Looking back now at this picture of us on your first day of the school year ten months ago, a lump rises in my throat: I look at our nervous, expectant smiles and I want to cry. I want to cry for those two people who had no idea that the hardest year of our lives lay ahead of us. I want to cry for our unwavering, as yet untested belief that things would always go our way. I want to cry for all the tears we had yet to shed. Most of all, I want to cry for all the things we did not know.
We didn’t know that at your new school you would be the only English speaker in your class. We didn’t know that I wouldn’t be allowed to walk you into your classroom each morning like I had at your old school, have a chat with your teacher, get a sense for the day and then leave you happily immersed in a worksheet. We didn’t know that instead the process would involve lining up outside the school each morning after the bell rang, hand-in-hand with another child. And we didn’t know that the politics behind who would hold hands with who would come to be a dominant feature in both of our mornings and dictate how the day would go – often leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach long after you’d filed in and I’d walked away from the school building.
We didn’t know then that the little girls who played with you on your first day would reject you on your second because you couldn’t understand their games. We didn’t know that handing out birthday party invitations at school and not inviting everybody was a thing that actually happens – a painful lesson for both of us in week two.
We didn’t know that for months we would both miss your Bahamas school like a terrible ache; your Bahamas teachers, our routine and your old friends. We didn’t know how I would regress to my teenage self and wish most fervently that I could yell from the rooftops, “SHE HAS FRIENDS!” That every opportunity I had I’d talk about how happy you had been before, how smart and funny and popular and kind you are. That you walking alone with your head down wasn’t how it was meant to be.
We didn’t know how fast you would grow out of that dress, and that as your legs grew longer your shoulders would become heavier with the weight of all the things that made you sad.
We didn’t know that our Caribbean tans would fade so fast and that as the autumn I had been looking forward to descended upon us, the grey skies would match the colour of our hearts for months on end.
But we also didn’t know that the sun would come out again.
We didn’t know how strong you were. We didn’t know that you had it in you to say, “Mummy, sometimes when I feel like crying at school I fake a smile and that helps.”
We didn’t realise exactly how powerful it can be when the kindness of a few outweighs the indifference of the others when you really need a friend. That the words, “Annabel, tu veux jouer avec moi?” would come to sound the sweetest of any words in any language I’ve ever heard, and that the sight of you taking a deep breath, squaring your shoulders and going to join the game even though you didn’t quite understand the explanation of the rules would be the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen.
We didn’t know what bravery really looked like until you started wearing it out the front door like a coat of armour each morning.
We didn’t know that when my expat friends said, “Try not to fret, kids pick up the language so fast,” they would be right and that after a few months of silence, perfectly formed French sentences would start tumbling out of your mouth. We didn’t know that you would soon be laughing at me for the way I pronounce “arbre” and that when I finally plucked up the courage to organise a play date with one of the kids in your class you would proudly show her around your room chatting away in French like a native and I would wish I’d done it sooner.
We didn’t know that your smile would win over even the most indifferent of classmates one by one, and that after a while it would be common to hear one of them calling out your name in the street when they spotted you.
We didn’t know on that first day that your new teacher – a stern-looking Swiss lady who speaks no English – would become one of your favourite people and that she would write you the sweetest letter on your last day of school and cry when she said goodbye to you.
We didn’t know that, little by little, the things we missed about your old school would be replaced by new things we could not have imagined on that scary first day, but which we’ve slowly, hesitatingly come to depend on.
We didn’t know then that on the last day of the school year you would parade through the streets with every school child in our town to mark the beginning of the summer holidays, and that my heart would swell to see you smile and wave, looking comfortable in the crowd and in your own skin. My pride in you is magnified by all the days between that first day and this, and I secretly feel like that parade was all for you.
Because you made it to the end of this hardest year – and on that first day, if we had known all this, we wouldn’t have known you could.