Danny and I had our semi-annual parent teacher conference this week at Clara's preschool. We are in love with this place, the Maple Street School, located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens. As usual, we pretty much wanted to curl up on the slightly dirty circle time rug, and weep in gratitude for the class and for Clara's wonderful teachers.
At Maple Street, the kids do the usual stuff. They play at a sand table, raid the dress up corner, and paint. But they also keep journals, sing songs about sea stars, visit puddles in the park to look for evidence of animal life, take a field trip to the local supermarket fish department, learn the difference between zigzag and curly lines, waddle like penguins to a calypso beat, practice capoeira (that was a new one on us), make mango sticky rice and paper robots with visiting parents, construct family trees that look like rainbow-colored algae (and, in Clara's case, include both her blood relatives and her gay godfathers and unrelated friends-as-family). It's Progressive-with-a-capital-P, child-led learning. We want to keep Clara there until she is ready for college
My upcoming book, The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, F**king Up & the First Two Years is pretty much described in the title. It will conclude at Clara's second birthday party. But this blog is about my parenting and life now. Clara is almost three and a half years old. When I started thinking about the book, she was walking and talking, but she hadn't become the person yet who we are meeting afresh and learning about every day. She had personality, of course, but she was still more like a hamster than this Queen-Elsa-obsessed, chocolate-chip-cookie-begging, bed-jumper. Those first two years were very much about my process, as a new mother, rather than hers as a kid. Ergo, a book about my mother's group.
Clara started preschool the week after she turned two. We weren’t worried about her adjustment to the new routine. She'd had many (so many) babysitters, and we'd dropped her off at a local play space a bunch of times, and she's a naturally sociable girl. We knew she’d love school.
It was fine, a good-enough neighborhood place. The kids glued macaroni to outlines of letters on construction paper, played at the playground, and read books. Sometimes, because we (apparently) live in the hipster Brooklyn, they'd do yoga or talk about organic food.
People who live outside of New York City love to ask us about the schools process here. As I've never had a child any place else, I can't really speak to it in contrast to less populated, intense places. There are many choices, with different application deadlines, requirements, etc. Some people make spreadsheets to keep track of them all. The only time I open Excel on my computer is to do my taxes, so I'm not gonna make a freaking spreadsheet. When I visited Clara’s first school way back when she was one, I thought it looked creative and nurturing, and I figured I could trust my judgment. I didn’t want to get caught up in the “crazy New York school thing.” But my gut was wrong.
The teachers were so cold that Danny and I would spend time every day parsing whether they liked us, based on our three minutes of interaction that morning. They never told us how Clara was doing, beyond her unwillingness to nap. The activities felt rote and unimaginative. All the kids’ art looked the same, and we worried there was no coloring outside the lines, literally or metaphorically.
Danny and I are both teachers. Between us, we’ve taught at colleges from Harvard to City College of New York, from elementary school classrooms in the Bronx to after school programs at the New York Philharmonic. We’ve worked with brilliant teachers in “failing” schools and lackluster instructors at the most elite institutions. Not only are we active participants in the world of education, we really love schools and regard all educators as our colleagues. We think of our own classrooms as communities, places to explore, grow, and experience change. When we didn’t feel those qualities at Clara’s first school, we decided to switch.
A few trusted friends' kids already went to Maple Street. On our tour, Danny asked the director, “What do you do when a child doesn’t nap?” When she answered, “We have nappers, resters, and schmoozers,” she said. “Every child is different.” He didn’t believe her. “I think she’s for real,” I told him on the subway ride home. “Well then, what do we have to do to get Clara there?” he said. When, a few months later, we got our admissions email, we were so excited. Also grateful -- that we knew enough about schools to understand the right fit for our child, that we were able to take the time and resources to research and find the best place.
Next year, when we apply to kindergarten, will be different. I won't use a spreadsheet, but I will probably make a list on a legal pad. The New York City school system is currently in a great state of flux. Families with advantages -- whether financial, geographic, educational, or all three -- benefit enormously from the "school choice" model. Danny and I will visit a zillion schools -- public, charter, magnet, private (along with filling out the super-no-fun financial aid applications) -- apply to as many of them as we can, and cross our fingers again. We’ll use every tool we have to ensure Clara will go to the best possible place for her. And I can imagine already that I'll get angry, because everyone should have the resources we do. And they don’t.
Today, I won't think about kindergarten. I just want to be grateful that my baby, who daily becomes more of her own little creature, will still be in a place so rich in learning and love, where she'll feel comfortable belting out her own songs about monsters, or where her teachers will praise her painting of a single thick, bold crimson line on a piece of newsprint.
But tomorrow, because I live in a community, and write about community, and know the importance of community... Tomorrow, before I make that legal pad list, I'll probably get pretty mad.