Introducing the Hornworm

“She had a choice of cricket or squash bug,” Taylor’s mom was telling me, admitting she’d hoped her daughter would choose the cricket for her symbol at the Purple School. The 2s class is called the Bugs class and all the children are identified on their attendance cards, on their backpack tags, on their placemats and on their artwork by their bugs as well as by their names. It helps the pre-literate set identify their own (and others’) possessions.

“At least I know what a cricket is. I had to Google squash bug (,” she continued.

I laughed. When June chose the hornworm ( over the dragonfly during her teacher’s home visit the day before I’d looked up the hornworm, too. And, I, too, had been rooting for the better-known dragonfly.

“Is it an agricultural pest?” I asked. It is, feeding on (you guessed it) squash. The hornworm is a pest, too. The southern hornworm eats tobacco crops; the northern hornworm destroys tomatoes.

Maybe that’s appropriate. Early this summer before we had any ripe tomatoes in the garden, June picked a green one and brought it to me. I scolded her, mildly, I thought, but she’s been talking about it ever since. “I picked a ‘mato and Mommy was pretty bad,” she says. She has even gone so far as to scold me for picking ripe tomatoes.

I said I hoped the hornworm’s predilection for tobacco was not prophetic. The mother of Preston, the Bumblebee, said maybe since the hornworm destroys tobacco crops that June would grow up to be an anti-smoking activist.

The Squash Bug’s mom said that her own mother had been afraid that cockroaches and dung beetles would be among the selections.

We were all sitting around the Bumblebee family’s dining room table eating crackers and apple slices on a rainy Friday morning in late August. The last meeting of June’s summer playgroup had been moved inside (and graciously hosted by the Bumblebee, his mom and older sister, the Red Fox of last year’s 4s class). Considering it was the first time the Bugs had played together with toys, I thought it went very well. The Bumblebee’s mom kept bringing out new things to keep the kids engaged and to minimize conflicts and while we did hear occasional cries of “Mine! Mine!” (though never from the boy to whom the toys actually belonged), the kids got along pretty well.

I decided to transition from snack to our exit, since it was past eleven and I wanted to get June home before she conked out on me.

“See you at school next week,” the other moms called out as we left. Even though I knew school started in six days, it still sounded startling.

The six days passed. Although June spent most of her teacher’s home visit hiding from her, she was quite chatty about it for a few days afterward. “My teacher says it’s a banana phone,” became a refrain around here. (Andrea said June’s yellow toy phone looked like a banana.) Sometimes June would ask me what her teacher was doing right now. She knows Noah has teachers and was quite pleased to have one of her own, though I don’t think she was clear on exactly what a teacher does, other than come visit you at home and comment on your toys.

I was also pretty sure she didn’t have much idea what goes on at school, so two nights before her first day, I consulted the schedule Andrea gave us and I briefed her. June listened carefully as I told her she would play in a room full of toys and then the teacher would read a story and then everyone would have a snack and then they would play with play dough and paint. June’s eyes lit up at the mention of paint. Finally, I said, they would play on the playground. June wiggled with happiness. “Can I play on the playground now?” she asked. Patience is not her strong suit.

Yesterday, the day before school started, I ran through the schedule with her again a few times, hoping it would sink in and when events occurred in the order I laid out for her, she would feel a sense of predictability. Each time I did it, she was excited about a different activity. Once when I mentioned the teacher reading a story, she said, “To me?” in a delighted tone.

“To everyone,” I said.

That morning we ran into the mom of one of Noah’s nursery school classmates and his little brother, the Squirrel of this year’s 4s class, at the Co-op. The mom asked how I thought June would do on her first day. I said I wasn’t sure. She can be shy when she first meets people and she’s with me almost all the time so that initial separation could be rough. On the other hand, she does fine on the rare occasion we leave her with a sitter and she’s been to the babysitting room at the Y a few times and she liked it there by the second or third time. I wasn’t too worried. When Noah was her age he’d been in daycare for a year so a few hours a week apart didn’t seem as anxiety provoking to me as it seems to some of the parents of first children I’ve talked to at playgroup. Still, I was hoping she wouldn’t cry when I left. Parents are allowed to stay as long as they want on the first day and I thought snack might be the ideal time to go, since she likes to eat and she’d be content with a plate of food in front of her. However, that meant staying forty-five minutes. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay that long.

When I mentioned to her that after we arrived I would stay for a while then leave and come back to get her later, she said “Okay,” sounding completely unconcerned. I wondered if it would be that easy.

Finally the big day came. When June wandered into the bathroom around 6:45, looking sleepy and tousle-headed, Beth lifted her up and asked if she was excited about going to school today. June’s not a big talker when she first wakes up so she didn’t reply, but she did give Beth a big smile.

After breakfast I gave June a quick bath, taking care to get all the plum pulp out of her hair, and got her dressed. Noah admired her dress and we took some pictures in the front yard. Beth and Noah went to the bus stop and June and I sat on the front porch stairs and I read her Curious George Learns the Alphabet until it was almost time to go. Then we popped back inside so I could change her into a disposable diaper. She hadn’t removed her backpack, which she’d put on for the photo shoot and didn’t want to take it off for the diaper change. Then she didn’t want to get into the stroller. I promised her she could walk the last block and wear the backpack then. She was agreeable.

She was quiet on the walk to school, but when I told her it was time to get out of the stroller and walk, she was straining to get out before I could undo the buckles. We arrived at 8:55, just when the doors of the school were supposed to open, but almost everyone was there and the kids seemed pretty settled into playing with Duplos and the dollhouse and other toys. I helped June wash her hands and then Andrea showed her how to slide her attendance card into the chart. June gravitated to the bin of plastic sea animals and we played with them until she asked me to read her a book. I found a bookshelf full of books about the ocean (their first themed unit I guessed). I read her several of them.

I decided to go to the bathroom as a trial separation and then leave afterward if June didn’t seem too upset instead of waiting for snack time. There were only six kids attending school today. (The other six have the school to themselves tomorrow.) Of those six, three had co-oping moms, so there were only three kids who needed to separate from their parents today. I’d watched the Squash Bug’s mom leave without incident. The other departure I missed. Maybe it happened while I was in the bathroom. When I came back, June seemed fine so I told her I was going home and that I’d be back later to pick her up. June didn’t cry but she threw her arms around me wordlessly. Andrea came over, handed her the hot pink stuffed pig she’d brought from home and asked if she’d like to see the goodbye chair. This is a chair by the window where the children can stand and watch their parents walk down the sidewalk. June said, “Yeah,” and Andrea took her over there. As I waved from outside, June looked mildly concerned, but she wasn’t crying.

I walked home, arriving at 9:35, and I went to the backyard. I read a short story while lying under the silver maple. I watered and weeded in the garden. I went inside and read the online health newsletters I clip for Sara. I wrote a little and in no time it seemed, it was 11:15, and time to head back to the school.

As we waited in the parking lot for the kids to emerge from the playground, a couple moms talked about how they cried when they left their children. I didn’t cry. I didn’t even think about how I wasn’t crying. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Later Beth assured me it’s just that we know she’s ready and she’s going to have a great time at school so it’s a happy occasion for all of us.

Andrea led the children to the front porch stairs. I expected more of them to bolt when they saw their waiting parents, but they (mostly) sat as directed and listened to Andrea read a poem about a bug. June watched me but stayed on the stairs. The poem had hand motions and some of the kids, June not among them, did the motions with Andrea. Then she dismissed them one by one. When Andrea called her name, June went to me. I swung her up into my arms and she gave me a very tight hug and then she laid her head on my shoulder. I asked her if she had a good time. “Yeah,” she said and then she asked for a pacifier.

Andrea said June was quiet for a little while after I left but that “it didn’t last.” She said June was chatty and seemed to be enjoying herself. One of the co-oping moms mentioned June especially enjoyed running up and down the hill in the playground. I know that hill well. June loved playing there when Noah had after school drama at the Purple School last winter.

On the way home, June told me about her day. The teacher read The Deep Blue Sea, one of the same books I’d read to her before I left. She ate grapes and “cracker animals” for snack. She played with yellow play dough and painted with green paint. I was surprised there was no evidence of this paint on her dress. She said she was hungry and thirsty. At home she devoured a plate of buttered noodles and another plum, even though usually lunch is her least favorite meal. After lunch, I took her to the bedroom and read her a story. And by 12:30, the hornworm was fast asleep.

Late in the afternoon, as I cooked dinner, she asked, “Can I go to the Purple School now?”