zoe begins her educational journey, I continue mine, returning to the classroom as a teacher after a six-year sabbatical. In my first class, I posed the question: What can you, your peers, and the instructor do, to make this class an amazing learning experience? A wild-eyed, self-professed nature girl, in her first semester of college, silenced the class by saying: "Be nice."

We send our kids to school, kindergarten and college, to learn under the guidance of teachers. Now, teaching as a parent and parenting as a teacher, I view school through new eyes. In this way, kindergarten is a rite of passage, for kids and parents.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be reached through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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