Everything is ready. I packed my bag last night and laid out my uniform like mum suggested I do. Everything is stiff and new, unfamiliar, the bag, the uniform, the shoes, I haven’t had time to mould into being mine yet.
I slept through the alarm. It wasn’t a good start but now that I am ready I wished I had slept longer. Now I am waiting and it’s a matter of the clock ticking ever closer to the time it has to happen.
I pace the floor, around my room, into the kitchen, down the hall, around the lounge, the family room, back to my room, back to the kitchen. It feels better than sitting in one place. I thrust my hands deep in my pockets. My shoulders are so tight they feel like they are up around my ears but I can’t relax. All my movements feel rigid, when my hands aren’t in my pockets I can’t help fidgeting, I adjust the shoulders of my t-shirt, adjust my shorts. I look like a dork. The uniform is too big, there isn’t any flex in my school shoes, not like the runners I wore all through primary school. I check my reflection in the mirror regularly. My hair is too long, I’ve gone all summer so far without a haircut and it won’t sit properly. I should have asked mum to take me for a cut before today. I wish I had. I look ridiculous. She probably would have said “sure thing” but then we wouldn’t have gotten around to it, then she would have apologised and said “we’ll do it on the weekend, ok, promise?”. I let out a groan as I look at my reflection, there is nothing I can do about it now.
I know she is watching me, mum. She keeps giving me sideways glances from the kitchen as I pace the house.
“You feeling ok?” she asks.
What can I say? I feel like I am going to be sick but I don’t want to worry her.
“Yeah. Just nervous I guess,” I mumble.
“What you are feeling is completely normal, and everyone will be feeling the same,” she replies.
I know she’s trying to help but it doesn’t. I don’t care how everyone else is feeling. The only thing I want is for the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I want to go back to bed and wake up in a month’s time when all of this is over, when I have worked it all out already and know where I have to go and who I am going to hang out with and which of the older kids I have to avoid in the corridors. But I can’t do that, I have to do this, the first day. I head to the bathroom. I groan. I think I am going to be sick.
I run the tap, cup my hand and take a sip of cold water. Mum comes in.
“The first day is always the hardest,” she says.
“Well derr,” I say and she gives me that look, the one that says, don’t take the piss, I am being serious.
“Sorry,” I say. “It’s just the… oh don’t worry about it…”
“I’m not worried,” she says. “I have done this, remember? I know what it’s like. But you are the one standing in the bathroom looking like you are about the throw up,” she has one hand on her hip and places her other hand on my shoulder. It feels good. “So c’mon,” she says. “Spit it out.”
“It’s just the… the…. you know…”
“No, I don’t,” she says. “The what?”
“Ahhhhh….” I feel frustrated and stupid and don’t know how to say what’s worrying me most. “The judging,” I finally say. “It’s going to be a whole day of everybody judging everybody. That’s what school is like.”
It feels better to have said it, giving it air makes it seem less important.
“It’s stupid,” I say.
“It’s not stupid,” she says. “You’re right. It will be. And then it will be over. You’re smart, right? You already understand that’s what kids do to each other so you can put it in perspective. You just have to get through today, then each day after that gets a bit better.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say.
As much as I don’t want to have to walk through those high school gates, I don’t want to go back to primary school either. Something has shifted. My little sister seems even littler somehow, even though she’s only two years younger. She’s more pesky and annoying, she says stupid things and still plays with her dolls. She annoys me about my croaky voice, she says I sound like a frog and sometimes I get so mad at her I want to slap her and punch her like we used to do when we were younger but I know I can’t now, I am so much bigger than her, more powerful. What if I went too far? If I did hit her? I know I could really hurt her now. She’s sensed the shift, my restraint, so she pushes deeper, testing my limits, willing me to snap.
But this morning she’s been good, she’s let me be. One day this will be her but lucky me, first born, I always have to go through it first. But this is a first time for her too, she has to leave the house to walk to school on her own.
She comes into the bathroom to say goodbye.
“Mum, I am going now. Good luck today,” she says looking at me. “You look really cool in your uniform. See ya.”
“Thanks,” I say.
In the car on the way to school my legs are jittering and my hands are clenched into balls on my thighs. There is school traffic already building up down the street and I wished we had left earlier. What if I am the last to arrive? The whole of Year 7 is going to be looking at me as I walk in. I don’t even know where I have to go. My stomach lurches up into my throat.
“Mum, pull over,” I say.
“What? Why? I can’t pull over.”
“Pull over!” I shout.
She swerves the car into a side street and pulls over at the curb. I swing the door open and barely make it out of the car before I throw up on the nature strip.
“Jesus,” Mum says getting out of the car. “Wait, I’ll get some water. Are you ok? Honey are you ok?”
Once I know it’s passed I feel better, like a pressure valve has been released. I scan the street to see if anyone might have seen me and am relieved not to see any school kids in the street. Thank God I didn’t splash my new school shoes with vomit.
Mum passes me a bottle of water and I take a sip, rinse out my mouth, spit, then take another sip.
“Yeah, I am ok. I feel better now.”
She puts her arms around my shoulders and lets out a big sigh. “Hey, I have some chewy in my bag, let me get it.”
“It’s ok, let’s just go, I just want to get there now.”
We pile back into the car and make our way again towards the school.
On the walk through the school gates mum slips me a piece of chewy. “Just eat it on the way down and chuck it before to get in,” she says.
“There aren’t many kids, are we late?” I ask.
“On time. It’s only the Year 7s today,” she says.
“What? You could have told me earlier, it might have helped.”
“Sorry, I thought you knew, haven’t you been texting with your orientation day mates about the first day?”
“Texting yeah, but not about the first day.”
My movements feel stiff while I am walking, I am hunched over and my eyes are downcast. When we reach the first building I see another girl looking lost and confused. I think to ask her if she is a Year 7 too and if she knows where she is meant to be. But I don’t, because maybe I am wrong, I don’t remember her from orientation day and maybe she’s a Year 9 student and didn’t realise that she didn’t have to be at school today so I say nothing and we walk right by her. I can’t see anyone yet that I know and I let out a groan.
“Where am I supposed to be? I don’t know where I am supposed to go or like… what to do,” I can feel my stomach twist into knots again.
“Just at the hall,” Mum says. “Almost there.”
As we approach the hall we pass a throng of parents gathered outside who have already said their goodbyes and good lucks. Some are dressed in work attire, some are not, some are comparing photos on their phones and I overhear other mums saying things like: “It’s a bit easier than the first day of primary school” and “I can’t believe how fast it’s gone”. To me it hasn’t gone fast at all, it feels like it has taken an eternity to reach high school and it feels like this day in particular is moving in slow motion. If only I could fast forward.
“This is it,” Mum says. “You just have to go in. Oh wait … the chewy,” she rifles in her bag for a tissue for me to discard it.
I hand over the chewy and she scrunches the tissue into a ball. “Ok, well … see ya then I guess.”
I know at this point there is no going back, whatever is going to happen next is inevitable and out of my control and the tension in my stomach eases. Mum reaches in for an awkward half hug and I pull back back anticipating a kiss but she seems to sense my reluctance and lets go.
“You’ll be fine,” she says instead.
As I turn to enter the hall I spot the lost girl entering the foyer. She has two friends with her and she doesn’t look lost and confused anymore. Their arms are linked and they almost bounce as they walk as a trio into the hall, smiles on their exuberant faces.
For the first time the feeling in my stomach is a tingle of excitement and I follow the girls in, my eyes peeled for a familiar face inside. This is it.