Our elementary school celebrates student and staff birthdays during Friday assembly.
When it’s the week of your big day, you get called to the stage. On your walk up you receive a pencil. Then you stand with all the other celebrants, and the entire school sings and dances to a cheerful birthday tune.
My kids are summer babies, so they celebrate in May, when the cafeteria stage is packed with all the other summer babies.
Kindergarteners are in front, either dancing with wild abandon or standing frozen with stage fright.
In the very back are teachers and fifth-graders, placed there because they’re so tall — convenient, too, for tweens who have grown too cool for birthday songs.
I can close my eyes and see Cooper on the front row. His big smile framed by chubby cheeks with pudgy hands waving in the air and floppy hair that moves as he dances.
Six birthday dances later, my Cooper is on the back row with a bemused smile and no trace of baby fat. His spindly arms casually move to the music and his cropped hair wouldn’t move even if he did dance with a 5-year-old’s enthusiasm.
That final birthday song is but one reminder that today, after the fastest six years in the history of humankind, my son is graduating elementary school.
The milestones have been building all year: Fifth-grade sleep-away camp, band tryouts, bridging from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, puberty video and fifth-grade track meet.
It all culminates at 2:40 this afternoon, when Cooper and more than a hundred other fifth-graders will snake through the halls, giving farewell high-fives to all the younger kids before they shimmy out the front door and spill onto the front lawn.
I will be there, too, no doubt a big ol’ mess of tears mixed with laughter. I’m awful at goodbyes, and this is a pretty big goodbye.
Cooper has spent more than half his life as a student at the school down the street.
He was a student there when his dad was diagnosed with cancer. I worried about just about everything in those days, but I didn’t worry about Cooper during the hours he was at school. He had 40 surrogate moms — teachers and staff members who watched out for him and lavished him with hugs if needed.
He was a student there when Steve died. My primary goal for Cooper that year was emotional stability. Academics were secondary. His teacher somehow balanced both, and he finished third grade emotionally secure — and on the honor roll.
Cooper was a student there when he was diagnosed with dyslexia — and we finally realized why, despite his love of reading, he struggled tremendously with spelling and writing. He still struggles, but with less intensity, thanks to an intervention program, a top-notch dyslexia specialist and his own fierce determination.
When Cooper walks out those doors this afternoon, he’s leaving behind Valentine’s parties and Mother’s Day teas. He’s leaving birthday songs in the cafeteria and birthday doughnuts in the classroom.
More significant, though, is what he’s leaving with: six years of quality education, sweet memories and special friendships.
He’s leaving the cozy school down the street with significant life lessons. In Cooper’s words: Keep your hands to yourself. When life gets hard, fight back. Trust your friends. Make goals and work toward them. And always believe in yourself.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.