a tale of three preschools
10 September 2003

Once upon a time there was a little boy just barely out of toddlerhood, a child with wide brown eyes and soft dark hair and the tiniest cleft in his still-rounded chin. One clear, cool morning just past the turn of the new year that little boy started nursery school, a rite of passage common to all the children in his part of the forest. A ritualized transition from the womb of family and nanny to the larger but still not huge world of teachers and other younglings. Most children weathered this shift with ease, soon coming home with paint-stained clothes and tales of snacks shared. Most children took this first step gracefully and learned to live in the world outside their homes.

Not this boy. Instead he lay on the brightly colored rug, trying his best to ignore the chaos of children swarming around and over him. He buried his face in picture books, he ran cars back and forth obsessively, he curled into his mother’s lap and when he spoke – ever more rarely – he whispered and whined. This is when and this is how his parents began to understand that he was different. Separate. He didn’t fit into this pint-sized society. He might never fit. Day after day, his mother sat and watched and learned and tried not to cry.

Time passed as it has a way of doing, in this case a turn and a half of the earth around the sun. By now this little boy was comfortably ensconced in a preschool filled with children just like him. No, that’s not quite right. They were as different from each other as all children are but more so, each with his or her own set of quirks and stumbling blocks. Each not quite fitting into the world of children and therefore fitting rather nicely into this sheltered community.

But life isn’t like that. If you show certain coping skills or the inkling of such, you can’t stay sheltered forever. And so, after a year and a half of learning the things that other children seem to absorb like plants drink up water, it was time. Time to try again. Time to reenter the scary world of children who read each other’s signals without question, who act out scenarios with toy Buzz Lightyears and pretend Powerpuff Girls, who burble up with long rambling sentences during circle time because they’re so filled with ideas and experiences they have to share with the universe because life is good and they are still unafraid.

The boy with the brown eyes and the aquiline nose walked into a new school, its long rooms filled with toys and children’s art. He walked straight through to the back yard with a sandbox and a play structure and a four-sided teeter-totter shaped like a turtle. He couldn’t see or feel the heavy weight of hope and expectation riding on his narrow shoulders but he sensed it anyway. And fear. That too, yes.

He visited this new school twice a week for six months, exactly double the length of his stay at the first. Was this world less alien, was he less of a stranger? Yes but maybe not enough. He made friends after a fashion: he chased a little girl with a halo of dark curls, he so-tentatively joined in plastic animal play, he spoke quietly but with certainty at circle time. But he clung to his adult companion, a rumbling, playful bear of a man, a floor time therapist there to lend his support, shadow in name but really the solar center of the little boy’s time in this never-quite-comfortable place called an ordinary preschool. And as time went by, this little boy with the too-solemn eyes clung more to his human shadow and kept to the shadows within the small school. And so he left this place too.

You might call it a failed experiment. You might instead, if you chose, call it a first budding. Some plants grow quickly. Some grow slowly at first and only after they’re pruned back do they become full and strong and healthy.

In this sun-drenched land, the seasons move imperceptibly, measured in the slant of light and the feel of the ocean breeze on your skin. Nevertheless, spring turned to summer and summer turned to the faintest hint of the warm, clear autumn to come. The boy now had a best friend in his nurturing preschool-with-a-difference. He had play sessions with other children, often gently coached by the former shadow.

This boy, once paralyzed by shyness and more, began to understand his own strength, to understand that his differences were less than he’d thought and his fears were conquerable. He took on the scary beasts known as typical children and lived to tell the tale. He began to understand that children were fun. More fun, sometimes, than adults. Even adults pretending to be children.

The boy visited yet another small, homey preschool, this one a rambling former house in the City of Culver, near studio lots where they manufactured dreams. He visited three times before he began his official stint at the school. There’s luck in threes. Before they went, he asked his mother if she would stay the whole time with him. She said she would. She reassured him that they would only stay as long as he wanted and no more.

She smiled as she told him of the teachers, the sandbox and the fish tank, but her smile was plastered on as she remembered the other schools, the other times, as she remembered and wondered if this time too would be a heartbreak of watching from the sidelines as it became too apparent not only how different this fragile-seeming child was from the other robust and rowdy children, but how he too seemed to know it and withdraw from too much contact. She almost said, “You know what? Let’s just forget it. What’s wrong with our life? Nothing. Let’s just leave things as they are, try again next year.” But she didn’t. Because next year was the huge looming golem known as kindergarten and if he wasn’t ready this year for a sweet little preschool painted yellow, he would be crushed underfoot by that lumbering giant.

And so she drove him to the school. And so he met the teachers and explored the sandbox. And so he climbed into a train the other children made out of upturned milk crates. And so he took turns with another boy making train noises and deciding where the blue milk-crate express was headed.

And so, too, he stood in front of the small aquarium, stood next to a boy with cocoa skin and a bright t-shirt. And when the other child told him about the baby guppies in the little bag on top, this formerly paralyzed boy asked thoughtful questions and participated eagerly in the conversation. And when it was time to leave that school the first morning, the boy didn’t want to go.

The story is almost done and yet not nearly over. The boy has made the transition: three mornings a week, he says goodbye to his daddy and runs out to the small play yard to climb the jungle gym and race his tricycle in circles on the cement. He has no shadow as yet; he walks in the sun on his own. Every time his mother steps into the small bungalow, the teacher pulls her aside to report that her little boy is doing well, making friends. Warming up sometimes gradually, often with caution, but always making himself at home. And his mother peeks into the room through the window and watches as he converses with a girl with a mop of blonde curls, asking if he might take a turn with the toy. Or watches through another window looking into the play yard as he laughs and races his trike with another child, a boy with a round face and a dimple in his chin. Or stands in a doorway watching as the boy’s new friend, he of the milk-crate train, tries to wheedle a red toy dinosaur from a group of girls who steadfastly refuse. Her son, the shy child with dark brown eyes, takes a different red dinosaur from the pile and offers it up, trying to make his new friend feel better. And as she watches, this mother feels better too. Much, much better.

Is he healed? Have the differences that kept him apart from the ones called his peers, have they been erased? Yes and no, maybe and never. The brain, the mind, the psyche are never that simple and there's no cure for a way of knowing the world. But perhaps there does come a time – or many times, a stair-step series of goals achieved – when the obstacles becomes surmountable and the differences may even become as much blessing as curse. And so the story continues.

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