High school and the long bittersweet farewell

Writer Elizabeth Stone said having a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. My son and his friends have started high school this year. They went biking last weekend and compared notes about the half dozen schools they attend between them, public and private, single-sex and co-ed, distant and local. Some are starting year 8, which has traditionally been the first year of high school, and others are among the first year 7s. Either way, it’s a big change. My son wears a belt with his school pants, and long socks and dress shoes for the first time. He has an option of a longsleeved shirt and tie, which he likes, although the tie takes ages to get right. He has an iPad and a whole stack of teachers instead of just one. The kids are fine – they all love high school, my son said, especially the freedom – but parents have told me they cried seeing their children off on the bus or train the first time. I didn’t understand. I rode with my son to the bus that first week and all I felt was relieved he was so happy.

In my first week of high school, my class teacher took us to see the body of a nun, waiting in the chapel for her funeral. I don’t know why the teacher did this – she asked us first had anyone seen a dead body and few had so perhaps she thought it would be educational. The dead nun had purple lips, which you could see through a veil that covered her face, and I wondered how they got to be purple. And then my mother had arranged for an older student, a friend’s daughter, to help on the first train trip home. The older girl would get off at Toowong in Brisbane’s west, and I just had to wait two more stations and get off at Indooroopilly. But I got off one station later, at Taringa. I remember the feeling of panic when I saw where I was. I didn’t know to wait for the next train. I started walking, hopeful I’d find my way, stopping finally when a kindly woman asked was I lost. I wondered how she knew. When I telephoned home, my mother said she was just about to call the police.

My son missed the bus in his second week. It’s one of those do or die buses, the only one that gets them to school on time and chronically late. I left him at the stop with a friend. They waited and waited, they said later, and as far as they knew, the bus never came. But one of their other friends, already on the bus, saw them there, leaning over a railing near the stop. The driver even slowed and tooted, the friend said, but the boys didn’t turn around. The friend arrived at school and told another friend with a phone who called his mum who called me. I went and picked them up and took them to school. When they were told they were seen at the rail, they recalled they were deeply involved in a story about the time one of them came around the corner too fast on the bikeway below and went into the creek. They fell into their story in the way happy, engaged kids fall into a story.

My son and his friend weren’t fazed, which is as it should be, and it’s a credit to high school communities that students have made the transition so smoothly, especially in a year of two cohorts.  And I found those tears, by the way, just biding their time. Today, I cycled to the bus stop and left my son on his own – his friends having caught an earlier bus. Something made me turn around from the bikeway below. There he was on the seat at the bus stop, bag nearly as big as him, legs in those long socks swinging happily. He is so young, I thought, and yet not so young as he was. I wanted to call out but stopped myself. He was on his way to the bus, and life.