I had long since made up my mind about schooling when my then-two-and-a-half-year-old started asking to go to school. Despite my partner’s career as a public school teacher and my own belief in free education for everyone, I’d researched; I’d snooped over the fences and conveniently scheduled walks around the recess times of local elementary schools. I’d methodically gathered information on every Montessori, Waldorf, Constructivist, and Reggio Emilia program within easy driving distance and I’d come up underwhelmed. Unimpressed. Weirded out. Surely I could do better. I could meld every philosophy into a perfect super-school seated right in our very own spare room, where I could give my kids all the one-on-one attention they could stomach. We’d have sublimely happy little geniuses, their independence and personal learning styles respected and their individuality allowed to flourish unimpeded by strict educational models, bullies, or overpopulated classrooms. And then, we moved across the street from an elementary school.
My son paid no mind to my dreams of homeschooling, and daily sat at the window watching the kids line up, play four square, and file into the bus, all the while wistfully asking when it would be his turn to go to school. It was unfathomable to me that my toddler, whom I had never left anywhere but our home, briefly, with his grandmother, was pining for the experience of being dropped off somewhere to fend for himself. I explained that I wouldn’t be there; I warned him that he wouldn’t know the other kids; I worried (silently) that he’d be behind, ostracized, or scared; but I began the process of searching in our new town for a preschool we could afford, whose methods resonated with us, that had a (very) part-time option.
I was not prepared to make concessions. We aren’t wealthy, and the going rate for partial-week, partial-day preschool ‘round here is no small potatoes to us. I saw it as a luxury, a temporary indulgence I’d humor until my son realized that sending him to preschool when I stay home just isn’t what attached families do. The novelty would wear off, I was convinced, as soon as he saw the reality of drop-off, the hustle and bustle of a classroom full of strangers opposed to our cozy, familiar house where he could learn naturally, with the rhythm of our family.
Well, the reality that he (and I, incidentally) saw at the first school we toured was very different: a beautiful, earth-toned, lived-in room with plants, a piano, comfy couches, baskets of cars and blocks and art supplies; a wide-open place to play outside, with dirt pits and children knee-deep in them, unabashed; a perfectly wild garden; happy faces on big people and little alike. My son looked around as though he had just found himself in a beautiful dream. We’d been to children’s museums, playgrounds, and friends’ homes, but no place had spoken to him like that classroom. He drank in his surroundings with wide eyes and asked hopefully, “Is this my school?” The director answered my questions as though someone had given her my ideal script. Redirection, not discipline; free choice in participation; class meetings to solve problems; outdoors every day; reading readiness as a goal; parent involvement at whatever level works. I felt so lucky to have found a place that fit.
What remained to be seen, however, was how my son would deal with being away from his family, even for such a short amount of time. I worried that he wasn’t as securely attached as I’d hoped. My partner took the day off to be home with our daughter so I could stay that first morning until I was no longer needed, even if that meant staying for the entire three hours. We loaded up the backpack I’d sewn the night before, packed a snack, and took a photo on the front steps of our house. We talked about feeling safe in the knowledge that Mama would always come back, and I chewed my nails for the entirety of the drive, preparing for a hysterical scene upon arrival, second guessing our decision to take this leap.
I helped him out of the car, turned to get my purse and — wait, where’s my kid? “Bye, mama!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Wait for me!” I called, shuffling through the parking lot after him. Chasing him down, I asked if he wanted me to stay and, without so much as a glance in my direction, he cheerfully replied, “Nope! Bye! I yove you!” I lingered in the entryway and watched him build a racetrack with a new friend. I folded his jacket, placed it in the cubby with his name on it. I meandered out to the office, and the school’s director gave me a knowing look. “Isn’t he supposed to be sad?” I asked, more of myself than her. She smiled. “He knows he’s safe. He’s happy. Congratulations,” she said.
I never would’ve guessed that my son would be enrolled in preschool before his third birthday. I didn’t think he’d be there at all. But listening to him and honoring his wishes, swallowing my fears and believing in his capabilities, have served all of us well. He’s thriving, and the only tears come when it’s time to go home. The friendships he’s forging and the learning he’s doing aren’t curated by me, but they’re perfectly suited to him, and that’s a lesson he couldn’t learn at home. One worth every penny we’ve paid in tuition, and then some.
Photo Credit: Author