Lessons (and Heartaches) of Second Grade

After a packed summer, my girls were excited to start the school year. My oldest was starting second grade, and my youngest, kindergarten. My seven-year-old took great pride in preparing her little sis for what her school was like. She covered it all – recess rules, cafeteria food, P.E,  etc. They had elaborate plans to meet in the bathroom at a certain time daily and to try to cross paths in the hallways as much as possible.

In mid-August, we got word that the beloved music teacher would not be returning. My daughter was bummed out. She had enjoyed music greatly and all summer, had regaled us with anecdotes, songs and and fun facts that she had learned. We assured her that the new teacher was sure to be just as great and that change, while sometimes hard, opens the door for a new connection and experience.

A week later, we learned that her Assistant Principal would also not be returning. I was surprised at my daughter’s reaction. I wasn’t aware of any real affinity that she had for the AP, but she was upset by the news and wanted to know why ‘all these people’ were leaving. We reiterated that in life, opportunities present themselves and in this case, Assistant Principal was moving on to a Principal role, reaching a career goal.  While it was OK to miss her, we should be happy for her. My husband and I mused about how sweetly sensitive our daughter is and how quickly she becomes attached to people in her life. And we all moved on.

A few days later, there was more news. You can just imagine her reaction to finding out that one of her two best friends was switching schools. K had gotten off the wait list at a prestigious school and her parents made the difficult decision to make the switch, just two weeks before the start of the school year. My daughter tried her best to be happy for her friend, but there was a new level of disappointment and sadness. She couldn’t imagine recess without K, or their daily lunchroom antics and fun. I assured her that I would set up frequent play dates and reminded her of her still-close connection with several preschool friends who were at different schools.

The last play date with K before school started was heart wrenching. They hugged a little longer saying goodbye, as if bracing themselves for this new chapter in their friendship. I recalled the childhood heartache of a friend moving away, and the overwhelming feeling of sadness and confusion that went with it. I remember desperately not wanting your happy little world to change and feeling helpless as it did. I wanted to cry watching them part ways, but somehow managed to hold it together. I reminded her that her ‘other’ best friend was not only staying at her school, but was also in her class!

The first day of school passed in a frenzy of excitement and I was relieved to see both girls happy and full of stories and plans on the walk home. The second day, we all headed to the playground after school and I noticed that my daughter’s other best friend had linked arms with two adorable classmates while my daughter walked a few steps behind. I urged my maternal instinct to quiet down and tried to convince myself that all was ok in the Land of Second Grade Friendships.

It quickly became apparent that a new bond had been formed over the summer between the 3 girls.. My daughter was trying hard to insert herself into the new group. It was hard to watch because she was genuinely taken by surprise by the new dynamic and didn’t quite know what to make of it.

I watched it unfold before my eyes, kept my distance and just hoped for the best. For a solid 10 minutes she tried hard to be brave and pretended she was fine. Then, she started slowly walking over to me, with THAT look. The look we all know as moms. The one where our child is on the brink of tears, but desperately trying to keep it in. The look that you know will only last a few moments longer before the tears will come gushing out. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. She threw herself against me and started crying.  I hugged her tightly and let her cry and then took a little walk with her while she asked me why everything was already so different. How could her best friend be excluding her? How could one summer vacation change EVERYTHING? She felt lonely and missed K. She missed everything about first grade…

And it was only the second day of school!!!!

On a side note, when my five-year-old caught wind of what was going on, she was ready to march right over and give the girls a piece of her mind about upsetting her big sister. I stopped her, but I have to admit that I loved seeing the innate protectiveness and loyalty between siblings, and that the instinct was already so well-developed in my fearless five- year-old. But I digress….

My daughter took a moment and after she calmed down, she decided to talk to her friend privately and explain how she felt and ask to be included. She wiped her tears away, took a deep breath and did just that. I’d love to say that all was OK after their little chat, but as expected, her friend was rightfully exploring her new and exciting friendships. She didn’t mean to ignore or exclude, but she was also intent on going back to playing with her new besties.

I’m not a helicopter mom and for most times, I believe that kids need to work things out on their own. I’m fully aware that all this is a normal part of young friendships. Having said all that, it totally stinks when it happens before your very eyes, to your own child, for the first time. And you know that they only way they can get over it, is to go through it. I couldn’t help but flash forward to later years when she would experience betrayal or her first heartbreak, and grief. For a moment, I ached for the inevitable tough times ahead for my children, all part of life’s natural journey.

The following weeks were interesting. I volunteer at recess weekly so I have an opportunity to see the dynamics unfold on the playground and it’s been great to see my daughter explore new friendships and develop connections. She still plays with her old best friend and they still have sweet moments of walking hand-in-hand, but they rarely sit together at the lunch table and there are less requests for after-school play dates. Some days my daughter sits alone in the yard reading a book and I have to hold back from going over and just hugging her and reassuring her that it will get better.

She is trying her best to understand and accept the changes and has realized that just as her friend has moved on a bit, so must she. We still try to see K often and their bond remains very strong though their goodbyes still melt my heart. We usually meet at a playground and take the bus home together. Our stop is first and my daughter and her friend frantically wave and blow kisses to each other until the bus is out of sight, trying to hang on to each other as long as possible. Of course, I reassure her that we’ll see her soon and remind her how lucky she is to have such a special friendship already.

I’m busy planning play dates with new friends and trying to keep her engaged and happy. Despite all my efforts, my heart aches for her because I know how sensitive she is, how brave she’s trying to be and and how hard these social changes are at any age.

She’s dealing with other smaller changes in second grade that we can laugh about. Fridays in first grade were the best day of the week because her teacher ended the day with ‘Friday Dance’- pop music was blasted while the whole class less loose with crazy dance moves to welcome the weekend. This year, Friday Dance has been replaced with a Spelling Test. Homework was finished in 10 minutes last year and this year she spends a lot more time on it and claims it’s ‘torture’ to look up words in a dictionary. P.E. is exhausting now, piano practice more demanding, and according to her, “Second grade is just much more ‘serious’.”

A few weeks ago, she mentioned that she wanted to run for Student Council (yes, they start this in SECOND grade in NYC). We encouraged her that this was a great idea, talked to her about what it would entail and were happy and proud that she was already interested in taking on a leadership role.

When I picked her up last Friday, I saw that look again. As she waited to be dismissed, the tears were brimming in her little eyes. She buried herself in my arms while the tears flowed. Two girls in her class had received more votes and won the election. She had lost. I have to be honest, it was devastating to see her so upset (flash forward in my mind to college rejection letters and being passed up for jobs and promotions!)

I took a deep breath and hugged her and told her how sorry I was that she was so disappointed. I understood since I had lost many an election as a student, and told her that it was always a hard thing to swallow. I let her cry and my heart broke even more when she told me that even though they were allowed to vote for themselves, she had voted for her friend (who won) because she thought it was the right thing to do. We talked about how there will be plenty of other opportunities for her to get involved and that she should be proud of herself for trying. We encouraged her to talk to the new reps and share her ideas with them. An hour later, she was totally fine and talking about weekend plans.

I, on the other hand, am not sure I can handle the emotional side of second grade. Give me the angst of my kindergartener having to pick what to take for show-and-tell over this stuff, any day. I’ll take the petty playground tiffs over who cut the line for the monkey bars, but not the emotional agony. The worst part is that I know that this is the tip of the iceberg. My daughter will face many tough times in her life that will make a best friend changing schools, feeling left out or not getting elected for student council, seem all but trivial.

I know all that, but at this very moment it’s so hard to see her be disappointed, hurt, excluded or sad. I want to make everything right for her, all the time. Of course, that’s not only impossible, but also not what’s best for her. So, all I can do is stand close by (but not too close), love her, support her and try my best to help her as she works through these changes and learns life’s lessons. While I do this, I’ll also be trying my best to hold it together, for the sake of both of us!

Wish me luck.

Prior to becoming a stay at home mom, Mina was an HR Recruiter for years. Now her time is spent happily juggling the demands of two young daughters while trying to expose them to the endless adventures the city has to offer.

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