Constance Goodwine-Lewis spent the first day of school this past week making the rounds at Broad River Elementary School in Burton.
She directed drop-off traffic in the morning.
She popped into classrooms.
She walked the halls.
As she passed the gym, she saw a preschooler being comforted by a teacher’s aide.
Goodwine-Lewis, who is an expert in first days, asked the two if everything was OK.
“Are you the principal?” the little girl asked, woman-to-woman and all business.
“Can you go get my mom?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I made all the moms leave so the kids can learn,” Goodwine-Lewis told her.
“No. She’s here,” the girl said in a tone like “I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but moms don’t just leave kids in schools.”
“She’s not,” the principal said gently. “But you’ll see her later —”
“Her name is Monique,” the girl continued. “She is black. She has braids. The braids go like this ...”
She began to describe her mother’s appearance in full detail so Goodwine-Lewis would be well-equipped for the mission.
“Can you go look?”
The principal knew she was outmatched, so she conceded the point.
“Yes,” she told the preschooler with amusement. “I’ll go look for your mom. If I find her, I’ll send her your way, OK?”
This past Monday in Beaufort County, thousands of little kids — “itty-bitties,” as Goodwine-Lewis calls them — smiled for first-day and back-to-school photos in their yards, kitchens and driveways.
For some, the grins were wide, adorably hopeful and not at all representative of what was to come.
They knew where they were going on that day, of course. “School.”
And they knew this school thing was supposed to be exciting, because that’s all anyone seems to want to talk about with them lately.
But perhaps no one told them — or maybe they were multitasking when it was explained to them so they didn’t quite catch the full story — that moms and dads don’t go to pre-K or kindergarten.
“School” means “today, I do this alone.”
And this realization, for some, is the Saddest Day on Earth.
There’s crying on the bus. Crying in the car. Crying in the cafeteria, the classrooms and the hallways. There’s crying into the neck of whoever picks them up and takes them into the building against their will.
There’s refusing to leave the car. There’s refusing to get off the bus.
There’s “I want my mommy!,” “I want my daddy!,” “I want to go home!”
And there are tragic and dramatic conclusions, the kind that can be reached only by those whose full depth of experience has not yet included “school pickup.”
“My dad left me,” one little boy at Broad River said this week before putting his head down in defeat.
Beaufort County principals, teachers and counselors are well-prepared for the waterworks and meltdowns.
They’re armed with hugs and reassuring back rubs. They are masters in distraction.
They spend most of these first few weeks of school bent over and eye-to-eye with the 4-foot-and-shorter crowd in an effort to make them feel safe and show them that this can be their second home.
But first, they have to take care of one other set of criers.
“Oh, we go through four or five boxes,” Kim Bratt, principal at Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center, said of the tissues she and her staff have waiting for parents in the halls when it’s time for them to leave the classrooms on that first day.
“It’s a big adjustment,” she said of the separation.
Bratt told me that some parents have been so distraught they’ve had to sit in her office for 45 minutes to calm down. Thirty minutes on the second day.
At Goodwine-Lewis’ school there’s a “Yahoo and Boo-hoo” breakfast for parents. “Yahoo” to celebrate their older kids’ return to school and “boo-hoo” to mark the day that their babies grew up just a little too fast for them.
For some parents, the first-day-of-school tears are mixed with laughter and marching orders.
“I’ve heard children go, ‘Oh please, Mom. Will you just leave?’ ” Bratt said.
To make the transition easier on everyone, Day 2 means that parents are no longer allowed to walk their kids to their classrooms. There are no more airport-worthy goodbyes.
“We get the parents to go away as quickly as possible,” Goodwine-Lewis said.
At Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center, it’s kiss and go at drop-off. Kiss and go. Kiss and go.
School staff usher the kids in by their hands to prevent any door-dodgers, because even though the kids are more familiar with the scene, the second day can still be rough.
“I had a parent tell me one time that they had put so much emphasis on the first day of school that when they woke up their child for the second day, she said, ‘I have to go back today?’ ” Bratt said.