First published in The Age in 2008.

Throughout last year Ellis, my not-quite-Prep child, was repeatedly peppered with questions about Prep: “When are you going to Prep? Where will you go to Prep? Are you looking forward to Prep?” The queries came in the post office queue, at his brothers’ school, on the neighbourhood swings, even on holiday on Fraser Island. Without understanding exactly what Prep was, he grew to realise that it would mark a significant fork in the road from his previous pre-school life.

As his 4-year-old kinder year wound down, the pre-Prep preparation really cranked up. At kindy pick-up, parents could be heard discussing schools, adjustments to be made, and the challenge ahead. Children were regularly asked their feelings about the impending Prep.

Sometime in late November Ellis had a visit to his new school with his kindy teacher. I guess you could call that his post-kindy pre-Prep orientation. This was followed by his two official Prep orientation mornings, complete with full uniform and empty school bag on his back. By this time he was desperate to start Prep and asked me to create a (very long) calendar to count down the days until he started.

The summer dragged by. Finally, almost anti-climactically, school began. He marched off to Prep and we began the slow, steady 7-week crawl to full-length days. By the time he left home for his first 9-3:30pm day I was ready to uncork the champagne. But at least he was, well, very prepared. He slotted right into the school routine and—apart from the occasional attempts at “I think I’ll stay home from school today and watch TV”—he has been happy and settled.

But, meanwhile, on the other side of our house another story had been unfolding. Somewhere in the midst of sending Ellis to Prep, my eldest son, Aidan, started secondary school.

I’m not sure whose fault it was really, probably mine, being his mother and all that. I don’t blame the school. We did get a few letters from them last year (and at least a bill or two) and I’m nearly certain he attended an orientation day of some kind or other. Of course, of course, we did the mandatory book and uniform purchase. Heck, we went whole hog and bought the computer as well.

However, nowhere in the small print of any of this were we warned what an enormous adjustment was ahead. Something like, “Beware, Year 7 may be damaging to your health.” Or, “Year 7 is closer than it appears”. Even just a simple, “Warning: Year 7 should be consumed in small doses” would have been nice. At least then I would have been on the lookout for signs of a problem.

His first day, a Friday, seemed to go fairly smoothly. That is, once I rented a moving van to deliver him, his twenty kilos of new books (two large boxes), computer and stationery for the entire school year to the front door of the school. But that night he started having difficulty getting to sleep. The first full week was intensely stressful for him, with worries about class schedules, computer malfunctions and uniform issues. The next week disaster struck: he couldn’t find his sports shorts and ended up wearing, of all things, his mum’s black shorts instead.

As time went by, things just seemed to be more difficult. In addition to getting around the school, he had to get there. That meant train tickets and schedules. Plus, assembly on Wednesday, sports uniform on Thursday, blazer on Wednesday, early ending on Monday and Tuesday with a late start on Wednesday, school cricket training on Thursday (including all the gear), trumpet on Monday and alternate Thursdays and Fridays. Oh, and that brings up the issue of the nasty two-weekly schedule, which effectively scotched any attempts at memorising the calendar of events.

Several weeks into the year we attended an Open Night at the school for parents. A small group of us met with one of the teachers who commented on how well the kids in her class seemed to be settling in to the new school. Several parents snorted with surprise. The woman next to me nearly fell off her chair at the comment “What? My son is completely overwhelmed,” she puffed, regaining her balance. “My daughter says she doesn’t want to go anymore,” another parent added. None of them were coping any better than Aidan. The teacher reassured us that this was perfectly normal for the first few weeks of Year 7. Why hadn’t I heard this before? Is Year 7 a rite of passage through which we must shove our previously happy, unsuspecting Year 6 children?

A month or so later he said offhandedly, “Mum, primary school was a lot more fun than this. I sort of wish I could go back.”

And then the penny dropped for me. The beginning of Year 7 marked the end of an era for him. He was making the step—lunge—from childhood to adolescence, and it felt like it was happening overnight. In retrospect, I can see the telltale hints scattered about, all pointing in the same direction if I had acknowledged them—the size 10 shoes, post-cricket training odours, growing independence. But now his school had cemented this change, closing the gate behind him, by demanding a level of responsibility and organisation impossible from a child.

With hindsight, the transition to Prep, although much heralded in advance, was barely a bend in a well-trodden path. While the shift to year 7, on the other hand, plonked my unwary son straight on to life’s motorway, accelerating him into adolescence and adulthood.

I guess the change had to come at some point. I only wish I had been more prepared.