new experiences?
26 October 2000
Damian doesn’t know it but his life is going to change radically, and soon.

His sitter Jami dropped a bombshell Monday: she needs a full time (with benefits) job. You know, a real job. I don’t blame her. Her situation has changed. I expected it might happen sooner or later but I was hoping for later. I like her, Damian likes her, it’s comfortable. But at the same time, it sort of feels like fate pulling us toward a decision we want to make anyway.

School. Preschool, to be exact. He’s nearly two and a half. I thought we’d wait till next September, I thought he was too close to me, too needing of me, to go sooner. I’ve been changing my mind about that lately.

The first time we walked into Parent and Me class, I wanted to walk right back out. It’s a nice enough little preschool despite its location on a seedy Hollywood street (bland concrete block apartment buildings and run down bungalows with mesh fences). The school is the lone standout, a neatly kept Craftsman bungalow painted bright yellow.

Once you step inside the bungalow's threshold, you’re in a different world. A clean and tidy world, designed for Lilliputians. The front room is filled with low tables and miniature chairs, the shelves lining the walls covered with neat rows of baskets containing small objects -- wood fruit and the like -- as well as puzzles, art supplies, and empty perfume bottles. The kitchen has low-to-the-ground sinks and an array of kid-sized brooms (little kids do love to sweep). The back room has map puzzles, bright posters and more baskets as well as musical instruments and a big bright wall clock. It’s kid friendly, no doubt about that. But something about it... it’s too neat, maybe. It intimidated me at first. A world not my own.

And that first week, Damian wandered through the room during free play time. I kept an eye on him but figured it’s childproof, right? How much harm could he do?

The -- teacher? Leader? -- hurried over. "He can’t play with the things in that basket. They’re for the preschool kids, for teaching." Oops. I stared at her, guilty, my son caught red-handed with a little farm truck in one fist and a cow in the other.

Cough. Grimace. Nod. "Okay, Damian, let’s go over to the stuff you can play with. Look, here’s a puzzle." He played, then got up to check something else out. Normal toddler attention span.

The teacher hastened over again. "He needs to put things away when he’s done with them. We teach them to clean up after themselves." A good theory, certainly, but I felt scolded again. A lackadaisical mom, that's me.

She brought Damian into the kitchen, picked up an orange half and showed him how to put it on the juicer and squeeze down, then handed it to him. He stood there, mute and motionless, looking like he had no idea why he was standing there but fairly certain he didn’t want to be. So I ushered him back to the play area. Feeling like I had no idea what we were doing there either.

Then it was snack time. Damian the Persnickity doesn’t eat most snack food so we mostly wandered around investigating small baskets of untouchables. Then came circle time. Which I dreaded. Our two previous encounters with Mommy and Me style group singsong lalala rituals were rather nauseating. Kids playing follow the leader like good little sheep baaing on cue. Everything so regimented with the teacher talking down to the kids in saccharine tones, less nutritious for growing minds than Mounds bars are for growing bones.

I was pleasantly surprised this time. The teacher was gentle, genuine. She sang the "hello" song without stumbling once even though there were a lot of new kids in the circle. And the delight on those small faces when they heard everyone saying their name! Sweet. She held up shapes and let kids choose which they wanted, sang Old MacDonald’s Farm with animal puppet assistance from her young audience, gave out real musical instruments (rattles and tambourines) and led a march around the room with us all shaking our booties. She brought out a parachute and let kids run underneath, then clamber on for a rolling ride as parents walked around the periphery, pulling the parachute along the floor. Inventive games all, not condescending. Damian stood for most of this, not exactly participating but not running away either, if you discount the periodic trips to the French doors to gaze wistfully at the enticing playground just beyond the glass. I was -- somewhat -- encouraged.

We’ve gone five times in the past two months -- after all, we paid up front for the set. And my playgroup no longer exists; it’s been transmuted into this new shape. Each time Damian gets more and still more comfortable with the ritual. When we sing the "put your finger in the air" song, he puts his finger in the air -- on his knee -- touches his toes -- he sometimes even twists around and puts it on his back. He waves his scarf in the air and drapes it across his face like a mini Mata Hari. When the parachute comes out, he’s the first to duck underneath and run around under the billowing cloth and one of the first to plop onto it for his sliding ride. And when we march around in a circle, he’s just as likely to be all the way across the room as by my side. My shy little independent little introspective little iconoclast is having a grand time socializing and following along with a ritualized set of slightly silly activities.

I’m not a big believer in stuffing facts into young minds or in getting children to follow orders like a platoon of future worker bees, but I think there’s value in spending structured time with other children. Damian can spend -- has spent -- hours with other kids, barely glancing their way, but put him in this setting where there’s clapping and scarf waving to do, and he’s right there in the midst, gazing around the room to see what everyone else is doing. It wakes a part of him that otherwise lies dormant. It makes him happy and therefore makes me happy.

So I’m making calls to all the best preschools in the area, arranging tours and asking to be put on waiting lists for January. I don’t know that he’ll get into any of them -- it’s only two months from now and some parents have planned for this before their kids’ umbilical cords fell off. And maybe we won’t find one that feels right to us. It’s a big deal, sending a two and a half year old to spend half the day away from home. We have to know he’ll be happy, we have to know he’ll get enough stimulation but not too much. I think he’s ready for new things but I don’t think anyone should be trying to force learning on him. All any school can or should do at this stage, I think, is give children new things to explore. They’re fascinated with the shape and meaning of words, with simple physics (I pile blocks up into a tower, I push the center of the tower, tower goes crash), with tactile pleasures of playdoh and sensory pleasures of bright colors smeared with crayon, paint or marker, with repetitive songs and the chance to clap and bang on a drum in a simple rhythm. That’s enough, especially accompanied by compassion and warmth and a nurturing environment.

Think we’ll find all that? I think we will. But we may not stick it out even so. It's hard to know. Damian may not be ready to be away from me -- I mean really away from me, right now he knows I’m in the next room -- but there’s only one way to find out. If we find the right place. If they have room for him. If if if.

We shall see. In any case, whether preschool or new nanny, my little boy is going to weather a major transition. I want to make sure it’s a positive one. I see him growing, changing, craving new challenges. I’d like to provide satisfying ones.

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