A scene like this must have been played out between a thousand mothers and their sons. There is nothing new about dropping a child off for his first day at school. It is not extraordinary, just a simple rite of passage. Four of us climb the school steps and enter through glass double doors. I have Jack on my back, Oli at my heels and Max by the hand. We look up and down the corridor and see the locker room to our right. There's a mild smell of disinfectant. Inside the room, we begin to look for Max's cubby hole. His name is not there. We keep looking. Perhaps there's been an oversight and he has been forgotten. All the names are empty, unknown; Rosie Tring, Victor Yung, they don't carry with them the heavy weight of Kindergarten revelations; that Rosie wins all the running races or Victor was bitten by a dog. We do know one other boy and we are excited to find his locker. And then, at last, we find Max's name. His cubby hole is against the wall on the furthest side. He stashes his backpack and wordlessly we walk back down the corridor to the gym. That's where the noise is coming from, that's where the teacher stands with her clipboard. We walk in and stand a moment a few feet inside, not yet part of this scene, but on the edge. Max hangs on to my hand, pulling me down towards him. I make enthusiastic exclamations about how great everything looks; the balls and hoops and hoppers and rackets. I'm not really duping him, everything does look cool, but I wonder if he can tell that I'm not being totally authentic either, I'm willing him to fit in here, to find his feet. The night before we had read the book, 'Follow the Line to School' where a solid black line on each page leads you through those double doors and into classrooms and playgrounds before leading you, at the end of the book, back home. With slow, small footsteps Max begins to trace the blue lines on the floor that mark out the basketball court. Oli copies him and I follow on behind. I pretend to balance on a high wire. Jack's weight makes it more than just pretense. Someone rolls a hoop past us, sending it on it's wobbly course right across the gym. We watch to see how far it will get before it coruscates to a sudden stop. Max's movements are slow but his eyes dart around to take in the scene around him; the 'eek' of rubber soles on the polished floor, the raised stage at the far end, the stash of chairs in the corner, the older kids that already seem to know each other, the head teacher hovering in casual dress. We have crossed to the other side of the gym. Max's footsteps speed up, still a shuffle, but excited, faster movements that get him closer to that stack of hoops. He wants to try his luck and get his further than the other boy.
Oli wants a hoop now and I suddenly see that my problem might not be leaving Max, but extracting Oli. I act quickly and tell Max it's time for us to go.
'Let me give you an extra hug' he says.
And it is done. The first drop-off.
When I collect him at noon (a sweetener, this shorter day) he is more interested in getting his ball from under that stack of chairs than coming to greet me. I know it's a good sign. The teacher tells me there were a few tears and that she sat with him for a while to talk about things. He asked lots of questions about his class and how this new school worked. She said that helped. She said he was a good listener. In the car I don't press him for details but, in snatches by the end of the day, I find out that he was on the blue team, that Carl was on the white team and that Carl doesn't like white. I find out that he knocked down all the orange skittles and the man in the white shirt shouted 'Strike!' and asked him how he'd done that. That they played in the gym the whole time and that he might have played 'Simon Says' or might not.
We fill the afternoon with playing at home and in the garden. It is one of our last summer holiday afternoons. I'd like you to believe that the boys played happily while I cooked them a wholesome supper. But that's not entirely true. Yes they played, and yes, I bunged baked potatoes in the oven, but they picked on Jack a little, putting toys on his head and I got cross. We'd all got up early, practicing the new routine for school, so everyone was tired by suppertime.
'If I live with a cross mummy, I'll be homeless.' Max said, insinuating, I suppose, that he'll be packing his bags if I'm annoyed when he tests me.
Bedtime arrives and not a moment too soon. Before I kiss Max good night, I want to acknowledge the day somehow, but I should know better.
'I love you.' I say.
He is in bed, looking intently at a sequence of Tintin's adventures in Destination Moon.
'What is he doing?' His finger is pressed on a picture of Snowy flying down the stairs in hot pursuit.
'He's chasing a cat.' I say. 'Dogs do that.' His finger traces across the page. 'Max, I want you to know I love you. You were brave today at school. I know that sometimes I'm cross because I need to get things done and because I want to protect you and I want to make sure you - and Oli and Jack - are safe.'
'Why is he falling?' Snowy has landed in a blizzard of stars at the bottom of the stairs.
'Its an accident. We don't see accidents coming.'
'But why did he fall? What is he doing?'
This time Max is pointing at Captain Haddock who has an illegal stash of whisky bottles and a stern looking customs official looking at him.
'We will have to read the book and find out.' I say, thinking, that soon school will soon give him that gift of reading and a new world will open up to him. And hoping, as we both head into something new, that the choices we have made are the right ones, that this is a school that will support him and that his curiosity will not be dented.