10 AM. In an hour my younger son graduates from grammar school, PS 116. He's the "boy who took the subway by himself" last year and made headlines worldwide, but last night he was just a boy desperately poking me at about 3 AM, trying not to wake his father up.
I followed him into the darkened living room and as we sat down on our foul, old L-shaped couch, he was so relieved to be in mommy's arms that the tears came pouring out. "My ear!" he held his head. "My ear hurts so much!"
He'd already taken a Tylenol (Free-Range kid!), so I said, "Well, let me tell you a story," racking my brain for the oldest diversion of all.
The only thing is, I'm terrible at making up stories. As I stalled for time, "Let's see...let's tell you a nice story..." he piped up, "Can you tell me what happened with Hansel and Gretel?"
Now, this was not out of any sudden fondness for the classics. It was because he'd seen a cell phone commercial where two lost kids say to heck with breadcrumbs and use their phone's GPS.
So I started telling him the story, or at least the highlights I could remember. Then, when he moaned in pain again the second the tale ended (and I really couldn't remember if those kids got eaten or not), I racked my brain again and dredged up Cinderella -- mostly the Leslie Anne Warren version, with Good Witch Glinda's voice subbing for the Fairy Godmother's. Sue me.
Then came Snow White, with a tiny detour into why "fair" was once considered the most beautiful shade of skin (Europe/long time ago/ethnocentrism), and what a stepmother is ("Usually much nicer!"). Why dwarves would all live together was left unexplained. Why they'd keep a dead girl in a glass casket, ditto. He thought the story was cool. At the same time, though, he was very hot, so got into a tepid bath.
From behind the shower curtain he said, "Didn't you once give us a fairy tale book?" He was referring to my favorite book from childhood.
"Why don't you go get it?" He knew exactly where it was in his room: the shelf with the books he never touched.
So then we spent the next hour or so, him in the tub, working our way through the Borthers Grimm indeed - the wolf eating Little Red Riding Hood, Rumplestiltzkin tearing himself in half (that's the ending!), and the real Hansel & Gretel, who, as it turns out, only ended up in the woods only because their parents abandoned them there. The family didn't have enough to eat, so for the parents to live, the kids had to starve. (Which is why, when parents today moan, "Times have changed," I wish they'd add: "Hooray!")
Anyway, finally, it was time for bed again.
"I feel sooooo much better!" my happy boy said as he lay down.
And now it is ten in the morning. My son is probably already in the auditorium, practicing the National Anthem and whatever "Children Are the Future" song the fifth graders will sing to reduce us Camcordering parents to tears. I can deal with that.
What was hard was seeing the kids frolicking in the schoolyard at drop-off: the boys suddenly crisp in their khakis, the girls suddenly gorgeous in their graduation dresses.
Soon, and forever more, that East 32nd Street school yard will be filled with anonymous, interchangeable kids, fiercely beloved by other parents, not me. But for one last morning, there was my miraculously recovered little boy, chasing his friends, posing for digital pictures, eager to get out of his dress shoes.
Grammar school is over. I guess it's as simple as that. I'm sure I'm not the first mom to get a little teary, especially after a night spent with the children of the ages - princes, paupers, starving kids eating a candy house. For a few hours in the night my boy and I were suspended in that very special time called childhood.
And this morning, we're heading out.
Skenazy is the author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.