Are You Ready?: A Countdown to School

It’s all over—the trips to Wheeling and Rehoboth, art camp, drama camp and science camp, afternoons spent in the wading pool and evenings spent listening to the whir of the ice cream maker and anticipating the cold, sweet treats soon to emerge from it. Well, we’ll probably keep playing in the pool and making ice cream for a while longer. We can expect at least another month of hot weather, but Noah’s summer vacation is over. He walked through the gate as a second-grader for the first time this morning.

Here’s how he spent his last week of the lazy, crazy days of summer.

Tuesday, Seven Days:

“Go to bed and get up on ‘school time.’ Your body may have adjusted to later nights and sleeping in. Start now to get to sleep a little earlier each night, and get up a little earlier each morning, so that your first week won’t be so difficult.”

Betty Debham, “Are You Ready? Get Organized For School.” The Mini Page, The Washington Post, August 10, 2008.

Noah barreled into our room at 6:40 calling for Beth to play with him. Beth was wearing earplugs and either didn’t hear him or wasn’t able to rouse herself. She lay still. Noah kept yelling. I slapped her gently across the legs in hopes of getting her moving so Noah would leave the room before he woke June. No luck. June started to cry.

“Why is she crying?” Noah asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Finish up summer reading projects.”

I read three chapters of Dragon Slayers’ Academy #7 (The Wheel of Misfortune) to Noah. We were planning to visit the library in the afternoon to get Noah’s library reading log stamped and to pick up his last set of prizes. The log was supposed to be stamped at pre-determined intervals. We’d gone late for the second one (Beth somehow talked them into stamping it anyway) but we’d been there so recently that Noah was short a book for the third stamp. He was picky about what books went on the log. I don’t fully understand why he wanted to include some books he reads and not others, but I assume there was some complicated reasoning behind it.

I told him if he wanted his prizes today he’d need to include a book he’d read recently and not put on the log. How about the poetry book, the book of trickster tales, or maybe something he’d read to June, like The Lorax? I braced for his protests, working out counterarguments before he’d made any arguments. “Let’s put down The Lorax,” he said cheerfully. Noah is nothing if not full of surprises.

“Get ready for homework.”

As I was getting ready to take June to the bedroom for our nap, Noah asked me to make a list of things he could do during the nap. We brainstormed a bit and I suggested playing with his snap circuits kit, hopping on his hopping ball, and reading The Guinness Book of World Records. Noah said, “How about handwriting practice?” This was something we’d discussed recently. Noah’s first-grade English teacher asked us to work with him on his handwriting this summer and we hadn’t it done yet. Noah wanted to type and print out the alphabet so he could copy it. I said I thought writing it three times through would be enough for today. We went to the computer and after some deliberation he chose a font. Then he asked a lot of questions about how much space to leave between the letters, what to do if he ran out of room, etc.

After June’s nap I checked the sheet. Other than the typed line of letters it was blank.

“What goes in your backpack?”

As we left for the library, Noah noticed several bottle caps and some assorted rocks, all covered with yellow chalk dust, on the porch. “What are these?” he said.

“I think they were in your backpack. Beth emptied it out so she could wash it.” But why did he have bottle caps in his backpack, I wondered. Is it possible it hadn’t been cleaned out since he was in nursery school? That year his best friend collected bottle caps and for a while Noah did, too, in order to give them to Ethan.

“Oh, I remember,” Noah said. “They were from a game I was playing with Sasha.” I had a hazy recollection of the two of them playing at being geologists collecting jewels. It was sometime after they were farmers. It was in the past year anyway, I thought with some relief.

“Get plenty of exercise. Many kids in the United States don’t get enough exercise. Are you one of them? Here are some quick ideas to get you moving so you will be in shape for school.”

It’s a forty-minute walk to the Long Branch Library ( from our house. As we approached it, I was hot and tired. “This is my least favorite part of the walk,” I said. Most of the walk is quite pleasant; we go along a shady path that runs by the creek. The last stretch, though, is steep uphill on a crumbly asphalt path. It can be a struggle to get the stroller up it.

Noah grinned at me and dashed up the hill. I was only halfway up when he reached the crest, wiped his brow and said. “That was hard.” He sat down on the grass to wait for me as I slowly pushed the stroller up the rest of the hill.

When we left the library with his new rubber ball, a gift certificate for a free book from Barnes and Noble and a Curious George book we’d checked out, he ran all the way down the hill. “That was fun!” he yelled from the bottom.

“Your mom or dad may be getting your clothes ready for school. You can help. Try on last year’s tops and bottoms and make a pile of the ones that no longer fit.”

I was sorting the too-small socks I’d culled from Noah’s sock drawer the day before into piles based on size so I could put them away with his old clothes in the basement. At least two-thirds of the socks in his drawer were too small and the smallest pair (other than some of June’s that ended up in there by mistake) was marked 3-4 years. Unlike the backpack, his sock drawer really hadn’t been cleaned out since nursery school. He helped out by trying on pair after pair of socks. It was a hot day and he was sweaty so we powdered his feet to help him slip them in and out of the socks.

We never do a big back-to-school clothes shopping for Noah. We just buy clothes piecemeal during the year as he seems to need things, but over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve cleaned out his sock, underwear and pajama drawers. It feels like a small step away from chaos and toward organization.

“De-stress yourself. Sometimes the start of school can be a stressful time for kids…Ask yourself what is making you feel nervous or worried…Ask your mom, dad, a teacher or another adult you trust to help you.”

I could hear Noah crying in his room as I nursed June. I got away as soon as I could and came into his room.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Noah sobbed.

“Nothing hurts?” I said.


“So it’s in your mind and not your body?” I said coming closer to the bed. “Do you want me to cuddle with you a while?”

He said yes and I slid into his bed next to him. He said he didn’t know what was wrong, he just felt upset. “I’m not usually like this. I’m usually pretty content when I’m falling asleep,” he said.

“Are you worried about school starting?” I asked. He said he didn’t know. Noah’s mentioned a few times recently that last year some second-graders told him that all the second-grade teachers were mean. This has been bothering him.

I actually remember noticing in high school and college that a disproportionate number of my friends said they had mean second-grade teachers. Always second grade, not first or third or fifth. Later I read that seven-year-olds are developmentally likely to feel unjustly put upon so I started to think maybe second-grade teachers aren’t any meaner than other teachers, but just perceived that way by their moody charges. (I want to say for the record, though, that my second-grade teacher really was mean.) I did not share this theory with Noah. Instead I told him that it was okay. Sometimes we have feelings and we don’t understand why. I wondered if we should dig further. I decided against it. I’d mentioned school starting in a week and he hadn’t really bitten. Plus while I was thinking about all this he’d started chatting about Club Penguin and an upcoming event on the site and he seemed to have cheered up.

“Do you feel a little better?” I asked. He said, yes, that thinking about Club Penguin made him forget “the mystery of the upsetation.”

He’s a mystery sometimes, my boy, and the answers aren’t all found on back to school checklists.

Wednesday, Six Days:

Wednesday Noah was out of sync and out of sorts for much of the morning. He broke his bedrail. He crashed into things, hurting himself and June repeatedly. June poked him in the eye while they were roughhousing. He knocked her over on the sidewalk as we were waiting for a bus and bloodied her knee. He kept sneaking up on her and yelling, startling her over and over until she said, “I don’t like you, Noah!” and then he looked wounded. I told him what she meant was that she didn’t like his behavior, not that she didn’t like him. (I remembered how she’d spontaneously thrown her arms around his legs two days earlier and said, “I love my Noah!”)

He came into the bedroom around two o’clock while June and I were napping to inform me he felt sick and thought he might throw up. I didn’t think he would. He almost never does when he says he will. Ten minutes later he was watching television and even ate some pretzels.

As I walked him to Sasha’s house for a play date later in the afternoon, I asked him how his stomach felt. It was fine. Did he remember how he’d been upset the night before? Yes. Did he have any idea why he’d been upset? No, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in the question either. He was in a good mood and he wanted to tell me about the plot of the Curious George book we got at the library the day before (Curious George Goes to the Hospital). He’d been reading it during June’s nap. June was sitting in the stroller, holding said book in her lap and paging through it. It had pictures of doctors and nurses and hospital scenes so she was well pleased with it. I gave up quizzing Noah and listened to his version of the little monkey’s medical adventures after swallowing a puzzle piece. At least it was clear what was wrong with George.

Thursday, Five Days:

I had the kids dressed and ready for our morning outing, a walk to Starbucks, when Noah asked, “Can we go to the playground instead?”

I hesitated. I wanted a latte, but how could I say, “Forget running around and getting some exercise, it’s time for empty calories”?

June, already strapped into the stroller, looked up at me. “Where we going?” she asked.

“To the playground,” I said. Noah had only five days of vacation left and we’d been doing errands (grocery store, Co-op, two libraries) all week. It was time for some play.

I let June out of the stroller about fifty yards from the playground when Noah took off running. She cried, “I want to walk!” She didn’t walk, though, she ran, trailing her brother. Their tanned, scabbed, mosquito-bitten legs flew down the path.

June headed for the slides and the twisty ladder, but when she heard Noah splashing around in the creek, she wanted to join him. Of course, she wanted to wade straight into the deepest part of the creek. I was trying to convince her to stay at the water’s edge and throw rocks, when Noah announced, “I have to go to the bathroom.” The creek always does this to him. I glanced back at the playground. If we’re alone I let him stand between the boulders and pee against a rock, but we weren’t alone.

“Is it an emergency? Should we go home?” I asked him. I wondered if this outing was doomed. He said, no, he thought he could wait.

June contented herself with throwing rocks into the creek for a while, and then we waded in the shallows together. When she’d tired of that, she clambered up onto the shore and practiced climbing her favorite tree. Noah followed her and gave it a try himself. He looked big in the tiny tree.

On the way home, Noah said he wanted lunch at noon sharp because that’s when he eats at school. I asked if he knew if he was still on the same lunch shift and he said, yes, the kindergartners, first graders and second graders eat together. I said that made sense, to divide the school in half. Slowly it dawned on him. “So next year I will be in the older half of the school?” The idea seemed to please him.

At home, we watched Sesame Street and made a batch of oatmeal muffins. Noah had picked out the recipe to bake and send to YaYa as a get-well present. We reserved half the batch for ourselves and to celebrate fresh muffins from the oven, I made scrambled eggs and veggie bacon for lunch.

It was a good morning, but after lunch, Noah said his stomach hurt.

As he had the day before, he recovered quickly. Elias came over to play in the afternoon and when his mom came to pick him up and asked Noah if he was excited about school starting, he surprised me by saying yes.

The mail came late so it was almost bedtime when we received the postcard that gave us Noah’s teacher and room assignments for the coming school year. He has Señora C in the morning and Ms. G (his after school science teacher from last year) in the afternoon. “So you know her already,” Beth said, sounding relieved.

“Did you like her?” I asked. I knew he did.

“She was nice in science class,” Noah said carefully, as if unsure what the second grade classroom might bring out in her.

Beth started suggesting questions we could ask his teachers at the Open House on Monday: “Are you mean? Do you hate children? Do you eat children?”

Noah laughed, and then he said doubtfully, “Are you really going to ask those questions?”

Beth assured him she would not.

Friday, Four Days:

It was 4:45, the end of an unusual day. Beth had stayed home from work to supervise a FiOs installation. June skipped her playgroup because she’d been sick during the night, though she seemed perfectly healthy once she woke up in the morning. Sasha came over to play in the afternoon (we squeezed as many play dates as we could into the waning days of summer). He will be in Noah’s morning class, the first time they’ve been in a regular class together. (They met in an after school science class in kindergarten and have been to science camp together two summers in a row.) Beth foresees some headaches for Señora C keeping them from talking in class. Once he found out he’d be with Sasha in the morning and that he had Ms. G in the afternoon, Noah seemed more cheerful about school. We let Noah and Sasha play on the computer even though Noah was already a half hour over his limit for the day. I’d done the same thing the day before when Elias was over. It was the end of summer and I was getting lax.

June and I had just returned from the post office where we’d gone to mail YaYa’s muffins and some hand-me-down baby clothes for my cousin Holly’s new baby, Annabelle ( Beth and Noah were in the kitchen, having just finished making orangeade and vanilla ice cream. Noah was scraping out the inside of the ice cream maker with a spatula and licking it.

I asked him if he’d like to go to the SCORE! Learning Center ( that evening and pick up the prizes for that summer reading log. The representative buttonholed Noah in a bookstore back in June. I was reluctant to have him participate because he was already enrolled in his school and library summer reading clubs but she won him over with talk of prizes. When we went to hear the sales-pitch, we were pleasantly surprised to find it was more low-key than I expected, not a hard sell at all. Plus we got Noah’s reading level tested for free. We knew one of the prizes he could choose that night was a coupon for free pizza, so if we went now we could go out for pizza afterward. He’d have to give up his hour of television, though, because the center closed at six. He surprised me by saying yes.

It was a long drive to the center and a long drive from there to pizza, but by 6:15, we were seated at zPizza (, and Noah was eating his free pineapple pizza. Beth asked him what was his favorite book he read this summer. He wasn’t sure. Dragon’s Egg, I suggested. He’d read that one twice, starting it over almost as soon as we finished it, even though he knew he couldn’t double-count it on the logs. No, he thought it was the Dragon Slayers’ Academy series, but he couldn’t settle on a single title. He started to reminisce about his favorite scenes. Free pizza is nice, but listening to him laugh anew about jokes we read weeks ago, I thought that on some level he knows that reading is its own reward.

Saturday, Three Days:

Beth took Noah for a back-to-school haircut and to REI to buy him a rain jacket. (He lost his at school last spring.) When they returned, Noah said he wanted to go to the swimming pool. It seemed like a good idea—we haven’t swum nearly enough this summer—but Beth called and it was closed for a meet until six.

I decided to make do at home and filled the wading pool with water. June and I got in and played in it. Noah was hanging around in the yard watching. He put his feet in the water and I told him to go inside and change into his suit if he was going to get wet. He said okay and disappeared into the house. After a while, June wanted to know why he hadn’t returned. I speculated he might have forgotten why he went inside or changed his mind. Either scenario seemed likely. We came inside, June dripping water onto the floor, and found him on the computer in the study. I asked if he was coming back outside.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said vaguely as if he were speculating about the actions of some other, rather unpredictable sort of person.

I heated up some frozen tamales and made a salad with carrots and cucumber from the garden. After dinner, we ate the ice cream Beth and Noah had made the day before topped with chocolate Magic Shell ( and watched the first half of Herbie, the Love Bug. We got up to the part where the villain gets Herbie drunk on Irish coffee. I’ve never tried Magic Shell, but it’s remarkably like a dipped cone, which I haven’t had in years. Noah ate his ice cream plain. He hadn’t been that impressed with our description of the movie either, but he liked it and said it was funnier than he expected.

Herbie, the Love Bug and Magic Shell. This is awesome,” Beth commented. I did feel a bit little like a kid on vacation myself.

Once he got in bed, though, Noah wasn’t feeling so carefree. Shortly after I put him to bed, Beth heard him moaning and went in to talk with him. He said he was “not feeling content” and that he guessed he was worried about school after all, especially about the teacher he doesn’t know. He was specifically worried about not being allowed to suck his thumb in class. I’d recently mentioned how he wasn’t allowed to in kindergarten (in the context of a discussion about how June won’t be allowed to have her pacifier at nursery school) and I guess I jogged an unpleasant memory.

In a way it seems strange Noah is so much more worried about second grade starting than he was before first grade, since he’s coming off a much better year than he was last year. It must be a developmental thing. He’s more able to look ahead and that makes him more likely to mull things over and fret. I told Beth that maybe once he’s actually in the situation it will be easier because he won’t have to imagine how it will be.

“But what if she is mean?” she said. I had no answer for that.

Sunday, Two Days:

Prior to grocery shopping, Beth was consulting with Noah about what he’d eat for lunch at school this week. He will pick a lunch for her to pack and stick with it for weeks at a time. This week, and possibly beyond, he’ll be eating rice cakes with orange marmalade, nectarines and bottled soy-fruit shakes for lunch.

When Beth, Noah and June returned from grocery shopping, Sasha called. Noah’s phone skills are still a work in progress so I put Sasha on speaker. He’s starting a band and wanted to know if Noah wanted to play drums. “It’s real, not pretend,” he stressed. Noah was unsure. Was anyone else already in the band? Yes, one other boy. What kind of music would they play? Rock and roll, Sasha answered. Could he play the accordion instead? Sasha seemed open to the suggestion. They went back and forth for a good five minutes before Noah said yes and after he got off the phone he was full of unanswered questions.

Would they make money off this band? Would they play in front of real audiences? Would it stay together until they were grown-ups? He takes everything so deadly seriously these days, that it’s no wonder he’s worked up about school. He went off to the porch with a little toy drum and practiced playing it.

Later that afternoon we went to an ice cream social for the Purple School. On the way, Noah informed us he might look seven, but he was really seven thousand. A wizard had put a spell on him, granting him immortality and sending him back to infancy to live his life over seven years ago.

We arrived at the playground. We ate ice cream cake. (June also sampled the goldfish crackers, pretzels and bananas. I don’t know why she’s so tiny; when she gets started she can really put her food away). We chatted with other parents. We signed up for our home visit from the 2s teacher, for our co-oping workshops and for our volunteer shift at the school’s booth at Takoma’s street festival in October. The kids ran around and played on the playground. June wanted to climb every ladder she saw and when she was on the swing or the seesaw or anything that moved, she wanted us to make it go “faster and faster.”

June doesn’t start school until a week and two days after Noah does so it’s not on my mind as much, but she’s on the cusp of a great adventure of her own. She’s more than ready. She loves to wear the bee backpack we bought her and she always says she’s going to school when she wears it. It might be hard for her to separate from us at first but I know she’ll do fine. She loves a challenge, especially when it takes her higher and higher and faster and faster.

Monday, One Day:

Noah was eating a bowl of oatmeal when I approached him with a to-do list for the day. He needed to practice his lower case alphabet five times, rate all the books he’d read this summer for his school reading log (one to five smiley faces), make a postcard with a picture and a description of one of the books, and make some corrections to his math packet.

“Who are you?” he said.

“I’m your mother.”

“I’m from the Middle Ages,” he said.

I explained he was in for an exciting day. After the Open House at his school, we were going to Barnes and Noble to pick up his free book. He’d ride in a car, a sort of cart that propelled itself without a horse pulling it. Then we’d go to a huge store filled with books, an almost unthinkable luxury for a medieval lad such as himself.

In between bathing June and starting two loads of laundry, I coaxed him into doing three of the alphabets and rating his books. I looked over the completed log. There were nineteen books on it. Twelve were about dragons. He’d given all dragon-related books five smiley faces. All non dragon-related books received two to four smiley faces.

I looked over his math packet while the kids were watching Sesame Street. There were a couple problems he skipped and some illegible answers, but only three computational errors in the whole packet. I flagged them and we went over them after he was finished watching television. June wanted to play in the wading pool. Noah didn’t want to join us, so I got him set up to work on the postcard. Up to now, he’d been co-operative and efficient about finishing up his projects, but this was hard. He didn’t know what book to pick, what character to write about, what to say, what to draw. It took him over an hour and a lot of prodding to write “Seetha is a dragon & and I love dragons. That is why I lik this book, Revenge of the Dragon Lady” and to draw a picture of Seetha, flying over a castle and breathing fire. I remembered why I sometimes hate supervising his homework.

At lunchtime, Noah said his stomach hurt and he didn’t want anything to eat.

Beth came home around two and we headed over to the Open House. We visited both his classrooms and chatted with parents. A lot of Noah’s kindergarten and first-grade classmates are in his classes. The immersion program is pretty small, so sooner or later you get to know almost everyone. We picked up information sheets from both teachers and volunteered to get permanent markers from Señora C’s wish list. Ms. G was giving out free books and Noah selected one of the few chapter books on the table. As we left, Noah said he felt less nervous and his stomach felt better, too. Come to think of it, he was hungry. I gave him some sliced nectarines I’d brought for him. I was surprised the Open House set his mind at ease since it was mobbed, especially in Señora C’s room, and we barely got to talk to the teachers. I guess it must have been seeing so many of his friends.

We headed out to Barnes and Noble to get Noah’s free book. We stopped by the café first because both kids were still hungry. He picked an Amelia Bedelia ( book, and June wanted a book, too, so we got her Maisy Takes a Bath. And we ended up with a book about mice solving a mystery for Noah as well. I guess they count on things like this happening when they give out those reading log coupons.

Finally, we went to Gifford’s ( for some end-of-vacation ice cream. Noah slumped in his seat as he ate his coconut cone. He looked tired, but more relaxed than he had in a few days.

We returned home and the kids and I settled down to watch the rest of Herbie (“Hilarious!” according to Noah) while Beth did some last-minute school supply shopping and went to a nursery school fundraising committee meeting. (A word to the wise: never go the Staples the night before school starts.)


Noah turned the bathroom light on at six a.m., spilling light into our room. Beth got up right away to play with him, instead of waiting until 6:30 as she usually does. He said he’d been up since five. Noah’s an early riser so this isn’t as unusual as it sounds. I closed the door to our room so June could sleep some more but even through the closed door and over the whir of the fan I could hear his voice, excited and keyed up. By 7:25, he’d eaten, gotten dressed and was playing on the computer.

At his request, Beth walked him to school instead of putting him on the bus. He was goofing around in the front yard, posing in silly positions as I tried to snap a back-to-school photo.

I don’t think the teachers will be mean. I don’t think they will eat him. I hope not anyway. The only way to find out, though, is to dive right in. And I hope that seven thousand years of life experience comes in handy in the second grade.