Elizabeth wakes "super-extra early." Carting her mismatched pair of stuffed-toy dogs, she gets me up, too. We have an hour and a half to get ready for kindergarten.

Getting up early's no problem (staying up past 10's the bigger challenge for me), and I'm tremendously proud of my interesting little person and how excited she is about getting started. Having myself grown up surrounded by a gang of brothers and boy cousins, every weekday morning now offers fresh anthropological insights into the 5-year-old female fashion sense.

At least until junior high I wouldn't have minded if Mom sent me to school dressed in untanned hides or unpatched Levi's. Despised the stupid fuzzy caps with ear flaps she made me wear in the cold - funny how often they got lost - but otherwise didn't give a damn.

Increasingly, Elizabeth does care, and I can almost begin to imagine in my dim way how from a young age some girls and women regard clothing as an art form, a statement of individuality.

The great marketing monster has absorbed the fact we have such a girl and amongst the bales of mail order catalogs pouring into our post office box are many devoted to children's clothes. It wasn't long ago - merely 30 years - my mother reacted in shocked anger upon learning I had paid $12 for a shirt at the Bon Marche, shaming me that my dad had never paid so much for a shirt in his life. (Recalling Dad's taste in shirts, I don't doubt it.) Looking through a catalog this morning I see a little T-shirt for $16: for a doll. The matching girl-sized shirt is $24.95.

Lamentable as American consumerism is, it's fun having a decent-paying job and being able to buy my only daughter things she likes, though heaven forbid ever outfits with matching dolls. In any event, she leans more to bright, bold Scandinavian patterns and designs. She's hated lace and frilly girlie things from age two.

All this might only be cute if it also didn't highlight one of the dirty secrets of starting school, the extent to which kids categorize one another based on what they wear, how well they can throw a ball, what their parents do, how bashful they are, how outgoing, how smart, how strong.

It may fairly be said this is the human condition, that we all consciously or unconsciously make these assessments a hundred times a day.

But when children start being pigeonholed by one another and adults at the age of five, it amounts to a sad pruning of possibilities. I'm all for recognizing and rewarding merit, but too often kids and grownups alike are poor judges of what makes a person valuable. Despite idealistic teachers, by its very nature school too often becomes a place where kids become convinced of their limitations instead of being awakened to their possibilities. They're pressured to blend in, instead of encouraged to stand out. It irritates me to no end.

So, I'm probably more nervous about kindergarten than Elizabeth is.

On her first day, she pulls on a backpack almost large enough to fit herself into, and waits with Donna and me for the school bus she has longed to ride for years. I remember shedding a tear my first day of school when Mama left me with Mrs. Moore. Not Elizabeth - she climbs aboard with gusto. It isn't that she's fearless; a child's life is never as simple and innocent as it appears or as a daddy would like it to be. From kidnappers and house fires to illness and death, she's sadly aware of the perils of existence. She almost seems to like the idea of darkness and danger at a safe distance, turning with endless fascination to some of Grimm's scariest fairy tales at bedtime. Maybe they help place her own struggles and fears into perspective.

So I do what every parent must, turning her loose into a world that won't love her as well as I do, where there are some wicked people, if not wicked witches. I expect her to do fine, but I don't want anyone judging my girl, least all herself. And I hope maybe together we can learn to be less judgmental of others.

Have fun, sweetie. Be who you are and all you want to be.

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