We've decided to move Justin to a new school next fall, for third grade. It's early in March and we haven't told him yet. We don't want him to feel like a lame duck for the rest of the year. He's happy at school. He has friends and he's thriving, but we feel the new school will be a better fit for our whole family. We know we need to tell him soon, but haven't figured out the best approach.
Over breakfast I tell Emily that I'm taking her to meet her new kindergarten teacher. Justin looks up from his oatmeal and says, "What about me? Where am I going to go to school?"
I didn't think he'd connect this conversation to himself. I gulp, then answer honestly, "Well, actually Justin, you're going to go there next year too."
Justin is stunned. Then his face dissolves in tears. He yells, "I won't go!" and runs sobbing to his room. I hate myself for my lack of tact and rotten timing.
I give him Justin a few minutes while I collect my own thoughts. I push aside the fact that it's time to leave for school. I wash the dishes and brush Emily's hair. Then I head to Justin's room.
He's huddled by his closet, sobbing angrily. "I won't go and that's final! I won't leave my friends! I won't go! You can't make me!"
I sit down next to him. Surprisingly, he lets me. "I'm sorry I told you like that," I tell him. "I can understand why you're so upset. Change is hard."
He wheels on me, furious. "I won't go! Why do you get to decide where I go to school? I'm the one who has to go there!"
I have no answer for him. Inside, I'm in agony. It's so hard to listen to his pain. I want to make it go away. Immediately, I'm awash in doubt, wondering if it's fair for us to change his life like this.
Emily is hiding outside Justin's door. He's already screamed at her twice to go away. Now she says in a tiny voice, "I have your Pez, Justin." The Pez is leftover from his birthday party, just three days ago.
"Justin," I say quietly. "Emily wants to help you feel better. She wants to give you your Pez. Can she come in?"
He nods. Emily brings the Pez and hands it to him. She gently pets Justin along the length of his blue-jeaned leg. Then she looks up at me: "I'll go to a new school if you want me to, Mama."
"Emily, it's not the same for you as it is for Justin. When preschool ends, you have to go to a new school. But Justin's in a school that lasts all the way through Junior High. He could keep going there."
"And I'm going to!" he insists. "You can't make me go to a new school! I WON'T GO!" His face is an angry mask. There is deep pain in his eyes.
It's well past time for us to leave. I'm not sure how I'm going to get myself out of this mess. When I say it's time to go, Justin says, "I'm not going to school today. I can't go to school when I'm this upset. When I'm this angry, I can't be around a whole room full of kids."
Neither could I, I think. How unfair of me to spring this on him half an hour before school. As an interim measure I suggest that we take Emily to school first. "Then we can decide whether you're going or not."
Reluctantly, Justin agrees. By the time we get Emily settled at preschool, he's cooled down considerably.
As we drive toward his school, we belt out made-up verses of, "I Ain't Gonna Grieve My Lord No More." I marvel at Justin's ability to sing after receiving such bad news.
Halfway there, he stops singing and says, "Mama, I really don't want to go to school today. I'm too upset."
I pull off the freeway and we talk about it. I agree to give him a mental health day if he lets me get my work done. "And then you'll have to come along to Emily's appointment." He agrees to my conditions, but insists, "I'm still not going to that new school!"
Heading home, I'm not sure that letting him miss school is right, but I decide to give him some control in a morning that has turned his world around.
While I work, Justin does origami and reads a new Tin Tin book. Then he gets bored and pesters me. At two, we pick up Emily and drive out to the new school.
It has a twelve-acre campus. There are farm animals, an organic garden, lots of wild spaces, big oversized classrooms, and mud. A deep sense of peace comes over me as I cross the bridge and walk on to the grounds. It's a child's paradise.
School is about to let out. Justin spots a small homemade cave and immediately darts inside, panicked. "I don't want any of the kids to see me!"
I try to reassure him. "Justin, they won't know who you are."
"I don't care! I don't want anyone to see me!" Emily, ever loyal, climbs in with him and they begin an elaborate fantasy game.
When it's time for our appointment, the kindergarten teacher greets us at the door. She asks Justin to wait outside. I see some origami paper in the classroom and ask if I can give Justin a few sheets. He sits at the table outside and starts folding.
After our visit, he comes in and presents the teacher with three animals he has made. She is delighted and engages him in a long conversation about origami and school. When it is time to go, he has made a friend. As we leave to go, she says casually, "There's a free circus class in the barn today. Why don't you check it out?"
We cross the meadow, passing the goats, the chickens, and the pot-bellied pig. Justin hesitates at the barn door, but once he's inside, he is entranced. Kids are spinning diablos, riding unicycles, and walking on stilts. The teacher comes over and asks Justin if he wants to try. Five minutes later, he's up on stilts, taking his first faltering steps. When the class ends, he is beaming. "I want to take this class, Mama," he says. The teacher says there's room. We can do this every Tuesday after school, starting next week.
Crossing back over the vast yard, we come to a wooden teeter totter. On either side, it lands in a giant pool of muddy water. Justin jumps onto the middle of the teeter totter and starts slamming either end down into the muddy water, making giant splashes. Emily plays nearby, delighted. A fourth grader comes by and he and Justin start a giant irrigation project, complete with shovels that mysteriously appear. An hour later, Justin is muddy and completely absorbed in glory of water, fresh air and freedom.
At 5:30, I gently tell him it's time to go. He follows me, muddy and grinning. "Mama," he says as we reach the bridge. "I think I've changed my mind about this school."
In my wildest dreams, I couldn't have imagined a better day.
Laura Davis is a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-author, with Janis Keyser, of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1997). Laura and Janis are currently writing a book for the parents of elementary school children. Laura is the mother of seven-year-old Justin, four-year-old Emily and stepmom to twenty-two year-old Daniel. Out of respect for the privacy of her family members, they are being identified by pseudonyms in this story.