Although I was determined, after turning up half an hour late to Jamie's first ever day at nursery two years ago, to avoid making the same mistake on his first ever day at school, I hadn't quite expected to succeed so spectacularly that we would turn up a full twenty-four hours early; but that was, in fact, what happened. There we were, on the long-awaited September 1st, after the expected mad dash to get Jamie into his new uniform, breakfasted, appropriately photographed, and to school on time, standing in a suspiciously empty playground with the teacher who'd just parked there telling me brightly that today was just for the teachers and tomorrow was the day the festivities would begin. I had wondered what the 'TD' next to September 1st on the list of significant school dates we'd been sent meant, but had figured I could always ask someone at the time. So now I know; it means "Teacher's Day. Nobody else actually needs to bother getting out of bed to turn up."
The extra day of preparation and unexpected dry run was, in fact, quite a good thing in a number of ways; unfortunately, those ways didn't include my work schedule. I had planned for several years that I would take a day off work to be there for the sniffle-inducing moment of My Child's First Day At School, and had been pleased that the day would in fact apparently be on a Tuesday, my day off. Finding out with twenty-four hours notice that it was in fact on a Wednesday put me in something of a fix. I'd had the day all planned out – drop Jamie off, wipe away a nostalgic tear, head straight over to the get-together over coffee that the school was arranging for parents of new children on the first morning (Barry had promised to look after Katie at home), go home, spend some uninterrupted time with my second child for a change, get some things done, pick Jamie up and see how it had all gone, work together on his First Homework (aaaawwwwwww)…. But it now looked as though all I had to look forward to was another day of finding non-destructive ways to entertain both children simultaneously, followed by a day of going off to work and missing all the fun.
I have to admit that my chagrin at that prospect came only partly from the thought of missing such an amazing milestone in my child's life, and mainly from the thought of missing the parental get-together. A social occasion with one child accounted for elsewhere and the other looked after by my husband so that I'd have a chance to have conversations which actually involved completing sentences? You don't get a shot at that every year when you're a parent. I'd been looking forward to this for months, and the thought of having to wait another three years for the chance for a First Day Of School get-together was just a tad frustrating.
Fortunately, when I rang up the practice where I work and pleadingly explained the problem (leaving out the bit about how what I minded most was missing the coffee morning) we managed to rearrange things so that I could start work later the following day and get there after dropping Jamie off. So, the next day, we all headed down for the actual First Day Of School (Barry had decided to come along after all) and, after seeing Jamie into the classroom, I headed over to the coffee get-together along with Barry and Katie. After all that, there weren't actually that many parents there; I speculated on whether perhaps everyone else had rebelled and gone and formed their own coffee morning elsewhere, and on whether we could point at them and shout "Splitters!" Barry and I seemed to be the only first-timers there; instead of bonding with other parents over the experience of seeing our beloved first-borns take the first step into the unknown, I found myself nodding sympathetically on the fringes of conversations about the practicalities of seeing first-borns, second-borns, and sometimes third-borns off to assorted schools simultaneously. But the other mums were friendly and I'm glad to have had the chance to go, even though it did mean spending the rest of the day in a mad rush to catch up.
Jamie's place on the autistic spectrum means that his particular set of difficulties with new experiences such as starting school aren't always the conventional ones. Separation anxiety is not an issue for him; on the first day, while children around him sobbed for their mothers not to leave, he sat on the rug and waited quite contentedly to see what would happen next. But being asked to change from one activity to another without warning, or facing any change of plan during the day, would freak him out. Fortunately, the school have been very helpful on that score. Whenever anything different or unusual is planned for the upcoming week, they give us written warning so that we can prepare him, and they've learned to give him two-minute warnings before changes in activity.
Meanwhile, the things he's got to do have been great fun. The children started off learning 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' and doing a range of activities round that (at one point I came in to drop him off and saw a huge brown-paper-wrapped parcel on a table which the teaching assistant assured me was a chrysalis they'd made – to me, it looked quite disconcertingly as though they'd mummified a child and hadn't yet posted it off to the British Museum). Then they moved on to 'We're Going On A Bear Hunt', and a further range of activities around that, including reciting the book in front of an audience of parents. (Jamie was very pleased with the idea of us coming in to see him. "Do you want to come to school today, Katie?" he asked her as they got ready. "Today, it's for mummies and daddies and babies as well as boys and girls!") Then there's been the cooking, and the computer games, and the number games, and the welly walks, and the circus activities, and the assembly with the retirement speech for the caretaker. The latter seemed to be the one that made the biggest impression, or at least it was the only activity to spark one of the musing little commentaries he gives on life when something particularly catches his attention. ("Mr S. is leaving now. He won't be working at the school any more. He got too old. I don't know how old he is – maybe sixty-five or sixty-six…".) But he's enjoyed nearly all of it, and the teachers are happy with how he's doing. So, overall, Big School has been a success.