“Does it hurt?” asked my son one afternoon, completely out of the blue.
“Does what hurt?” I replied, half distracted (I was probably playing on my computer). He had been quietly arranging his Matchbox cars into some sort of order he found pleasing.
When you think about the difficult questions children ask, what usually springs to mind are matters of reproduction and mortality. I have to admit I was wholly unprepared for a question of such magnitude, such gravity. It immediately reminded me of an exchange between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse about becoming real.
What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit one day… “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
The skin horse was wise. He had the benefit of time left alone with his thoughts, something which I’ve found slightly lacking in the last few years. “Sometimes it hurts,” I told him, “like when you have so many feelings and your mind doesn’t seem big enough to hold them all.” He pondered this while I kept going, digging myself in deeper. “And sometimes it hurts physically, like when you grow very quickly and your shins hurt. They call that growing pains.”
He whimpered a bit and climbed into my lap.
“How will I learn how to be a grown-up?”
“Well that’s my job. And your daddy and your teachers and your grandmas and everyone around you. We all teach you the skills you need to be a grown up. Is there anything in particular that concerns you?”
“Knives. Cutting with knives,” he replied solemnly.
Finally. A question I can answer with authority. We chatted for a while about the difference between serrated and plain blades and the best way to hold them.
“What about fire? Do I have to be a daddy before I can use fire?”
Oh, my practical boy.
Roughly three years ago I sent my freshly minted two-year-old off to preschool for the first time. I knew he was a bit young for school but I also knew I was placing him in good hands. While he was in school it was easy to dust off many of the signs of growing up — sure he’d potty trained and could now ride a two-wheeler, but we were still driving to the same familiar building every day, still getting hugs from the same teachers.
Tomorrow is Elliott’s last day in preschool. In the fall he kicks off his true academic career, a path of schooling that, for some, doesn’t end for more than two decades. And my heart sings for him. It does. I remember my joy in finding all the new things my grade school teachers had to offer me. Science! Math! Reading! It’s an entire amazing world and I’d no sooner keep him from it than I’d stop letting him go outside.
But if I’m to be honest, there’s a part of me — and it’s not very small — that wants to tear up that kindergarten registration, throw out the backpack and hit the preschool drop-off line next September like nothing ever happened.
I think I’ve been in some sort of denial. Getting married, having kids, traveling — none of that brought home my adulthood. When Elliott asked me about growing up, possibly I had trouble answering because I wasn’t sure I was there yet. But I think I might be now. There’s something about having a kid who’s in elementary school that makes it an undeniable fact. I’m grown up now. And yes, Elliott, it hurts.