The end of elementary school - for daughter and mom

As the band leader, Mr. Jones, who reminds me of TV's late Mr. Rogers, turns to address the audience, the din in the elementary school auditorium hushes.

I sit in the first row of tables facing the stage, my back to the others so I can see my youngest child, Mia, who holds her clarinet on her lap. She wears a frilly skirt and her hair is combed neatly, held in place by pearly barrettes. She has an awkward look on her face, as if she knows everyone is staring and she isn't sure how to act.

Happy-sad tears well in my eyes, and I smile despite them. This is Mia's last year in elementary school, and tonight will probably be the last time I come to this room, this homey auditorium decorated with bean pictures and lopsided murals created in colorful tempera paints.

The tiny band, which consists of five clarinets and a trombone played by fifth-graders who have graduated to the honors level, begins to play a snappy rendition of "Mexican Jumping Bean."

My daughter looks fine now, with her eyes intently focused on her music. The sheet sits on the stand she shares with a fellow clarinet player who also wears a frilly skirt.

When they finish the tune, the audience claps. My hands add a few solo beats after the rest of the applause ends. Mr. Jones pivots on his black dress shoes to announce the next song in his friendly Mr. Rogers voice. Then he turns back to his band, his sticks held high, and the players once again raise their instruments to the ready position.

As the band plays, the din of conversation grows louder. PTA mothers and others are catching up on things at this event, which will end with thanks and rewards for school volunteers.

I've certainly volunteered my time over the years. As my five children made their way up through the grades from K to 5, I've done everything from field-trip driving to tutoring slow readers.

I've decided I won't stay for the bouquet and accolades. In all the years my children have gone to this school, I've always received my awards the next day, brought home in the arms of one of them.

I wouldn't be here tonight if it weren't for Mia playing in the band. I've got a million things to do at home. Getting rewarded publicly for my service feels like a waste of time.

As the band plays, my mind nervously wanders back to my day. My 18-year-old was in a car accident. He's fine, but we spent hours worrying about body-work bids and what this would do to our insurance rates.

Ironically, on this same day, jumbled in with that wrench in the gears, I scheduled a driver's license test for my second son, who recently turned 16. I worry a bit more.

The band moves on to "Clair de Lune," a safe, jaunty standby for elementary band students. It feels warm and fuzzy to hear the tune, played in this friendly auditorium by this small group.

In the fall, my daughter will move on to middle school. The auditorium is bigger there. No bean pictures or brightly colored murals decorate the pale gray walls. It hosts science fairs and history-night special events, but is used more for after-school detention than anything else.

I look up at Mia on the stage. Her clarinet is raised to her perfectly poised lips, the music streaming out as she diligently follows the notes on her sheet. I wish I could just stop the clock. This is her last time in the elementary-school auditorium, too, I realize. She'll probably see the middle-school auditorium only for special events. It wouldn't be like her to get detention.

But I realize she'll see kids who do. In middle school, a large segment of the student population seems to go through a phase where teasing and harassing other kids are considered "cool."

I clap at the end of the tune, and tap my foot through the band's final song, a simplified rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." My mobile phone rings.

From the number displayed on the little screen, I can tell that it's my older daughter. She's calling me from her cellphone, wanting me to hurry home. I know that she has a skate date with her boyfriend tonight, and wants me to drive.

But as Mia tromps down the stage steps toward me, I turn the power off and shove my mobile phone back into my purse.

"When this is over, let's go out for a special dinner, just you and me," I say.

Mia readily agrees, and I slide over, making room for her on the bench beside me.

I'll stay for the entire event tonight. I'll get my bouquet and accolades. I can go home to all the others' needs later. It won't be long, I muse, till Mia is carrying a cellphone, too, getting a boyfriend and driving a car.

For now, I want to savor these fleeting moments while she's still a sweet, budding bundle of innocence with her clarinet, wearing her frilly dress in this oh-so-familiar elementary-school auditorium for the very last time.

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