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David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ Got Me Through My Son’s First Days of School

David Bowie was almost definitely not thinking of grade school when he wrote the song. But it works. 

First grade started a few weeks ago here in New York City and I’ve been dropping my tow-headed 5-year-old son, Tony, off in the mornings.  I watch this little boy and his large red backpack cross the schoolyard from the far side of a chain link fence. There are other parents there, who, like me, cling Sarah Connor-style, to said fence. My son, born in December, is young for his grade (yeah, we fucked up) and he often does not want to peel himself from me and leave. Frequently I feel like I have to “White Fang” him, which results in him crying pitiably on the asphalt as I watch surreptitiously from behind a dog-piss soaked tree.

Out there on the sidewalk, other parents talk to each other. Sometimes, because I’m a class parent, I do too. But if I can, I slip on my headphones and listen to David Bowie’s Space Oddity on repeat.

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

The song, Bowie’s first major hit and the stand-out on the wondrously strange David Bowie, is superficially about a doomed astronaut and actually about a man’s inability to reach out through space to touch, contact, comfort, hug, save, or otherwise connect with other human beings. Growing up it was the Bowie song that brought me closest to tears. There is something so tragic about Tom floating in his tin can far above the moon that speaks, obviously, to the alienation so often coterminous with adolescence. Now, it makes me cry again.

Tony stands indecisively at the free-throw line of the basketball court painted on the asphalt. None of his friends are there yet. The other children are older and already playing games of tag or just running around in dyads and triads. They form little moving constellations, wriggling and yelling. But Tony’s steps are tentative. Because I’ve known him since he was born, I know, with no room for doubt, that in his mind he is assessing who might be friendly. He is wondering whether he can or should put his backpack down and join in. And he is scared. That much is clear even to a stranger.

He is scared, in a way to which I can relate, of being rejected. He makes a couple of tentative feints, but these fizzle, so he wonders a bit more.

“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.”

Tony attaches himself, lamprey-style, to two older boys in the middle of some sort of tag-like game. Playing tag, for stranger children, is perhaps the easiest game into which to insinuate oneself. After all, the difference is almost undetectable between being “it” and other children running from you. This tiny avenue of plausible deniability is almost too much to watch. The very human construction of a palatable narrative of one’s self, the scramble for purchase among one’s peers, the impulse toward connection with fellow humans, these moments are the heartbreaking notes of a bittersweet symphony. The other children run away from Tony and he follows them but it is clear that they are not actually playing tag.  Even from the sidewalk I can see the disappointment wash over his face, leaving his features blank as sand at the waterline. He stops for a second and scans the yard. He is relentless and brave and I cling to the chain link now wishing with all of my heart I could go in there and hug him again. But, of course, I can’t.  He has floated off again, to try again, and he is beyond my reach.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?

A few minutes before the whistle is blown and the kids line up in their respective classes, I see Tony by the stairwell. He’s running like a madman. He is flushed with joy. Two older boys and a girl are shrieking as he chases them. Finally he catches up to one of the boys, who is wearing a tiny black motorcycle jacket. Tony tags him on his shoulder and runs off. The kid spins around and high-tails it after Tony. And just like that, Tony is woven into the game. He has become part of this little world that I have no control over, for good or for ill, from which I can not protect him nor should I protect him.

The bell rings and I turn away. And there’s Bowie singing me out:

Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”