Remembering the dread (mine) of starting school

Mery with her mum Gill

Mery with her mum Gill

First published in Life by

As term begins in Oxford, what effect does starting school have on a four-year-old? When her daughter Mery started primary school in 2010, Gill Sutherland kept a diary of the youngster’s first six weeks as a pupil. It reveals how mum and daughter both felt about those difficult first days and what has happened since

The S word (as in school) has been banned from the Sutherland household the week prior to Mery starting at our local village primary – Ilmington Church of England Primary, not far from Banbury.

Well-intentioned adults and her teasing big sister and brother (Molly, nine, and Syd, six) can’t resist gleefully nudging “Sooo, school next week, eh?” at any given opportunity.

Mery’s response is one of terror. She tails me round the house literally clinging to my skirt, and even starts using her old potty again in a sadly fear-inspired Freudian display. My poor baby, is she really ready for big school? How can I let her go?

A January baby, Mery is actually among the oldest of the 12 starting in her year, but watching her seated on her potty in front of Peppa Pig on the telly, her maturity is not entirely obvious.

I resist the urge to dwell on the old argument about how “Scandinavian kids don’t start school until seven and do just as well” and accept my dear daughter’s seemingly premature absorption into the English education system. (Obviously I’ve heard of home schooling but this isn’t an option for us due to a profound lack of commitment on my part.)

Week one

The BBC website advices coaxing uneasy school-starters by building “a school with your child from cardboard boxes, then act out some classroom scenarios”, or reading “positive books about starting school”. But I decide the mere mention of school is making too big a deal of it, and take her shopping instead.

Come the first day of school, my materialist tactics seemed to have paid off. The only thing Mery seems worried about is the correct way to wear her new Alice band and that her Puffle-from-Club-Penguin dangler is fixed firmly to her butterfly backpack. Mery looks adorable and wee, swamped in her new uniform.

Once we are through the school gates, though, it seems to be only me who is holding back the tears; Mery herself is quite mad-eyed with excitement.

As I hug her goodbye, she confides: “Don’t worry Mummy, if I don’t like it I can always go back to nursery,” and my heart breaks a little. Part of me wants her to be my baby forever, to keep her protected and close to me.

According to psychotherapist Dr Beverly Amsel, expert on maternal anxiety, if Mery picks up on my fears she could develop separation issues, resulting in dire consequences for her “sense of self and ability to learn and could have lifelong effects”. So I act extra chirpy and hide my worry, and wave her off enthusiastically.

At 3.30pm a beaming Mery explodes out of her classroom. “I’ve got a sticker!” she shouts and tells me of the wonderful things she’s done and friends she’s made. All is well until Friday, when Mery mounts a minor protest about having to go to school “again”. She won’t eat and gets dressed in excruciating slo-mo, causing me to forget to be patient and softly spoken. Oops.

Oxford Mail:
Mery on her first day at school

Weeks two to five

My sense of unease grows. Not just for Mery, wondering what she’s up to, missing her constant cuddles, but for myself.

Gone is my mum-of-toddler identity, I’m now just out-of-work. I don’t want to be a housewife; for one, I hate housework and am deliberately bad at it and, secondly, because it sounds so bloomin’ dull. But what’s next?

Friends, family and even one of the school’s teachers have asked me what I’m up to now the third of my brood is at school, leaving me fancy free for six whole hours a day.

They await news of my exciting schemes. “Fannying about doing nothing” doesn’t quite seem to cut it.

Mery is still fairly settled and happy, although, like her brother and sister, she has become coyly uncommunicative. I suspect this is a good thing; she needs to explore her world without me. Our post-school chat has become narrowed to: Me: “How was your day?”

Mery: “Fine.”

Me: “What did you do today?”

Mery: “Played.”

Me: “Who with?”

Mery: “My friends.”

But she can’t help herself. Bits of information erupt out of her unbidden through the course of the evenings.

By the end of week three she has compared her tea to her lunch (“fish pie which everyone hated except me and chocolate hedgehogs”); told me about the friendship bench (“if you’re lonely you sit on it and people are nice to you”); let slip she’s had a marriage proposal from a boy in her class (“I said ‘no way’”); and declared assembly boring (“because it lasts twice as long as playtime”).

Week Six

Mery comes home singing He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands, which her class is to sing at the school’s Harvest Festival. The song sparks a theological debate.

Syd, big brother: “Does God exist?”

Me (diplomatically): “Some people think he exists, but I don’t.”

Syd: “Do you believe in Jesus?”

Me: “I believe he was born.”

Mery: “Well I think God was born but doesn’t exist.”

It’s like a conversation from television comedy Outnumbered – the ridiculous things you say in families.

But it makes me realise that Mery is as opinionated and as feisty as her big brother and that she’s more than ready for the cut and thrust of primary education.

And rather than worry about Mery, I would be better off pondering the meaning of my own existence, and, as my husband so nicely says: “Get off your bum and earn a living.”

Four years later...

Mery has just entered Year 4 and is doing really well at school. She’s confident, bubbly and the teachers say she is a delight.

At home she is loving, loud and feisty, sometimes too feisty as she attempts to compete with her teen sister Molly and long-suffering brother Syd, 10.

Any doubts I had about her being too young and vulnerable have long gone... although she will of course always be my baby.

As for me, I resurrected my career as a journalist and now work at the Oxford Mail full time and couldn’t be happier (although if the boss is reading this, a pay rise is always welcome).

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