One of my early memories is a benign enounter with an older kid in front of my school. It happend after the bell, as students siphoned out of the school to get picked up by their parents, or as was more common in the 1970’s, to walk or ride a bike home.
I went to Pony Express elementary school, and I was in either kindergarten or first grade: a little fella. I was youngish for my grade with a late September birthday, but not freakishly so. I was young enough that I started the school year at one age, then quickly turned the age most of the other kids already were. Today in California a child is required to be five years old by September 1 in order to attend kindergarten. If they had the same rule back then I would not have started kindergarten with my friend Lance in 1974, but with my other friend Chris in 1975. Chris lived across the street and was only one grade below me in school, but one grade is a lot when you’re little. He seemed like such a baby, despite the fact that he drove quarter-midget cars in weekend races, while I only played with toy race cars.
In the last couple decades, there seems to have been an arms race to start one’s kid in kindergarten at an older and older age. But when I was little, parents tried to thrust their kids into kindergarten at the earliest opportunity; I had a number of friends with December birthdays who had started kindergarten at four years old, which is practically a criminal offense now. When we sent Vincent, with his August birthday, to kindergarten in 2000 he was one of the very youngest in his class, if not the youngest. There were kids turning seven the summer after kindergarten, which seemed weird to me, considering I – and later my daughter Josie – didn’t turn seven until I was already in second grade. A fellow parent at Josie’s preschool remarked to Amy once that it was so hard to know what to do with an April birthday when it came to the kindergarten decision. AN APRIL BIRTHDAY! It’s like saying it’s hard to know what to do when the traffic signal turns green.
Josie, being our youngest child and desperate to join her brothers as mature school-goers, was without question (in her mind) going to kindergarten at four years old in the fall of 2006 despite her late November birthday. She had a number of friends with fall birthdays, and Amy and I tried to rally the other parents to all send our girls off to kindergarten together. The plan actually kind of worked. Now we have to get our heads around the fact that in a couple years we’ll be sending Josie to college at seventeen, and she won’t even turn eighteen until months after that. Oy.
We weren’t participating in the arms race, but plenty were. Malcom Gladwell wrote about the relative age effect when it came to hockey players and their birthdays, and as parents we witnessed it throughout our kids’ educations. Certainly some kids aren’t ready for kindergarten at five and do better by waiting a year. But there were a couple of decades where the decision to hold one’s kid back a year was simply, if unconsciously, a desire to ensure one’s offspring was one of the big, cool, kids and not some booger-eating itchy-butt baby who couldn’t tie his shoes. (But the secret is the booger-eaters catch up!)
The memory that brought me here was of one of those big, cool kids. His identity is lost to posterity, but in my mind he was the ultimate older, cooler kid, like Kelly Leak of The Bad News Bears. All long hair, steely green eyes, motorcycles and cigarettes. He was a total stranger. After school one day, when I was either four or five or six years old, this kid out of the blue walks past me and says “Is your name Chip?” I stuttered “Y-yeah…” The dude yells “CHIPS AHOY!!!,” laughs and ambles away. He couldn’t have been older than ten, but I’m pretty certain he jumped on his motorcycle, got Tatum O’Neal to jump on behind him, lit a cigarette and rode away, still yelling “Chips Ahoy!!!!!”
I didn’t know who he was then, I don’t remember ever seeing him again, I don’t know how he knew my name or why he got such a kick out of it. I didn’t even know if he was making fun me. All I knew was he was older, cooler, and he definitely didn’t start kindergarten any younger than seven.