Starting school is always an emotional experience. Many children are thrilled by the prospect of uniforms and reading books; others find the whole idea terrifying. And some children simply refuse to go. Last year, my little boy Sam was never going to go to school, ever. This is the story of the ten months that changed him from School Refusnik to Prince of the Playground. It's been a difficult journey, but also an interesting one. And along the way I've learned a lot about him.
I am so happy that I fail to notice Sam isn't. He's been offered a place at my dream school - the one down the leafy lane, where the teachers are lovely, and the SAT (standard assessment test) results are excellent. I'm having a vision: rosy-cheeked children on a nature ramble. The boys' socks are squidged round about their ankles. The girls are wearing bunches and pinafore dresses. And the world is a happy, shiny, if ever-so-slightly-soft-focus sort of place. But what's this? Sam is glowering. Then comes the shouting and door slamming. "I am not going to school!" Pause for door slam. "Ever!" When he calms down, he's cool and detached in his determination. He won't be able to go to Big School because he doesn't have the right jumper. He's just turned four years old, but he tells me this patiently, as though he's talking to somebody who is particularly simple-minded.
Sam has almost exhausted his excuses. He has to stay at preschool to look after his friend Lucas, whose birthday is just slightly too late for this year's intake. Also, he doesn't want to learn to read. He only wants to play, until he's as big as daddy.
Alarmingly, Sam decides he's not going to eat any more, so he won't grow, and then he'll never get big enough to go to school. The health visitor suggests I ignore the whole subject of school. Leave it and see, she says, he'll come round.
The ignoring-the-whole-subject-of-school plan is not going well, as the people in charge of preschool talk about Big School pretty much all the time. I suspect somebody is saying something along the lines of "You won't be able to do that at Big School," because Sam now insists that he can't go because he can't sit still for long enough. Preschool is attached to Big School, so twice a week there are visits to Big School assembly, and Big School reception class. I know exacdy which days he's been into Big School, because he's grumpy and sad when I pick him up.
Time for his Big School inoculation booster. Sam, not unreasonably, refuses to get on the couch so he can have needles stuck into him. The doctor says, ''You need to have this done or you won't be able to go to school." And delight dawns on Sam's face. No jabs, no school- two things he doesn't want in one fell swoop! I have to 'cuddle' him very tightly while the doctor does the deed. There's a party at Big School so the new children can get to know the older ones. News of Sam's school refusnik status has leaked, and one by one, the teachers approach him for an enthusiastic chat. His body language during these encounters is interesting: brows knitted, arms folded, eyes glazed. But the teachers persist. They all want to be the one to convert him. At the end of the party, the head teacher stops to say hello. "It's Sam, isn't it?" she says. ''And you're coming to school here soon." There's a beat of silence before Sam's reply: "No, I've already said. I'm not coming to school, thank you." At least he said thank you.
I have no idea whether his uniform fits or not. I have had to hide it, otherwise there's shouting, and nightmares. Suddenly, my husband says, "Just tell him he's got to go to school." What!? ''All this pussyfooting around is making Sam insecure," he says. "Just have an expectation that he's going to go, and he will go." My husband is very big on expectations. He believes every parenting problem can be solved with three magic words: Have An Expectation. All the parenting gurus and experts can pack up and go home. All you need to do is 'have an expectation'. As it turns out - infuriatingly, six months down the line - he's right. Once the expectation has been voiced, Sam looks relieved to know that he has to go to school, and starts to open up. He describes the funny feeling he has in his tummy, and asks if I got a funny feeling in my tummy when I started school. Did even daddy have a funny feeling? Now his fear has been given words, it leaves him.
Who put that baby in a uniform? My baby. He looks so funny, with his chubby cheeks and his mop of curly hair. But I feel strangely detached from this momentous day; not a prickle of sadness. David Beckham is blubbing like a baby at Brooklyn's first day, but there must be something wrong with me. I feel like I'm just going through the motions. Day two is different. I watch him struggle to find his name, and his peg, and his place on the shoe rack, and I want to rush in and do it all for him. But that's probably where I've been going wrong these past four years. And then, an image I'll never erase. I peek through the classroom window, and there he is: whitefaced, and sitting all alone at Big Table, looking completely lost. Nearby, his best friend clowns around and introduces himself to all the new kids. I sob all the way home, but, blow me, when I pick him up at home time he says he's had a good day. And that's as much as he'll say about his secret school life. Mostly he says he did nothing all day, or he can't remember, or he's too tired to talk about it.
On Thursdays, I help out with a parents' baking lesson. You get through two groups of children in a session. First, a group of 'interesting' children gets sent up to the kitchen. One little boy lives for danger. He tries to swallow forks and yells, "This isn't crazy enough!" I'm always happy to return him to the classroom without any serious perforations. There's also an autistic boy, who likes to wander off on a whim, to "have adventures". The children are used to his ways by now, and one of them gets up without a word and goes to fetch him back. Which is terrifying - whatifneither of them returns? Then I've lost two children. But I can't go and retrieve the wandering one because then the fork-swallower will ingest the school's silver. There's also an over-sensitive little boy. Everything terrifies him. The oven is his enemy. The mixer scares him half to death. When you take him to the toilet he screams at the hot-air dryers and runs away from them, but sadly not back towards the baking table. The second group of children is 'easy' mostly usually well-behaved girls who measure out the flour precisely, and wash their hands before they start. Even though Sam is in the 'easy' group for baking, the teacher is cross with him because he's been playing Power Rangers at lunchtime, and rolling around on the grass. Every morning, when I kiss him goodbye, I say firmly and quite loudly, so the teacher can hear, "Bye-bye, I love you. And remember, no Power Rangers, and no rolling around on the grass." At the Harvest Festival, Sam gets to hold up a bagel. When it's over, Sam leads his class out of assembly. I am so proud, I could burst.