Simply by looking at complete strangers yesterday — the first day of school in Fayette County — I could just about tell the age of their children or what grade those children were entering, or whether they, like me, were well past first-day-of-school trauma.
The first-timers were the most obvious.
Parents who were sending their children off to kindergarten for the first time had darting eyes that searched the faces of other adults for comfort or a sign that would validate the vacuum that had suddenly developed deep in their stomachs. They sought guidance in dealing with the fears, the uncertainties and the loneliness that lingered after leaving their children in the midst of other children who didn't appear to be as nice.
I noticed those parents also carried their cell phones in their hands just in case.
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Parents of first-time middle and high school students were jittery, but they breathed deeper and their phones were tucked away.
Those parents whose children knew the ropes and who had attended the same school the previous year, simply looked tired. Some had nervous tics.
I knew they were the ones who had tried to introduce unwilling, near-lifeless tweens and teens to a sunrise with only a modicum of success. Or they had dared to challenge the clothing their children had chosen to wear because of the wrinkles, the holes or the lack of material involved.
After their children had caught the bus, the parents found lunch money still lying on the dresser or a new book bag hidden in a corner.
At work, those parents growled if spoken to, denied having children and made hotel reservations so they wouldn't have to go through that again this morning.
The last category of parents — in which I belong — is failing miserably in our attempt to look less than giddy. Vicki Mitchell — whose only child, Lauren, 17, graduated in the spring — isn't even trying to hide her smile.
"I told you I'm going to have a party for me," Mitchell said. "Nobody's going to be needing breakfast, and I don't have to tell anyone to get their books and backpack together. And if they don't, I don't have to worry about that, either."
We parents who no longer have children in school realized school was starting only because of the numerous school supplies on display in stores we frequented. Admittedly, for me, there was an initial chill. This is my second year of freedom and still I sat straight up in bed when I heard a morning TV news anchor commenting on the start of school Wednesday.
My fear stemmed from the fleeting memory of my getting three alert and well-fed children to school on time, nine months out of a year, for 26 long years. For the most part, they had their books, completed homework and signed papers in tow. Most of the time they even had lunch money.
Quickly, though, I remembered I was past all that. I only have to write checks for tuition now. I'm broke, but I still have my sanity.
Mitchell said she awoke Wednesday thinking something was missing.
"I was wondering if I forgot something, and then I realized, no, I hadn't," she said. "I don't have anybody in school." I visualized her performing the traditional happy dance.
Those of us who have big smiles on our faces don't have to sit in long lines of traffic snaking around a school as kids are dropped off or picked up. We don't have to fight to get kids in or out of bed, on or off computers, or away from TVs, game consoles or phones.
We don't have to forgo the peace of midweek dinner invitations in favor of the humiliation served up by unsolvable geometry problems. And we no longer have to bake 36 cupcakes for a class snack, serve hot dogs, popcorn, dill pickles and Cokes at concession stands or be coerced into helping with a science project no one wants to do.
We are free, and the more we hear the horror stories of our neighbors and co-workers, the wider our smiles become.
With very little encouragement, we can break into that happy dance.
I'm sorry. I got lost in my own joy for a moment. Please forgive me.
Mitchell said this is the beginning of a new adventure for her. Lauren will attend Kentucky State University on full scholarship, leaving her mother to watch from afar.
"Like I said," Mitchell reminded me. "I've got money and free time. I'm having a party."
We really, really do sympathize with the anxious moments, the uncertainties, the desire to protect and nurture a bit longer, and the longing for it all to end soon that other parents still must endure.
We celebrate because that image is in our rearview mirrors.
I'm broke, yes, but growing fonder of beans and peanut butter every day. In return, I don't have to attend another teacher conference or hear how none of the homework I helped with made it to school.
The Lord never gives you more than you can bear.