On Saturday, my daughter Ellie graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. It was everything a Charleston graduation should be: a warm, spring morning with plenty of sunshine, but also with delicious breezes swirling around proud family and friends as we sat in rented chairs beneath a shady canopy of live oak trees. The faculty processed in their regalia, and the graduating seniors came out by the hundreds, with the women in white dresses, holding roses, and the men in white dinner jackets and black bow ties.
It was while I was sitting there, listening to the commencement speaker and waiting for my daughter to walk across the stage, that I remembered her first day of school, some 16 years ago. I wrote that experience up in a column for the church newsletter that was later re-printed in the local newspaper. I’d like to post it here as well, and dedicate it with excusable pride to that little girl who has grown up to be such a remarkable young woman: Eleanor Gray Somerville.
Monday was my daughter Ellie’s first day of school.
Because we don’t live very far from Wingate Elementary we decided to walk. I put on my coat and tie for work and she put on her almost empty book bag and picked up her nap mat.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Ready!” she said, probably with more confidence than she felt.
We said goodbye to Christy and Catherine who waved to us from the window as we crossed North Main Street and headed down Elm. We had lots to talk about and before we knew it we were there, standing in front of the big double doors of her school. I think we both took a deep breath before going in.
We found Ellie’s name on a list with all the other kindergarteners in Mrs. Deese’s class. She pointed it out—small, block letters that read: SOMERVILLE, ELEANOR G. “That’s me,” she said in a whisper.
We made our way to Room 20A through a sea of boys and girls in Room 20, all of them wearing book bags and clutching nap mats to their chest, all of them looking around wide-eyed at their new classroom, some of them holding tightly to the leg of a parent. In Ellie’s room Mrs. Pierce was collecting lunch money and notes from the children as they arrived while Mrs. Deese bent down and said hello to each one. I led Ellie to an empty chair.
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl next to her.
“I still didn’t hear you.”
“MEGAN!” she bellowed.
“Oh, Ellie, this is Megan. Megan, this is Ellie.”
And then, with introductions completed, there was nothing to do but leave. I put my hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “Are you going to be all right?” She nodded slowly. “Okay,” I said, helplessly. “Have a good day.” And then I turned and walked away, resisting the temptation to look back.
I know what I would have seen.
My daughter, sitting in a plastic chair with her back to me. That slender frame. Those small shoulders. That delicate neck. My daughter, separated from me now not only by distance, but also by independence. My daughter, on her own and doing fine.
Parents of kindergarteners have this fear, you see, that their children won’t be able to make it without them. That’s why they hover, and ask questions, and hesitate to leave. But there is another, greater fear, and that is the fear that their children will be able to make it without them, in fact, that they will get along just fine.
As I stepped across Bivens Street and back onto Elm I realized that from now on there will be in the heart of this earthly father the question that must always be in the heart of the Heavenly Father:
“Do you need me?”