When AJ Hodgkins woke up Tuesday morning, it was still dark outside. He came down the stairs of his home in New Market, walked into the kitchen and leaped into the arms of his dad, Andrew Hodgkins.

It was a big day for both, as well as AJ’s mom, Becca Hodgkins, who was standing nearby holding a cup of coffee.

“I should have worn waterproof mascara,” she said.

In two short hours, AJ, 5, would be getting on a school bus and taking his first steps into New Market Elementary School as a kindergartner, along with thousands of other Frederick County Public Schools students marking the first day of the 2019-2020 school year.

When asked how he was feeling about his first day, AJ looked up sleepily from the plate of waffles in front of him and gave a strong thumbs-up.

He was ready.

“I’m not worried about him. He’s been ready for this forever,” Becca said. She and Andrew had been mentally preparing their oldest son to start school for a while.

“For a year, we’ve been trying to tell him about it and how it’s a big step,” Becca said. “But it’s sad to think he’s so much older now. Over the past year, he’s lost all semblance of a baby.”

Andrew, who works as a school psychologist for Baltimore City Public Schools, said he was excited but nervous.

“I see kindergartners start every day, but I just want to make sure [AJ] has a good day,” Andrew said.

For the rest of the year, AJ will be dropped off at the elementary school by his parents for a before-school program, but for the first day, they decided to let him experience the school bus.

After playing a tennis game on the Wii console in the living room and hugging his younger brother, Nolan, AJ walked up the street to the bus stop.

Carrying a large blue backpack and lunchbox, he posed for pictures on his front doorstep with a sign reading “AJ’s first day of kindergarten” along with “when I grow up I want to be a ninja warrior teacher.”

“It’s cool and I like how it looks,” AJ said about becoming a ninja warrior teacher as he did a spin-jump off the steps.

At the bus stop, AJ met up with his best friend, Olivia, who was placed in the same class this year.

“AJ, what do you have for lunch?” she asked.

“Strawberries and yogurt,” AJ replied. He also had pasta salad and fruit snacks, Becca said.

A few minutes before the bus arrived, AJ got a pep talk from his dad, just in case any nerves were starting to creep up.

“You know where everything is because you were a summer camper there,” Andrew reminded AJ, along with telling him not to forget his lunchbox on the bus.

As the school bus pulled up, AJ gave his parents big hugs and climbed aboard. Becca craned her neck to catch a glimpse of her son as he took his first journey to school.

No tears were shed until after the bus pulled away.

“I wasn’t crying, but now I am,” Becca said. “You’re just worried, you know? ... But it’s exciting.”

After getting off the bus at his new school, AJ was led to his classroom and met his teacher, Renee White.

She greeted each student individually as they came in and showed them to their seats. New Market Elementary has staggered start dates for kindergartners, meaning a portion of the class comes Tuesday, another portion Wednesday, and another on Thursday. AJ and eight of his classmates started school Tuesday but will not return until Friday when all 22 children will come together for the first time.

According to Kevin Cuppett, curriculum, instruction and innovation executive for FCPS, all kindergarten classes in the county have staggered start dates unless the school requests an exception for a specific reason.

White said the staggered dates keep students from feeling overwhelmed on the first day and helps her begin to build relationships.

“At this point, it’s a lot of building ... getting to know one another and making those relationships that are going to carry you through the school year,” White said.

On the agenda for day one — a school tour and scavenger hunt to help the newcomers learn the building. White said they will also learn school rules and share stories about their summer adventures.

“Just like the kids, I’m very excited,” White said.

When the school bell rang to mark the beginning of the day, the students stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Afterward, White invited them to a big rug in the back of the classroom, which was decorated with pictures and letters.

After shoving his crayons back in the box, AJ walked over to the rug.

“Boys and girls, welcome to kindergarten,” White said. “Who knows my name?”

AJ raised his hand immediately.

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