Yesterday I was holding a brand-new, wailing baby girl swaddled in her hospital issued striped blanket. Or at least it felt like yesterday. But really, it was three and a half years ago. And as cliché as the saying is, time does fly by. I’m certain that in twenty-years time, I’ll have a similar reflection and wonder where all that time went. The memory of my daughter as a newborn became recently vivid as Elly just started pre-school.
Like pretty much all parental experiences, choosing a pre-school was a first for us. If I had to draw a parallel, choosing a pre-school nowadays feels a bit like what choosing a college was for me. There are so many choices! Except, somehow this choice feels even more daunting if you get it wrong. Gone are the days of the neighborhood house where five or six kids spent a few hours playing blocks and coloring pages. Now pre-schools are touted as the beginning of one’s education. And I suppose rightly so. But it can get to be a bit overwhelming - especially if the decisions made now do have a lasting impact. Silly, in a way, isn’t it? Or is it? Teachers make a big difference in one’s life. As does enjoying school. And this is the beginning of many years of it. So, we want the best shot of getting it "right".
We started looking for our current home when Elly had just turned two. Given that she wouldn’t start school for almost eighteen months, we figured that we would wait until we landed in our new town before we looked into pre-schools. As soon as we moved into our house and our neighbors met Elly, the first words out of their mouths were "You have to get her into The Children’s Place." The Children’s Place is our town’s Montessori and apparently a big hit with the locals. As we shuffled boxes around and shook hands with our neighbors, we ended up hearing it from so many people (including some adult alums of the school), that we decided to look into it.
Our neighbor, June said that she would call the school and put in a word for us. We then called the school ourselves and asked for some information. They suggested that we make an appointment to visit and interview. Interview?! When we were kids, watching Sesame Street and playing with Fisher Price toys were what three-year-olds did. Nowadays, one has to interview to get into preschool. By the time Elly has kids, I suspect there will be some sort of SATs for admission into pre-school.
It was the morning of our appointment. We dressed Elly in an outfit akin to what Laura Ingalls from "Little House on the Prairie" wore, but with the style and panache that Carrie Bradshaw would bring to it. We arrived at the school and met with the director, Mrs. Peluso. She took us around the school to see the classrooms. We were astonished at how in each of these rooms, the children were nearly silent - each of them intently working on some task. I whispered to Greg, "Do they sedate the kids on interview days?" He nudged me to be quiet.
After our tour, Mrs. Peluso gave Elly some crayons and paper and sat her at a desk. She then invited us to sit around a child height table on little chairs. While we adults talked, Greg and I both kept glancing over at Elly. We felt pressure, most likely completely in our own minds, for her to create something epic. As I tried to stay engaged in our interview, I concurrently willed her to draw something that would impress Jackson Pollack or Miro. And for goodness sake, at the absolute minimum, please don’t write on the walls!
Mrs. Peluso went into the pedagogy of Montessori and explained the school’s history. As it turns out, most people start the application process when they first become sexually active. So, it turns out that with Elly being only a year away from admission, we were a little late to the game. I’m kidding about the part of being first sexually active. But I am totally serious, that many people enroll their child when they are still in utero. Crazy, isn’t it?
So against all odds, we decided to formally apply. To extend our anxiety, we wouldn’t find out if she got in for six more months! In this regard, it’s actually more painful than college admission. What if she didn’t get in? What would we do as a backup? So, you got it. We chose a safety school. In today’s world, one actually needs a "safety school" for pre-school. I use the term "safety school" somewhat in a joking way. Because the school that we chose, was also a great school.
Flash-forward to March, and Elly’s letter arrived. I judged the envelope’s size, remembering the similarity to college admissions. I called Greg at work since I knew that I wouldn’t be able to wait to open it. She had been accepted! She may as well have been admitted to Harvard because we were just as excited. Shortly after the acceptance letters went out, the school hosted the annual Spring Fair. We went so that we could meet more families and get further acquainted. They had tons of activities set up including a ginormous bouncy castle structure. I think it was bigger than the first apartment that Greg and I lived in. Elly had a blast! She romped and frolicked and played. I kept telling her, "Elly, this is your new school! You’ll be coming here this fall."
It wasn’t until two days later that I realized the inadvertent monster that I created. A monster even bigger than the bouncy castle. We were driving by the school, now without the Spring Fair fanfare when Elly shouts "That’s my school. It’s gonna be so much fun! They have a big bouncy castle!!" For weeks to come, I worked on undoing damage. "Elly, sweetie. The bouncy castle isn’t going to be there when you go to school. It’s just a special occasion treat." I had visions of her first day of school in September. We would be walking up the driveway, and there I would be holding the hand of an utterly deflated child who thinks, "Man, this school sucks. There’s no bouncy castle or anything." (Hopefully, not in those words. But you get my point.)
Summer came and went, as it always does, and it was time for the first day of school. I dressed Elly, took the requisite pictures and walked her to school. On the first day, parents were invited into the playground with the kids, to ease them in. We were about to climb a ladder by the swing-set, when Elly got bonked in the head with an acorn falling from the tree. "Ow!" she shouted. I checked her out. She was fine. I told her that she got whacked with her good luck acorn, secretly hoping that it was good omen. We met some of her classmates and their parents. Everyone was very kind and welcoming. Many of the kids were returning and others had older siblings who had come before them. We also had already met a few folks from town so that broke the ice a bit more for both Elly and me. Soon, we heard the ringing of a cow bell indicating that it was time to line up. The children were all stood along the fence waiting to be taken into their classrooms. Some were crying, some were smiling. Elly was doing neither. She was just taking it all in - observing her new classmates, watching what the teachers were doing. She was very much her typical self. When it came time for them to go in, we waved to each other and I said "Have fun! I love you." And then it happened. And I knew it would. I got all misty-eyed. I totally had to tough it up. There were other dads present. Already, I was the token gay. I didn’t need to be the crying one, too. But here was my baby girl, starting to go to school five mornings a week. This was it. Her educational journey had begun.
It made me think back to my first day of kindergarten. Having not gone to pre-school, it was my first official day of school. I remember walking there with my mom and her dropping me into our classroom in the basement of the elementary school. As she was about to leave, I said "How about if I just take today off?" My teacher, Miss Haggar scooped me up and encouraged me to come in. And almost instantly, I was fine. Reflecting back on all the years of schooling I’ve had from kindergarten to graduate school, the most meaningful years for me were elementary school and college. And to this day, Miss Haggar and a few of my other elementary teachers are still very dear to me. I even keep in touch with a few of them. They taught me some of the most important lessons in life - how to read, how to do math, how to be kind to people. They were encouraging and supportive. They focused on my strengths and built on my creativity. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Sartano, walked me through the process of getting a copyright in the Library of Congress for a children’s book that I wrote. All these years later and I still hold my elementary teachers in the highest regard. They helped build a foundation and an appreciation for education that made a difference in my life. When I was in sixth grade, I got to help in Miss Haggar’s classroom. I remember crying on my last day of elementary school when I had to say goodbye to her.
Turns out, I was right to cry. Twelve is about the age when one’s gayness starts to "show." I couldn’t care less about the Red Sox but had to have the latest Jordache jeans. Middle school was not filled with the dear, supportive teachers that I had in elementary school. Middle school was the beginning of a number of quite frankly, miserable years, as many of my other fellow gays (and straights will attest). It was like a switch had been flipped. The tenderness and guidance of elementary school teachers was supplanted by my middle school teachers, who would have been better suited as janitors at the Home Depot. They were quicker to point out my effeminate qualities than focus on building me up. Thanks, assholes. Being a pubescent teen isn’t difficult enough without your teachers adding insult to injury. And when you can’t count on the adults playing the role of adult, you know that you’re screwed. I went from being a student who enjoyed school and looked forward to each day to one who dreaded it like the plague. And I bring this up, because it illustrates the difference between good teachers and bad teachers. It’s huge! Outside of one’s parents and family, they are the most influential people in your child’s life.
Greg and I really want Elly to love school. It seems safe to assume that she is enjoying it. One of the first mornings, she woke up at the crack of dawn and tiptoed into our bedroom.
"Daddy," she whispered.
"Yes, Elly," I groggily replied in the darkness of the early autumn morning.
"Is it morning yet?"
I glanced at the clock. It was 5:47 AM. "I suppose it sort of is, Elly."
"Then I can wake up?"
"I guess you can." As my feet hit the floor, I anticipated how long it would be before I could get to my coffee. "But, Elly. It’s not quite time for school yet. We still have a few more hours to go."
"Oh, ok. Let’s go have some breakfast and then it will be almost time to go."
"Ok, I want Weetabix."
And, I have to say, I was looking forward to going to the school, too. As much as it’s important for Elly to fit in and have a good time, it’s also important for us to fit in as a family. Each morning at drop-off, I stop and talk with the parents there. Later that morning, I was chatting with Gabby, a mom with whom I had gotten friendly over the week. As we were talking, Gabby noted "I don’t think I’ve met your wife." Having learned through the years that the best way to deal with the "wife" question is immediately, I quickly replied "I’m sure you haven’t. Actually, I have a husband."
She quickly came back with "Oh, that’s great. I’m a democrat." We both chuckled. I can tell that we’ll be good friends.
Another way, I can tell that Elly loves school is because her favorite pretend play is now to play teacher. One afternoon, as we were having a snack, she said,
"Daddy, I want to be a teacher."
"That’s great, Elly. I think you’d be an excellent teacher."
"Tomorrow, when I’m bigger, will you send me to be a teacher?"
She lays down blankets as rugs and then gives lessons to her dolls. Cindy, her favorite doll, features prominently in her lessons. And Elly always reminds me that "You shouldn’t disturb someone when they’re doing their work." It’s so sweet to watch her circle the "classroom" and check on the "children."
A few days later she asked me for a clipboard. I knew exactly where she was going with this request. I got her one. And in my mom’s wedge heeled espadrilles, she grabbed the board and told me that "All of we teachers have one of these boards." Then she addressed her class "Now come on kids! Hang your coats on the hook."
I hope that Elly’s excitement and her love of learning sticks with her. Every time I see her with her teacher, Mrs. Ameran, I see me as a boy with Miss Haggar. I hope that Elly draws the same inspiration from Mrs. Ameran as I do from my first teacher. Watching her emulate Mrs. Ameran, makes me feel proud. Her actions are always loving and kind. Her words always gentle and sweet even when she’s being firm with "the children." At three, it’s way too early to know if Elly will be a teacher. If that’s what the future holds for her, I’m sure she will be a brilliant one. The most important thing is for her to love learning. So far, I think we’re off to a good start.
And as I’m typing this column, I just got an email reminding me about the "Flower Schedule." Hmmm, Flower Schedule? It turns out that each week a parent is assigned to bring in a bouquet of fresh flowers for the children to arrange. Yup, it looks like we picked the right school. For all of us.