Years Later, First Day Brings Smiles and Tears

Students at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College started classes this week for the fall quarter. Those who live in the WWU dorms arrived last weekend and moved in creating the usual traffic jam for the neighborhood as a steady stream of cars pulled into the surrounding campus parking lots. I always enjoy seeing the students return. My studio and home are located right off the WWU campus so I often stroll through the campus to take in the first day excitement. First year students usually show up with their parents, their arms loaded with all the belongings and necessities they’ve brought from home for their dorm room.  They are all smiles as they pull into the parking lots but by the time they say goodbye, there are usually a few tears as their son or daughter stays behind to begin to their college career.

Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.
Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.

It brings to mind my own experience of seeing our sons off on their first day of school.  And yes, I’ll admit tears sometimes well up in my eyes when I think about those wonderful times.  That happened recently when I was sorting through some of my old snapshots to place them in an album.  In the one of the negative envelopes were the priceless prints of my oldest son, taken on his very first day of kindergarten at Calahan Elementary School in Los Angeles.  He looked so small.  I had forgotten about those pictures but when I came across them was grateful that I had started then the tradition of taking a photograph of my sons on their first day of school.

Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son's first day of kindergarten. He looked so small.
Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son’s first day of kindergarten.

I remember taking his little hand in mind, his other hand clutching his lunch, as we walked through the playground gate towards the open kindergarten door. Other parents and their kids were already inside the classroom, introducing themselves to the attractive, young teacher named Melinda, and helping their kindergartener pick and settle into a place to sit.  There was an air of anticipation as the kids looked tentatively around the room at those who were to be their classmates,not only for kindergarten but for another six years. We knew only one little girl who had been in my son’s Mommy and Me class two years earlier.

My son was looking forward to kindergarten.  He had already attended two years of pre-school and needed new challenges. But I could tell that he wasn’t quite sure, as I bid him good-bye, if he was up to this. And I wasn’t certain that I was either.

My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.
My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.

The first time’s always the hardest, I kept telling myself, as I hugged him good-bye and made myself step out the door. I looked back from across the playground to see him sitting inside the classroom at the desk. The teacher was already attempting to take control of the class and make the kids feel welcome.  My son looked as if he was paying close attention. How I wished I could have stayed as a tiny observer for just that day.

Kindergartners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.
Calahan’s kindergarteners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.

That was a long day for me as I waited for the hours to pass until I could return to the school and pick him up. When I did, I had my camera with me and caught the kids on film as the teacher’s aide led them together out the door, across the kindergarten playground to the gate where parents, like myself, were patiently lined up to retrieve their kindergartener. It was an odd feeling, knowing that this would be the pattern for the next several years. And one, after that first day that I really didn’t think about as much until it came time for my son to leave for college.

The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.
The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.

Once again, I was saying good-bye but this time, I wouldn’t be the one to go with him as my husband was driving the loaded truck with my son while I stayed behind with our other two sons. And yes, I was teary-eyed as I hugged him when the last box had been put into the truck and the rear door pulled down and locked into place. I stood there at the end of the walk and sadly watched as they slowly drove away from the house. I have pictures from that day too and am glad I do.  Now, as I watch the students and their parents go through this same ritual each fall at the university next door, a smile comes to my face and a tear to my eye. And sometimes, as I did this year, I go home, pull out the photos of my own sons first day at school and remember.

WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.
WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.

 

WWU Navigates Kids to College

If you happened to be on the campus at Western Washington University today, as I was earlier this morning, you might think that WWU’s university students had gotten a lot shorter, and younger.  In a way, they have. At least if Cindy Shepard, the WWU President’s wife, has anything to do with it.

Fifth grade students from all over the region arrive for their first day on campus.
Fifth grade students from all over the region arrive for their first day on campus.

Shortly after the Shepards arrived in Bellingham (Bruce Shepard took over from Karen Morse as the new president), Cindy launched a program similar to one she had done at their previous university stop. Called Compass 2 Campus, it pairs the area’s fifth through twelfth-graders with university students who mentor them for a full year.

Volunteers like Margaret help greet the arriving students as they make their way towards the university gym.
” Volunteers like Margaret help greet the arriving students as they make their way towards the university gym.

During the school year, the kids visit the campus, experience different aspects of college, participate in workshops and basically learn what it means to be a university student.   It’s a great way to introduce the idea of higher education to the kids.  And for the university students who take part in the program, many of whom are education majors but not all, it gives them a life-long college memory unlike any other.

“You should see these kids when they leave, their faces are just beaming,” said Truc Thon, a community member and program volunteer.  I ran into Truc and the other Compass 2 Campus volunteers–many of whom were friends of mine–this morning when they were greeting the kids who were arriving at the university literally by the busloads for this first day of this year’s program.

Volunteer Truc loves to see the smiles on the students faces as they arrive.
Volunteer Truc loves to see the smiles on the students faces as they arrive.

I’m not sure who was more excited for their arrival, the volunteers or the kids.  The fifth graders were wearing bright chartreuse T-shirts with the Compass 2 Campus logo emblazoned on the front.  Many of them were hauling along big backpacks too, just like the university students who were hurrying on their way to class at the same time.  The university’s student volunteers met each group as they unloaded and then escorted them towards the middle of campus where they all would attend an opening ceremony of sorts that was designed to resemble a college graduation.

The chartreue-colored t-shirts of fifth graders were hard to miss, even in the morning fog, as the visiting fifth graders gathered before the university's Wade King Recreation Center.
The chartreuse-colored t-shirts of fifth graders were hard to miss, even in the morning fog, as the visiting fifth graders gathered before the university’s Wade King Recreation Center.

They would remain on campus all day, until 3 p.m. during which they would visit many of the different departments, perhaps sample a little cafeteria fare, and get to see what it’s like to be a university student. For many of these kids, it’s the first time that any of them have ever set foot on a college campus. The hope is, at least as far as Cindy Shepard and the program volunteers are concerned, it won’t be their last.

First Day

This morning, a friend called up the picture on her phone of her granddaughter, posed before the front door, backpack on and book in hand, as she was about to leave for her ‘first day.’  For many of us who live on the West Coast, the first day of school was today.

It can be difficult to go back to class when it’s still so gorgeous outdoors in a place like ours  where the summers are so short.  Not like many other locations elsewhere in the United States where going into a cooled classroom might provide welcome relief from the heat of the season.  First Day at Calahan

With the start of each school year, I always made, as do many parents, a visual record of the day by snapping a picture of my sons as they headed out the door or were about to enter the school with their lunchboxes and books.  In my own experience, I found that the hardest of these notable days was the first day of kindergarten for my oldest son and my youngest son, and the last first day of high school for my youngest son, Tim. When they take that step across the threshold of the school door, you know that life will never be the same for either of you.  As a parent, it’s both a proud and poignant moment. 

 

I joined the many moms and dads before me (including my own) to capture a ‘Kodak moment’ of that milestone day.  Being the sons of a photographer, even while I was still working as a full-time journalist, my boys knew better than to try to dissuade me from this annual ritual.   First Day at LowellAs elementary students, they were often happy to share in the fun with a picture together with their brothers going out our door, beside the car or in front of the school.  That spirit of cooperation grew less enthusiastic as they entered their middle school years.  Forget about posing anywhere near the school where friends could see them.  All the ‘first day photos’ from those years were taken at home.  By the time they reached high school, they were at least resigned to the fact that it was better to humor me than to resist.  And I had learned by this time to be satisfied by quickly shooting the annual picture on the fly, like paparazzi stalking their celebrities, just as they were about to head off.First Day at Sehome

Even that initial day at college did not go undocumented.  Although it may not have been the actual first day of classes, I managed to snag a few shots of each of them on campus before my husband and I bid them a tearful but joyful good-by and good luck.  To me, that special day was as worth keeping for posterity as was any graduation day.  It captures the beginning, not the end of a life event.  I think there’s a richness of emotions of that day that you can look back upon later.  Uncertainty, excitement, confidence, even a little presumptuousness about the journey on which they are about to embark.First  Day of College

Now that they have all moved on and, for the most part, moved out, I look back fondly on this first day of school as I see other parents taking part in the same yearly ritual.   I smiled quietly, thinking of my own sons ‘first days’,  preserved on film (digital wasn’t yet around) that now bring back a flood of warm and bittersweet memories.

At the risk of totally embarrassing my youngest son, I thought I’d share some of my personal ‘First Day’ photos  for you to enjoy.  Maybe you’ll share a few back.