My hands shielded my eyes as I pressed my forehead to the glass at the local Montessori preschool. I knocked on the window once, then twice – louder – but no one looked up. The children, dressed in bright floral dresses and knee socks, went on scribbling and molding clay. They wouldn’t let me in! I woke up in a sweat, rolled over and poked my husband in the hip.
“Oh my God, honey, what are we going to do?”
Before I had children, I envisioned certain parenting difficulties: potty training, say, or discussions about drugs, maybe prom dress neckline negotiations.
I figured preschool was in the bag. A woman happy to do extensive research who lives in a small town with a good network of schools ought to find preschool enrollment fairly simple. Right? Turns out, even if you don’t live in Manhattan or L.A., the preschool admissions process is an ordeal. Two years ago, I left my snoozing toddler at home with Daddy to take my pre-dawn place beside several girlfriends in a fledgling line outside Gainesville Country Day School. My choice had been easy: Country Day was an intimate, easygoing school that encouraged independent learning. I liked the teacher’s accent (and the way she bent down to the children when she spoke to them). Sasha’s friends planned to attend; she would, too. Five a.m. was early enough to guarantee a spot at the first-come-first-serve school.
Sasha’s first year at school went as well as I expected. When I asked about her day, her answers earned my approval.
“Cole spit juice on me and I told him to stop but he didn’t,” she would say.
“I don’t like juice, but Cole is my friend.”
Or: “I didn’t have fun at school today. But I do like the books my teacher read. And I like music class. And also the playground.”
“Do you want to go back on Thursday?”
“Thursday? Um . . . probably.”
Other moms reported occasional trouble. One friend feared her son learned more about playing war than ABC’s. One of Sasha’s buddies came home with harsh red bite marks from an anonymous culprit.
But Sasha happily toted home glittering art projects and sang tunes she learned in music class.
Then, when I was six weeks pregnant with our third child, Country Day changed its approach to cut-off dates, crowding my two-year-old out of their fall class. And my older daughter’s summer birthday would force her to skip Pre-K.
Slowly, hormonally, I came unhinged. I had counted on a few mornings each week with just the baby and me at home. We would nap blissfully together; I could clean the house – or take a shower! Besides, Mimi begged to go to preschool. Each time we dropped Sasha off, she wailed, “Mimi go to school! My teacher! Mimi a big girl!”
I knocked on the preschool director’s door to plead for flexibility. I left in tears. That night, I had my first preschool nightmare.
I had read about parents creating DVDs of their children at play and hiring tutors to ready them for kindergarten, and I was determined not to become such a mom. But, down deep, I knew I’d do almost anything required to get my kids into the right school.
The next day, I assembled a selection panel and set off on my search.
My mother, a former high school teacher and my kids’ biggest fan, came with me on a tour of all of the county’s preschools. So did my brother’s fianc’e, a preschool teacher with a degree in elementary education.
At Brentwood School, a dozen or so two-year-olds crowded around a giant vat of dried beans, exploring their texture as a pair of teachers pulled them out individually to work on art projects. Wacky-looking penguins adorned the bulletin board.
We peered through the smudged glass – the classroom was too tiny to welcome guests. I could imagine Mimi knocking into the walls as she attempted her favorite activity, a toddler’s version of ballet. Still, mothers I spoke to claimed the classroom size never bothered their kids, and the two-year-olds did have their own playground.
We agreed: looked good, but too tiny.
Two-year-olds greeted their teachers in Chinese and sang songs about cleaning up the planet. The next school we visited tested for kindergarten admissions, then gave their students computerized tests every few months to assess their reading skills. In small town Florida, Oak Hall School seemed over the top.
My mom liked the classrooms but didn’t like the idea of all that testing. My future sister-in-law agreed. Half of the local moms I talked to called it the only school to send your kid to; the other half said they wouldn’t send their kid there if it were free. I liked the way the teachers bragged about their four-year-old students’ projects. And the two little girls sprawled on the floor and kicking their legs while reciting The Very Hungry Caterpillar made me smile.
I went home and reported to my husband: Maybe – but there’s no two-year-old class there for Mimi anyway.
At the next school, a stack of videos served as the kids’ rainy day activity. I crossed it off my list. My kids could watch TV at home for free.
Another school smelled faintly of pee.
The colorful, orderly Montessori classrooms impressed me. Two-year-olds greeted their teachers in Chinese and sang songs about cleaning up the planet. Although administrators didn’t lock me outside as they had in my dream, the commute was nearly forty minutes and the school day lasted till three p.m.
No school fit perfectly.
In small town Florida, we’ve created our own version of the Manhattan caste system, on a miniature scale. I don’t know any moms working on their toddler’s resume, but some schools do evaluate potential kindergarten scholars at play. Our celebrities – title-winning football and basketball coaches at the local university – raise funds for their kids’ pre-schools through golf tournaments and auctions. At Country Day’s fall auction, I watched a friend spend upwards of $5,000 on autographed sports memorabilia. The doctors who work at the esteemed teaching hospital send their children to a handful of prestigious schools.
But the pressure to send our kids to a reputable institution ranked low on our priority list. Other issues plagued me well past bedtime: How would I know the right place for my children?
I revealed my stress during mommy-to-mommy whine sessions and found other moms facing similar – or worse – issues. One mom debated holding her son back from kindergarten to save him from being youngest; one mom considered pushing her daughter forward to save her from being oldest. A friend with three kids settled on sending each of them to a different school in the fall.
Another mom said she prayed every morning for the answer to her preschool uncertainty after her three-year-old son came home with a bloody lip.
“I think the most important question is whether he’s thriving,” she said. “And I can’t tell. He’s scared of getting hit now. I don’t know what he’s learning. He used to draw clearly – dump trucks and shapes – and now he just scribbles.”
Another friend made the rounds to local preschools over the past month, too. She can’t decide whether to keep her son at his current preschool, which she said meets only her minimum expectations – or go for a more structured environment she thinks would suit his personality better.
She practices letters and numbers at home with her son and wonders how to make the right choice.
How important could preschool really be? “It’s so much more emotional than I thought it would be and so much more important,” she said. “Sometimes I think, it’s two days a week, why am I stressing out, it’s not like he’s not going to get into college because of this choice. I know it’s not logical but I feel like if I make the wrong decision I’m going to hurt my child.”
Like mine, her mental spreadsheet compared class size, cleanliness, teacher-to-student ratio and teacher qualifications – but what about the intangibles?
Would I stretch our family’s pocketbook to send my kids somewhere that the poor kids who live across the street would need a scholarship to attend? Would I send them someplace with a warm mood but no academic focus? What about plenty of academics but little time for just being a kid? Could I manage to drive my older girls to two different schools with a newborn in tow? How important could preschool really be? My husband didn’t go to school till kindergarten and he’s one of the smartest people I know.
My toddler learns about colors and textures in the aisles of the grocery store and my preschooler and I read for hours on end, write stories together and practice counting with beans.
But I’m not a particularly patient person or a trained early childhood educator. There’s only so much I can do without that expertise. And I can’t teach them to respect authority other than mine, to find comfort in diverse settings, to stand in line, to work out conflict with other kids or to play in groups.
And the main thing: I loved preschool.
A gerbil lived in my preschool classroom and a masking tape line on the floor marked the spot to line up for recess. We learned the alphabet in English and Hebrew and how to wash our hands in the twin sinks with painted wooden stepstools. I remember tiptoeing over to the beanbag corner with a storybook during math time, thinking I was sneaky. I remember watching the heavy wooden door as I sprawled on my blue plastic nap mat, wondering when my mom would walk in. And I remember my first teachers, Hadassah with her wild black hair and Amira with a magnetism that made her utterly huggable. I’d probably hug her today if I met her on the street.
I have never seen Sasha hug her teachers.
As admissions deadlines approached, I started to feel nauseous. All right, maybe it was the pregnancy, but it sure felt good to blame it on all the emotion surrounding our preschool search. Everyone told me to go with my gut, but my gut churned in turmoil and logic gave me no clear direction. “It should be emotional, it’s your child,” said Robert Schackow, Brentwood School’s director, when I confessed my worries. “There’s a generic anxiety in society that permeates everything and school choice is a big thing. What would you be more worried about than the welfare and the future of your child? Most parents are in a state of turmoil for most of their parenting lives. I was.”
We made a last ditch effort at Country Day, listing our arguments for Mimi’s inclusion in the 2 ‘s class: she’s potty trained, she knows and loves the teachers (they’re Sasha’s teachers this year), she’s comfortable in the classroom, many of her friends are signed up, she misses the cut off by only a few weeks.
“The director may as well have held up a sign that said, ‘No,'” my husband said after the meeting.
We understand that a rule is a rule. Despite dozens of exceptions made in the past, none will apparently be made this year.
More anxiety, more phone calls. More anxiety, more phone calls. I checked my notebooks for hints about my next step.
In the margins at Oak Hall – the school that gave computerized tests – I found a scribble: “Could picture Sasha here.” It’s true: structure relaxes her; she actually likes tests.
At Brentwood, where the tiny two-year-old room turned me off, I scrawled: “Pleasant, kids looked happy, maybe for Mimi?”
I called Schackow, Brentwood’s director, and asked him why it’s important to send our kids to preschool when they’re two. He said two is the year Mother Nature says kids are no longer dependant infants; they’re ready to start on the journey – “ready to see what it takes to really have a ball being alive.”
I liked his answer; Mimi excels at having a ball.
Maybe I knew all along I’d do the hard thing. There will be a new baby and two different school schedules to juggle. But I think they’ll be happy.
My cousin Nancy, whose three elementary school kids attended a Montessori preschool, told me, “If your kids skip out of the car to school, all is good.”
If mine don’t, I’ll pull them out and teach them how to change diapers.