They grow up so slow. Our daughter's first day at school was six years ago but it feels like something from the Dark Ages. I said to her on Tuesday morning, "Do you remember it?" She was eating a bowl of Rice Bubbles at the kitchen table. She's so pretty. The day before she wore a new blue dress to her graduation ceremony, and looked beautiful onstage, a radiant 10-year-old blonde. "No," she said. And then she got ready for her last day at primary school.
Every family has its special days, its big sentimental moments, its turning points. The first day of school is a New Zealand classic but the last day is a much deeper and more complex occasion. Strange to think of it as a kind of nationwide migration - generations of kids in suburbs and small towns all over New Zealand leaving home on a morning in late December, heading out the door on a summer's day, about to do nothing remarkable or spectacular, just walking the same way to school that they've walked for six years, except it'll never happen again. And in the background, at the front gate or rooted to the spot on the doorstep: generations of New Zealand parents, waving goodbye one last time, howling.
Why's it so sad? What's the problem? There's an unspoken message, moving overhead like a dark cloud on a sunny day: when they leave primary school, they leave childhood. I suppose that's true in the broader picture but we don't live in the broader picture. We live morning to night, and they come home in the afternoon of that last, historic day the same adorable innocent they were when they left. I wanted proof: I waited by the letterbox at 3pm. She turned the corner, her hair shining in the sun, wearing a floral onesie.
I walked down the street to meet her. "Well!", I said. "How was it?"
"Good," she said.
"Was it special?"
"We just played all day."
"Was it emotional?"
"Dad," she sighed.
She goes about things in a calm, cheerful way; I'm always lurking in the background of her childhood, hovering on the edges of it, armed with questions and a clipboard, wanting all the gossip from school and any news of tears, melancholy, sadness. I relate to that sort of thing. But it's more that I've done my very best to live her childhood vicariously. I don't think I had much of one. It's not something I recall in any detail. I was thin, I was pale, I was scared, anxious, detached; I hid in shadows. The past six years of our daughter's life gave me a second chance at primary school. It was really fascinating this time around and I enjoyed it nearly as much as she did.
It's a nice school. It's small, and very sweet. It's vital statistics are decile five and a roll that's hovered for most of the past six years at about 200, so everyone knows everyone else. I was amazed by that when she started, the way big kids would walk by and greet her by name. "How do they know you?", I'd ask, as if she'd just met Taylor Swift. The year six kids seemed impossibly glamorous to me back then – fashionable, tall, the lords of all they surveyed. She latched on to a group of them when she was 5. They probably thought of her as some kind of pet, but it ended when she joined them on a climbing frame and fell from the top rung.
She made friends with kids her age. She got used to the rhythms of school. The visits to the sick bay, the Friday assembly. Road patrol, sports day, Bible class. The speech contest (winner, 2016 and 2017). Prizegiving, graduation, the walk to school . . . All gone now. She's happy. She's excited about intermediate. She has more of a future than a past, but my lifespan is the other way around and I've been near paralysed with grief these past few days. To think that it's over, that it's ended – "It's really terrible," texted another parent. "I didn't think I'd be this sad." I did. I was expecting it. I've dreaded this week all year, the finality of it, especially the last walk to school.
Graduation ought to have been just as harrowing. It was always a tender, solemn, and desperately sad ritual. The year six students would be called to the front of the stage one at a time, and receive a certificate, also a hug or a handshake, then the entire year would burst into a song of farewell – and that's when the tears would start, from the kids onstage and their parents in the audience. I'd weep, too, and worry that I'd cry so much when it came to our daughter's graduation that I'd collapse, and wake up in the sick bay.
But the 2017 graduation ceremony on Monday was just kind of really boring. One parent phoned afterwards, and said, "What the hell was that?" For years, the heart of the school was deputy principal Lisa Cochrane; with her there, every graduation was meaningful, a sincere and moving gesture. But she left at the end of 2016 and Monday's ceremony was impersonal, even the song. Another parent, by text: "That bloody song wanted to make me slit my wrists!!" Sad-face emoji. It was a slow dirge sung in te reo – translated, the chorus was, "Thank you, teacher." God almighty. Who cares about the staff at a time like that? It was supposed to be about the kids, but the moment was stolen.
It's not important. I'm deeply grateful to the school; it's got some great teachers and she met a lot of fantastic kids. I won't remember a dumb song. I'll remember our daughter standing onstage in her new blue dress. A parent sitting next to me whispered, "She's all grown-up now, isn't she?" No, she isn't. She's 10 years old. She's a little kid. She rides her bike to the dairy to buy icing sugar so we can bake a chocolate cake. She lies in her bed every night next to her mum, who reads a chapter book to her. She makes – God I wish she wouldn't; I hate everything about the fad of 2017 – slime.
But it's true that she's only distantly related to the 5-year-old who left home and skipped along the pavement to begin her first day of school. It was summer. Her birthday is in February. She could read, a little; not long afterwards, we were sitting in the bakery opposite the garage, and I asked her to look across the road and read the sign. She said, "Al's Mechanical Repairs." School did that.
She's left-handed, and was gifted in the art of mirror writing – she wrote everything backwards, including her name, AKNIM. School fixed that. She brought home her exercise books this week. One assignment was about her parents. "My dad is willing to give up hours that he would usually spend writing emails to lose to me at Connect Four." And: "My mum will often spend her lunchtime dashing through the mall looking for presents instead of eating at the foodhall like all her colleagues." What?
We go to school to read and write, as well as learn the important things – how to conform, how to survive, how to win friends and influence people. It's hard to look at kids and imagine them as adults, but it's easier to look at adults and imagine them as kids. The young hypocrite, the young charmer, the young douchebag... Their faces are smoother, their social skills or horrifying lack thereof are recognisable works in progress.
To go to school is also to learn how to get by in life without your parents.
"Well," I said on Tuesday morning, "this is it. Our last walk to school together."
"You can come as far as the next corner," she said.
"Don't guilt-trip me!"
She called upstairs, "Bye, Mama!"
"Love you, too!"
I opened the door, and held her hand.
There's a fairly limited range of places I can take her on account of not being able to drive, so I swooped on the option of walking her to school. That was something I could do. It took about 10 minutes. Five houses to the corner, where an emergency nurse lives with a small dog, which barks its stupid head off behind a hedge. Just two houses to the next corner, and along a block of shops including the reading exercise of Al's Mechanical Repairs. It's slightly uphill and there's a lovely view down to the harbour. The third street is fairly long. It's got a Baptist church opposite an old, rotting house that looks like a shipwreck. School is around the corner of the next street . . . I love the road most travelled: the walk to school was among the happiest, most enchanting times of my life.
Two major changes were made to our familiar morning walk. The first was when she was in Year Four. She has always loved making up stories out loud; when she was 6, we went on a family holiday to South Africa, on safari, and her monologues matched the savannah – both seemed like an infinity. One day on the way to school I suggested that we take turns in telling a story that could be picked up again the following day, and the day after that, for weeks, maybe months. She thought this was an excellent idea. It lasted for three years.
We called it The Saga. Every morning, at the front door, we would begin the latest adventure by chanting, "The Saga: The Story That Never Ends." I'd start, and improvise an episode until the corner of the street with a harbour view; she'd take up the story until the school gate, sometimes through the playground to the classroom.
We lived together in a strange world set in a 19th century seaside village, Huckleberry Cove, in which adventurous children as well as violent adults (Big Baby Bradley and his friend Nine Lives were prison inmates convicted of murder) acted out tense and improbable tales. Each day's episode would end with a cliffhanger. There was a lot of dialogue, and long, descriptive passages.
Day after day, week after week, the story that never ends occupied our thoughts from approximately 8am to 8:10am. We estimated in our first year that if it was written down, The Saga would be about 100,000 words. After a while, we told separate stories; mine were based on Big Baby Bradley, who became a reformist educator. I plagiarised Lord of the Flies for about six months. There was a single-sex romance, and numerous funerals.
Her stories were increasingly based on Big Angus, a wily prison chef, and the ghost of his younger, traumatised self – Little Angus, who had been locked in a dark room as a child. The two were a kind of divided self. Little Angus was perhaps mentally disturbed – he remained fixed in a psychological as well as physical state – but also capable of profound insights. "I don't have a memory," her character said one morning. "I am a memory."
The second major change to our morning walk came at the beginning of the year. She asked if it was alright that she walk to school by herself. She wanted her independence. It was important, she said.
We negotiated, and I was allowed to walk her in on Wednesdays. But it made things difficult for our storytelling. We lost momentum. It began to lose shape, and drift, until one day we spoke of other things, and The Saga: The Story That Never Ends quietly ended.
We got to the next corner on Tuesday morning, and I said, "Well."
"I'll take it from here," she said.
I kissed her, and she walked away. I stood where I was..
She turned further along the street, and called out, "Love you!"
"Love you, too!"
She walked past the shops and crossed the street, a small figure in front of the harbour and the mangroves. The morning light on the water was very bright.