- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

I have had a number of tearful moments throughout the past few years when I have realized my youngest child my baby has been growing away from me.
I cried the first day I left her at nursery school, watching from my rearview mirror as she walked, hand-in-hand with her new teacher, into the school.
I cried the first day the big yellow bus took her off to kindergarten. I felt the pang of separation far more than she did. She had been waiting her whole life to follow her older siblings onto that bus and into the system that was designed to guide them out of my home and into the world.
I even got teary-eyed this year when my daughter began first grade. Now she's really grown up, I thought as I waved her off to her first year of full-day academics.
My daughter has changed a lot this year. She has learned to read and delights in using her new skill on road signs, cereal boxes and newspaper headlines. Her dinner-time conversations show she is quickly becoming part of the bigger world. The other week, right after Super Tuesday, she asked me, "If Bush wants to be president, why is he just a sweeper?" referring to a newspaper headline about his clean sweep in the primaries.
Despite her new skills, until now my daughter's favorite environment has been her home, and her parents have been the most important people in her life. But this week, an event occurred that showed me my daughter had taken a baby step out of the house.
My daughter called me "Miss Brokate" instead of Mommy. Her hand shot in the air at the dinner table, and she called out her teacher's name. I gave her the floor anyway.
It's not as obvious a moment as that first day on the school bus, but it's a milestone just the same when a child's school life grows so big it spills over into the home.
I mentioned the incident to a friend, who also has a first-grader. She was doing homework with her son, and as he grew frustrated with the exercise, he used a tone with her that was less than respectful.
"Do you act this way at school?" my friend asked. "Would you talk that way to your teacher?"
"Of course not," her son assured her. "She's my teacher."
That's what happens in those early school years. Children's loyalties are pulled in two directions. They are still connected to their mother at home, but increasingly, they are pulled toward their teacher at school.
When I was in third grade, I was placed in the most difficult position of all. My mother from home was my teacher at school. Trained as a teacher, my mother returned to her field part time when my brother and I entered school. She was a substitute teacher and often was assigned to our school.
I thought that was great until she was assigned to my class. It was a temporary assignment. My teacher had had a shower accident. I think she was scalded, but for years I envisioned a "Psycho"-like trauma. Either way, it must have been serious, because she spent a few months on leave, and my mother spent a few months as my teacher.
It was horrible. I was doubly doomed, at home and at school. I could no longer skim through homework assignments or come to class unprepared. Plus, my mother, wanting to avoid any accusations of nepotism, made sure she didn't cut me any slack in the classroom. I was the last to be praised and the first to be corrected. I struggle with cursive writing to this day because I was too confused about the home-school role reversal to pay attention during those lessons.
In a slight that could merit months of therapy sessions if ever I get around to therapy my mother once offered my friends and classmates a ride home during an afternoon thunderstorm, while I walked home in the rain.
One day I raised my hand and, in my desire to be recognized, called out, "Mrs. Mommy, Mrs. Mommy." It took me years to live that down.
That's why I didn't mind when my daughter called me "Miss Brokate." After all, she still calls me Mommy when I tuck her in bed each night.
Paula Gray Hunker, who works from home, is the mother of four children, the bemused wife of her amazing (but true) husband and a staff writer for the Family Times. She welcomes comments, suggestions and stories from her readers. She can be reached by mail at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; by phone at 202/636-4897; by fax at 610/351-1791; or by e-mail ([email protected]).

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