Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In which I get indoctrinated into modern preschool mommy culture

This morning, AwesomeCloud had his first day of preschool. Actually it was an hour-long orientation and meet-the-teachers event. His actual first day will be Friday.

This is the season for blog posts about our kids' first days of school. My post is not going to be any more witty or brilliant than the average back-to-school post. However, the experience was interesting to me because I am new at this. It is strange to me. And my ideas about preschool and the parenthood of preschoolers are a little bit... uh... outdated.

First of all, I wasn't even certain he was going to be in preschool. For most of the summer, the uncertainty hung over me. His speech therapist last year was going to make an effort to snag him a spot, but then she and the entire administration left on summer vacation, and when they returned they got busy sending me paperwork and robocalls but were not often there to answer the phone and answer my question directly:

"Is my son enrolled in preschool?"

I left messages on several voice mails, and then I got a call from one of the people in charge, a very friendly woman whom I like very much. She told me that Cloud was in, and that he was scheduled for two mornings per week.... but she didn't know which mornings.

So, for about a week, we were left hanging on which two calendar columns to fill up with little 'school' notations. That dragged into two weeks, as Hurricane Irene delayed the opening of the entire public school system by a week.

Today, less than an hour before orientation was to start, Cloud's old speech therapist called me back. She informed me that he would be attending on Tuesdays and Fridays. She assured me that he would see her. (He'd been asking for her. Or rather, every time I tried to get him to say the name of his new teacher, he'd say her name instead.) I told her I was coming to the orientation and she told me she'd see us there.

Once there, I found Cloud's classroom and we entered. There were five other children present, and two of them were nonwhite. No other Asians, unfortunately. There was an African-American girl and a medium-brown-skinned girl of unclear ethnicity. I hope Cloud enjoys the diversity of preschool, because it will probably get worse as he goes into the higher grades. I'm pleasantly amazed at the significant scattering of nonwhite children at that school. It's a little pocket of diversity in a region where it's hard to find places with races all mixed together. Cloud may not spend much time looking at faces that resemble his, but he can look at various other types of faces.

(On that note, I'm glad I didn't end up paying to send him to a private preschool. I'll take free diversity over expensive homogeneity!)

I introduced Cloud to his teachers, who were conveniently labeled with name tags, and they took him to the craft table to play with Play-Doh. He was eager to get playing. However, when I told him I was going to pop into orientation and then come back and play with him, he bolted out of his seat and announced, "I come too." He took my hand and started toward the door. The teachers looked on in amusement.

"Um," I said. "This is grownup stuff. I'm just going to listen to them tell me something. Then I'll come back, I promise."

The head teacher jumped up. "Sometimes we let the kids see the room, just so they'll know where Mommy is."

So we did that, walking together to the room. I opened the door, and when Cloud saw the boring rows of chairs with dull grownups sitting in them, he hesitated.

"Let's go play with Play-Doh," the teacher told Cloud, and he moved away from the door... and then the administrator I really like came up behind me and gave me a push. "Just go," she whispered. "Quickly before he has time to think."

So I went in and sat down and began initiation rites.

Actually, much of it made sense to me. The oddest bits of orientation mostly seemed like little clashes between the school's needs and parental behavior. For instance:

"Park on the street across from the school and you won't have any problems," the speaker said. She then launched into a long, complicated description of moms and buses jockeying for position in the same strip of drop-off curb, and how leaving your vehicle to walk your child to the teacher was both necessary and a matter of crucial timing, and how parents in a hurry do crazy stupid things and endanger everyone (so don't be that parent!), and throughout it all I kept thinking, "Sheesh, I'm just going to park on the street."

It's not a busy street and it's not that long a walk. Sure, Cloud and I got rained on when we parked on the street this morning, but rain happens. We're not afraid of rain. I'm more afraid of blocking a school bus and getting admonished for it.

(Later, as Cloud and I were walking back to the car, I overheard one mom say to another mom, "That's the dropoff curb." The other mom nodded appreciatively. What? Didn't they hear the advice to park across the street? Hey, if they want to jostle with school buses, more power to them.)

Then there was the whole thing about classroom birthday parties. The general message was, "Sigh... if you must... we're going to make it really hard for you and limit your options."More literally, it was, "Warn the teacher ahead of time, don't bring any food, and make it relevant to the curriculum." That's not a birthday party - that's classroom volunteering. With extra stickers. Not that I'm opposed to classroom birthday parties - there can only be a maximum of 15 birthdays a year, and that's if Cloud's classroom ultimately fills out to its maximum 15 kids, and none of them were born in summer. But when I was in preschool, all we did was have our name put at the top of the felt board and then the class sang "Happy Birthday" and that was it. I think that was kinda nice. We all felt important enough, just being sung to. And anyway, I don't want to throw my son a classroom birthday party. He already gets like 5 parties per birthday with just his extended family members.

It's a peanut-free school, which sounds a little extreme until you learn that there is actually at least one student who is deathly allergic to peanuts. It's not hypothetical. I'm in favor of letting that kid get through the school year alive. That's what sunflower seed butter is for, anyway. But in preschool it's not an issue because the teachers provide all the snacks themselves. Fruit or crackers or cheese, they said. Fine with me. If Cloud learns to like fruit at preschool, I will be happy.

When I reentered the classroom, Cloud wasn't crying. The teachers praised him to me. However, as soon as he saw me, he demanded, "Go home, eat lunch." Over and over again, repeatedly, until we walked out the door. (At that point, he suggested, "Restaurant?") It was only 11:00 AM. Oh my goodness.

Supposedly there was a list of supplies for me to buy hidden somewhere in my packet of paperwork, but I didn't see it. I just remember something about travel tissues (got those already), a bottle of soap, sanitary wipes, and a backpack. The backpack is for Cloud, obviously. The other three items are for the teacher, and if there's more on the list, I don't know what it is.

Anyway, while Cloud and I were out shopping for another item, I got it in my head to find some backpacks and let him pick one out. It had to be cheap, and small, and I was hoping to find something tasteful and boyish but unique. First we went to Marshall's, where I discovered that small backpacks are really, really hard to find. There was a good selection of backpacks. There were plain black backpacks, backpacks with sports logos on them, Dora and Thomas the Tank Engine backpacks... and they were all HUGE.

"Who would buy this?" I pondered out loud as I held up a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack that was almost as tall as my son. A passer-by overheard me and grinningly agreed with me. Seriously, anyone under ten would struggle to drag that monstrosity across the school grounds.

Cloud was disappointed. He was in love with the idea of picking his own backpack, and Thomas is at the top of his list of favorite motifs. But Mama was on a grand search for a small backpack, and he was helpless to change that.

We went to Ocean State Job Lot next. I figured that OSJL has a lot of odd things, and apparently, small backpacks are odd things. No luck. But right next to OSJL is TJ Maxx, so I figured, what the heck, it's just like Marshall's but we're already right here. So we went in.

The selection was decent, and with a whole lot of searching, Cloud and I found kid-themed backpacks in the back. The smallest one had Dora the Explorer on it, and Cloud was happy to consider getting that one, but I nixed that idea without telling him why. We then found a tiny black one with a basketball player logo protruding out of it. "We can buy a patch with any picture you want," I told Cloud, "and sew it on." After I pried that gawdawful logo off of it, of course. "We can go to the railroad gift store and get a patch with a train on it, or..."

"Train!" agreed Cloud.

"...Or a boat..."

"Train!" Cloud insisted.

At the register, we saw more backpacks, and as if by magic, there was an even tinier black backpack with a nonprotruding, embroidered logo on it. I made him try it, and then I made him trade his other one for it, and then he reminded me that he wanted a train patch for it. "Yeah," I agreed, "It will be even easier to sew a train patch onto THIS backpack." Cloud was sold.

The cashier fawned over him, telling him fifty-plus times that he was sooooo cute with his tiny backpack. He put it next to his seat in the car, occasionally bringing up the promised train patch, and proudly showed it off to Daddy when we got home.

Oh my god. I hope I can find a train patch. Imagine if the railroad gift store doesn't sell patches?! I can try the hobby store, too... gah, I hope patches aren't so totally out of style that no one sells them anymore. I will paint a train with acrylic paints onto that thing if I have to. But I kinda like the idea of using tourist mementos to personalize one's possessions. It'd be so... so Cape Cod of us.

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