First Day

Stephanie Land essays

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Her little hand squeezed mine a bit when we walked into the gymnasium. Four rows of tables covered half of a newly-waxed floor. I led her to the end of the line for breakfast, served at no cost, every morning before school begins. She chose cereal, milk, juice, and toast. Holding her tray, she walked to a table and I sat next to her.

We sat there like that for a while. She ate her cereal, and I watched the other children line up. I watched the other parents peel back the foil on the plastic cup of juice. 

“I remember my first day of kindergarten,” I said. She looked at me. Her new haircut made her look just like Ramona Quimby. “This is your first day in this school. You’ll be here all the way up to sixth grade. You’ll make friends today that you’ll have for the rest of your life, Mia.” 

“When I go to your school?” She pointed at her new Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt for emphasis.

“If that’s what you want,” I said.

I carried her when we walked to the red line where some of her classmates stood. Her teacher came out with big smiles, gathering her small students together like a hen does to her chicks.  Parents surrounded me with cameras and tissues. 

I looked at my daughter, waving, and blowing me kisses over and over. I smiled at her new boots and backpack that she picked out herself. Fully prepared. I’d even submitted all of her paperwork. 

I’d done it. 

We’d made it.

Almost seven years before then, in my small cabin on the western Washington coast, I threw away applications to the University of Montana when I found out I’d be a mother. It seemed important then to stay close to family, and make things work with her dad. When things fell apart, I made it a goal to find a place we could call home by the time she started kindergarten.

A couple of years ago, I finally came to visit Missoula. I walked on the campus, felt the lush grass under my bare feet, and sat for hours, contemplating that huge clock tower every time it struck a new hour. 

I decided to pursue my dreams. 

I fought for permission from the court to relocate, and we did. Away from everything and everybody we knew. 

But we gathered a family around us here, in our new home. They embraced us. We’d found our people. 

And there I stood, watching her march into her new school on the first day of kindergarten. I didn’t get all weepy, I’d watched her wave goodbye from countless daycares through the years. I walked away stepping over a huge milestone. A goal. Met.

I dropped Mia off at her new school as a single mom who has her shit together in the midst of chaos. I dropped her off without feeling sorry for myself that her dad wasn’t there to witness, or even that I didn’t have a partner to join me. I dropped her off knowing I’m enough.

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About the Author

Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land's work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change, and through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID: A Single Mother's Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home, is forthcoming through Hachette Books. She writes from Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters.

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