For a short time I worked in a childcare setting caring for children under the age of two. I don’t have many fond memories of my time there mainly because the job had been misrepresented. I’d been lead to believe that the environment I’d be working in would be warm and welcoming. The kids would be exposed daily to art and nature. They’d learn kindness and compassion through caring for the center’s animals, and they’d eat wholesome food prepared fresh in the kitchen by a loving chef.
Instead I found myself in a cramped room with women who seemed detached from their charges, focused instead on more mundane daily duties besides engaging the children. Nap time schedules were of critical importance as were diaper changing routines. Noisy toys were confiscated, and art projects were non-existent.
Those tiny people, with their hearts yearning to learn and grow, spent the majority of their days between a darkened room and a small porch where mess was kept to a minimum. The adjacent kitchen was a place to be avoided. Far from lovingly, the food was prepared by a cold woman from whom one could barely bring oneself to request a fork for fear of being berated. Portions were scant even as they met the minimum standards, and hungry kids behaved as such.
My co-teachers whispered amongst themselves about “ugly babies” and “needy mothers,” refusing always to hold and touch the most distraught children. One little boy spent entire days on the rug, looking stricken, clutching in his arms a stuffed dog and teddy bear. “These parents,” one teacher complained with an eye roll “they expect you to love their children the same way they do.”
I admit to wondering how the parents of our children could have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Having been sold the lie myself, I’d enrolled my son, then aged five, in the classroom opposite mine for the afternoons. On his second day I’d glanced out the window to witness him standing barefoot in the grass, wearing a pair of borrowed trousers several sizes too big that were cinched around his waist. The bottoms were filthy, the excess fabric flopping around under his little feet. His face showed real anxiety and he held tightly to his caregiver’s hand as this caregiver scanned the yard. I saw then that my son had spent two days completely unseen. I did not bring him back.
I stayed and persevered. My first co-teacher was replaced by a woman who cared dearly about the babies, so together we set about trying to create the kind of environment they deserved. Soon after, schedules were adjusted, and we were joined by a third. She was flaky and eccentric and equally loving. There was a rhythm. There were excursions out to visit the animals and time spent on the playground. There was a curriculum. Nap time schedules took a back seat and messes spilled out of the cubbies and baskets meant to contain them. The children were happier.
During my time there I never felt that the place came close to espousing the values touted on it’s website, although I came to know of a few teachers who had made it their personal mission to make it so. Resources remained stretched and food scant,management was under supported and we were understaffed. I wondered if those less than perfect teachers had at first been well-meaning before they’d succumbed to burnout. I would experience burnout myself, though the day I left those babies for the last time I cried in my car. I’d loved them.
I don’t know what motivates a person to become a teacher. In my short time in that stuffy little classroom I discovered I did not possess the grit. Though I suppose now I have some idea of the things that might wear a teacher down. And I look more closely now into my own children’s days.
We withdrew our children last year from a school that had for the five years prior been a place I’d never doubted they were deeply cared for. There, a handful of incredible women had safeguarded their hearts and looked into their eyes. I had always felt that they were seen, loved.
But a change in leadership saw to it that the good ones began to fall away. The politics were kept hidden from us of course, but it was clear that new pressures wore daily on the ones who were left, and our once warm and inviting second home had become a place of dread.
We had a number of uncharacteristic interactions during our final weeks that served as clues my children were no longer seen. One of these was the revelation by a school administrator that she had personally approached my intellectually disabled son and barked a series of questions at him that he was unable to answer. This was justified as a crude attempt to evaluate his abilities. I can only imagine that he was terrified.
This same administrator advised us, with some measure of disdain, that if we transferred him into a public school setting he would be placed in special ed., all while lamenting the fact that they could no longer cater to his needs. I felt betrayed, and suddenly unmoored. We’d paid our money each month and asked, not unreasonably, that they love him as we did. I glanced to this woman’s right where Huey’s sweet teacher appeared pained as she wrestled with the process. “No,” I thought,observing her, the world regaining it’s equilibrium. “He was loved.”
When Cleo then began exhibiting odd behavior we began to doubt our decision to re enroll for the year. I couldn’t shake the feeling after a particularly strange parent teacher conference that her new teacher simply didn’t like her. Her normally luminous light seemed to burn just a little less bright. We transferred them both to public for the spring semester.
As it happens, Huey was placed in special ed. And in one of the warmest encounters of my life I was privileged to sit at a conference table with the army of educators charged with providing my son with the best possible chance of success. There were disagreements, and schedule conflicts. One felt passionately that Huey would benefit emotionally from some time spent in the Kindergarten room while others felt emphatically that he should remain as much as possible with his same age peers. The school principle weighed in. We giggled together about his quirky speech and spoke about his sweet nature. One of his teachers noted that he refers to his family members using possessive pronouns. It’s true. He talks about “my Cleo” and “my Maeve.” It’s a mistake in his speech that is particularly sweet and that most people don’t notice. They knew him.
In the end a second meeting was called in order to hammer out the details, and then a third when it became clear adjustments needed made. I got up from my seat and observed the people who were only doing their jobs. Their faces betrayed not a hint of sanctimony as they shuffled their papers and prepared for the next meeting. Changing lives. A privilege. These are the people to whom we owe the world.
Despite our recent successes I am not so naive as to believe that Huey’s team will get it right 100% of the time. Nor that we will never again encounter a teacher who is in the midst of a bad season. In fact this piece should serve to illustrate that it is important to remain vigilant. To make sure that our children are in the best environment possible for them, and to make the the hard decisions when they are not.
But this August, when I dropped my kids off on their first day, I felt strong in our decision. I’d ordered their school supplies in advance, Huey had a solid IEP in place, teachers had sent out warm welcome videos via youtube, and he’d watched his on repeat in the week leading up to the big event. Still, I knew that the success of the year hinged on one critical piece.
I kissed my babies and hugged them. Then I hugged them again. I led them to their desks, and I looked into the eyes of the women I was to entrust with these most precious pieces of myself.
In those eyes I saw overwhelm, I saw first-day nerves, I saw the preceding night’s preparation, and maybe even some slight irritation at this lingering Mom. But I also saw warmth. I saw understanding. I saw the Hershey’s kiss placed on Huey’s desk, and the arm around Cleo’s shoulders. I saw classrooms lovingly prepared, and special ed. aides standing by, ready to guide and nurture the most fragile in their charge. I saw people organized, people who had their shit together. Andy coaxed at my arm “They’ll be fine. Come on, lets go.”
They descended from the bus that afternoon with bright smiles. Cleo jumped the last step. The bus driver gave me a triumphant thumbs up. Huey had managed to remain in his seat the whole way home. They pulled papers from their backpacks for me to sign and crammed down after school snacks, easily answering questions about their day, and I felt myself relax. Tears of relief welled up. They’d felt held, and so they’d felt capable. Today, a group of women had shown up to hold my children dear, to raise the bar, to show them what they could do. I couldn’t have done a better job myself.