White Knuckles and Quick Feet
A father reflects on his own separation anxiety as a child
In the summer of 1970, my mother informed me that I would be going to Walker Spivey Elementary School the coming fall for first grade. I asked if she would be coming with me. She said she would not. I declined her offer for education.
When the day came, Mom drove me to school and escorted me to Mrs. Hawk’s classroom. I clung to her leg as if it were the safety bar on an upside-down roller coaster. Mrs. Hawk peeled me off, one finger at a time, while my classmates watched in amazement. My mother then abruptly left me in this unfamiliar room filled with strangers.
My teacher sat me at my desk and began her work with the others students. I was in utter disbelief at the cruelty that had just been bestowed upon me. I pondered my next move.
When Mrs. Hawk became distracted, I took control of the situation and bolted out the back door of my classroom. I wasn’t sure of the site’s landscape, but I was smart enough — and fast enough — to maneuver myself around the side of the building, where I saw my mother standing in a windowed hallway having a conversation with the principal. It was at that point that I knew I would beat her back to the car. Relief showered my psyche. Certainly, I could convince my mother that she had made a horrible mistake — that leaving me was shirking her responsibilities as a parent and that she should immediately take me home. I longed to watch Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans on my favorite morning TV show.
Mom was quite surprised to find me waiting in the passenger seat of our paneled station wagon. My always-prepared mother reached in the back seat of the car and pulled out a small paddle. She tucked it in the side of her very large pocketbook with the handle sticking out just far enough to remind me she had backup.
Her words were simple: “Come with me.”
To this day I’m not sure why my mom had a paddle in the backseat of her car. She never, ever spanked me. But the idea of it was motivating.
She walked me back to the classroom and sat behind me. I surprisingly became enthralled by Mrs. Hawk’s lesson and, at some point, my mother disappeared. I possibly could have made it back to the car again before she did, but I wasn’t sure how long she had been gone — and there was the paddle issue to consider. I took several deep breaths and continued my day.
My oldest daughter, Bailey, inherited my disdain for separation. She, too, was a clinger. Every day of kindergarten her teacher, Mrs. Asher, peeled her off her mother’s leg as part of a grueling morning ritual in the hallway at St. Timothy’s School.
It’s amazing how things change. I no longer cling to my mother’s leg, and Bailey is a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. This summer, as I lugged our 20-year-old denim playroom couch up the stairs to her first apartment, I marveled at how far we’d come. Ironically, there was a bit of clinging again. Yeah, it was me.
Bruce Ham, who lives in Raleigh, started writing after losing his wife and raising his three daughters on his own eight years ago. He has written a book, “Laughter, Tears and Braids,” about their journey, and writes a blog about his family's experience at therealfullhouse.wordpress.com.