May 2009

Today we graduated seven fours and fives who will head off to kindergarten in the fall. As my daughter said when she was weighing her decision to miss this year’s celebration in order to go on an adventure in Western, MA, “This is one of my favorite days of the year.” I agree. I missed her presence, but I fully enjoyed myself, as did everyone else I talked to, we all had fun.

Families brought delicious food. I cleaned up the yard, covered tables and a buffet with beautiful fabric, put out brightly colored silverware and flowered napkins chosen by Isabel. One mom made us peach nectar and something with alcohol morning drinks. There were ice cream sundaes served by one of our graduating kids, his dad, and my teenage son. People took tons of pictures, hugged, kissed, exchanged small gifts. Families brought lots of flowers for the teachers, which we put in large vases on the buffet with all the food. I dragged lots of chairs from the porches and the house and people sat around and talked. There were four babies this year, a record, all hopefully headed our way eventually, so nice to see the new blood there to replace our leaving friends. My son, at fourteen recalled at the end of the party that he has been to every day care graduation since he was the first graduate at five, that next year will be our tenth celebration, wondered if we will celebrate that anniversary in some way. Maybe we will, but we passed our tenth year in business uncelebrated, and I have no real regrets. The whole point of these parties is to celebrate the people, each kid and each teacher ends up feeling special, and the parents feel like family gathering for a party. This year, I was especially happy to hear from several mothers how the day care has felt to them: to one it has felt like being welcomed into a large family, to another it has felt like the most comfortable group she has belonged to, to another it feels like a place where individuals are known and acknowledged for who they are, deeply appreciated. I could not have asked to hear more. These things are what we wish for when we come to work each day.  To hear the parents articulate that they are feeling what we wish for makes it all complete for me on this special day.

The food and the conversation and the kids playing all together make it a great party. But the ceremony is what makes it graduation. Each child comes to the front of the group, at the back of the yard with all the kids and families watching from stumps and chairs and porch railings, and the teachers take turns celebrating the children with stories of who they are and have been to us over the years.  One boy this year has been with us five years, all were with us at least two and a half years. One is the third in her family to be with us. Two families have been coming to our place for seven years. There are a lot of stories and memories to share and all the kids and grown-ups listen as the one being feted stands beside the teacher feting, hand in hand, or up against each other, or teachers hand on child’s shoulder, looking in the child’s face and holding the child in their special moment. At the end of the little stories, we give the children a hug or a kiss on the cheek, they go back to their spots and listen to the stories about their friends, sigh, laugh, remember together the lives we have lived in our days in the West Family Day care, soon coming to an end. 

After this we share certificates, Alice makes incredible photo albums for each child, Liana chooses a special book for each one which kids and teachers sign. And the tradition has become for the parents also to thank the teachers, which feels good, not that we lack for appreciation throughout the year, but to hear our work honored this way once a year, to know that we are making a difference in the lives of kids and families means a lot. We feel loved, is what I think as I walk around the happy crowd, share fond feelings with grandmothers who I have come to know, check in with older siblings now in school, once with us, exchange good-bye hugs and kisses and thank yous before the families leave. It is a good day and I am happy to do what I do where I do and how I do it. That says a lot.

I am up early. My daughter is heading off to spend the weekend with good friends and I want to spend the last half hour with her before she goes. Reminds me of the last day question, and she makes my wish come true, talks with me and tells me stories while I give her my full attention, save the moments I get up to fill the tea kettle when she stops to tell me she can’t tell the story with the noise.

The story starts with wisdom from my daughter. She says that you always get one chance but you never get two exact chances at a time. For example, if you jump and a bunch of bottles fall down and smash you will never know what would have happened if you didn’t jump. Sometimes you get two chances at a time, like when your mom said do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream you could get both, but there’s always something hidden inside there. You had the chance to have ice cream or not have ice cream. That is the choice that is always hidden inside. (She sits next to me as I write this, self-conscious at first about my sharing her story, then when I read the first paragraph, she says it is like a poem, and tells me just what to say for her wisdom, all her words transcribed.)

After she shares this wisdom, she wonders about my day. She was with a friend and we did not see each other from before school yesterday until just now. I tell her I called, but couldn’t get through on the phones. She tells me then all about her day, about pretending with her best friend in the best friend’s back yard, about the boat they lived on, about the grandparents who were divorced and the grandfather she lived with for sixteen years, then had to make a change, about the generations of family before who lived on boats because they just loved boats and being out in the water. 

Then her friend got sick of that game and the girls went to help clean out the porch, a task her friend’s mother, my friend, too, has been wanting to do for ages, which my daughter feels special promise to assist. But shortly, the best friend moves on again. This time the kids play Torture School. Of course I wonder about this game and my daughter tells me more. There is a rhyme I can’t remember now, will ask her when she returns, now she is off again with the same friends on another adventure, the reason for the wisdom of choices, missing our day care graduation for a weekend in Western, MA with the best friend’s family, a Big Girl Ceremony for a cousin of the best friend who is like a cousin to my daughter, a coming of age ceremony invented by her family to celebrate her growing up, held for her at age 8 with family and friends and psuedo cousins there, my daughter’s choice held against the day care graduation, both of us sad she will miss that, me lonely for her already with her place beside me on the couch only vacant five minutes, her off with a skip to join her friends. 

But in Torture School there is a rhyme, and if I don’t learn it from her, I will learn it from her brother, who played the game, too, and had a role in the punishment, a mixture of lemonade and soy sauce which he made and the best friend drank, after failing one of my boy’s tests, which I had assumed was MCAS, but in fact was not.

And after Torture School I don’t know what, I think they had to stop mid-game to join my older son and husband for an outing in Davis Square, for crepes and a movie, more friends there, then home for root beer floats and late, late bed and early, early rising to go on the adventure, but first a story from me about my day yesterday, and I tell about my day, the day with the kids, and my daughter wants details, so I tell about the roses, and she wonders who was there, and I tell her and she knows that is a good group for roses, and then I tell her about the rest, about calling and not getting through, and writing in a coffee shop and calling again, and Ben getting locked out of the house, then letting himself in, of coming home and reading my book, eating rice for dinner, with soy sauce, I now realize, just like the Torture School drink, probably happening around the same time, then a play with a friend, then home to bed in a quiet house where everyone was sleeping in the dark.

Funny to have whole days and weekends apart from the kids after years of being connected with near umbilical chords. My sons will each have a week away in June, one camping with his school at Nickerson, the other at an arts program for sixth graders from across the state in Western, MA, then I will be off to a conference, then a week or ten days of a teacher retreat. Choices. Hard to be away from the kids, but they are growing up and I am growing out, all on our paths, no turning back, no double lives, you pick something, you do it, you never know what would have happened if you had picked something else. Quite the lesson to get at 7 am on Saturday morning from an eight year old on her way away for the weekend. Love that girl.

We walk to the park on a rainy day, little ducks all in a row in our rain coats, rain pants, rain boots, all smiles brightening up the neighborhood. When we pass my neighbor’s yard, I wonder aloud to my little group if anyone knows the name of the flowering bush in her garden, the one I admired earlier in the week on a walk with my husband, low to the ground and absolutely covered in little complex gold and maroon flowers.

Guess who knows? My two who loves the flowers. Out of her concentration on the water on the sidewalk beneath her boots comes her small voice, “Witches Broom.”

“What?” asks my seven year old homeschooler, formerly our prime naturalist.

“Witches Broom.” I repeat.

“Says who?” wonders my boy.

“Says _____”, I say.

“Does she know?” my boy wonders.

“I think she does.” I reply. “She knows a lot about flowers and plants, just like you. I trust her. Her grandmother has a lot of flowers and I think that is how she learns some of the names.”

“Well, I guess I believe her, too.” says my homeschooler, and I am pleased to see him concede the crown.

At the park, I wonder to Liana if our two could have really known that flower. Liana says she has a broom plant in her yard which is flowering right now, little flowers all up the stems, no leaves. It sounds like what we saw, and I also remember a conversation I overheard recently, someone talking about making a real broom out of their broom bush. I think aloud that maybe this is the time of year for broom bushes and we imagine our two is correct.

On the walk home, we stop again, and admire the Witches Broom, compare it to the bush in Liana’s garden, note that it is a bit different, there are small leaves on this one, and the flowers are not quite the same, but Liana thinks it must be the same family. 

As we are discussing this, the homeschooler, who has been grumpy in the rain at the park, brightens. “Hey, everybody, look!” and we all wonder what to look at and he shows us a rose bush around the corner of the garden. “Look at these roses. They are huge!”

And we all stop to look. The roses are indeed huge, big as cereal bowls, and gorgeous, pale, pale pink with tips of coral and yellow. The homeschooler wonders about their name. I think they are tea roses, remembering my grandmother’s bushes, her fondness for roses, the sweet smell of the cut blooms on her counter always in a small crystal vase or in a low dish floating in water, always something old someone had given her or found at a yard sale.

“Tea roses.” My boy repeats this as I do, trying to remember, not only the word, but the beauty of the rose, moods lifting.

Around us children are fingering flowers low to the wet ground, one four pressing the petals of the overfull rhododendron between her fingers, wet velvet dissolving. My two asks for the name of the flowers lowest to the ground, nearest her. She touches one, asks if I know the name. I wonder if she does, wonder if she remembers it is not a pansy but an impatien, as she had thought on a recent walk, if she learned it’s proper name after that talk. She says again incorrectly “pansy”, and again I offer how similar it is to a pansy, but that it is called impatien. In this garden now, there is a pansy right beside the impatiens, and up close I am again amazed by her error, note for the second time how similar the construction of the plants, petals, leaves, shape, size, imagine this girl to have the powers of a naturalist, a botanist, wonder what her ancestors did with these powers, what she will do when she grows up.

And then the two finds a flower she does not know and that I don’t know either, a low purple one with tiny little clusters of blooms all together as though they are one bigger flower. I think they are annuals used for filler, don’t know their name, ask Liana. She thinks they are Elisum, we repeat this, ask our two if she can, which she does perfectly, has Liana repeat it to be sure we have it right.

As we leave, I tell Liana about my neighbor who tends this garden, how she has been very ill and could not work in the dirt, that a friend of mine had tended her garden a long time, but that she is getting better and working her garden again, a science teacher who loves plants.

When we get home, I want to remember all of what the children have said so I can write it here. I get a napkin and scribble while I heat the griddle for quesadillas, writing all I can remember as kids play all around with flubber, our other science experiment of the day, wishing I could write about the flubber too as I watch them, finding the napkin and the computer and my memory in the way of telling the story as I live it. I write the names of all the flowers and next to each I write something about the child and the sense or question they used to explore it. As I am scribbling, my homeschooler comes with paper and marker, asks me to write Tea Rose, Witches Broom, and Elysum, so he won’t forget. I show him my napkin, read him my four words, Witches Broom, Tea Rose, Rhododendron, Elysum. He does not want Rhododendron, that is not new to him, but I write the others and we enjoy our need to remember by writing things down together.  

Reminds me of the other thought I had after we passed the garden, while I was wanting to remember our stories and to write them down before I forgot, that I want the world to know how much our children are learning as they are living and I wondered if we shared our stories if readers would wonder where was the math or the reading or the writing, why only science today, and then my boy the seven showed me the way, when we need to write and read, we do, when science or a story or our families or our neighbors or the rain are on our minds, that is what we do. It all works out, we are always learning, don’t know really how we could be learning more than we are now by being so fully alive. No curriculum or lesson plans or state mandates here, just life lived as well as we can manage every day.

At story time, we read Rose in the Rain. I don’t think until I write the title for this piece, about my young boy’s question, another two. He says, looking at the cover, Rose is a Pig! And in this Rose in the Rain, that is what Rose is, a pig in a rain coat out for a walk in the rain, getting wet and muddy, and having a real good time. We laugh as we listen, happy to be warm and dry and full of quesadilla and soup and apples and milk and water, happy to be reading books together with our families on the way, happy after our day of Rose(s) in the Rain.

If you had only one day to live what more would you wish than to be happy?

P.S. After a day to think, I wonder if the Witches Broom was really Witches Broom, check on the internet, find it is not. Witches Broom is a fungus that grows on plants, which creates places on plants like rhododendrons with spiky growths like a broom. The plant we were observing appears to be in the Broom family, though, as we thought, most likely a Scotch Broom, and according to Google Images, a particularly nicely colored version. Most seem to be all yellow, while ours was maroon and yellow.

Upon reflection, I also wonder about the one day left to live question. Happiness was all I could wish for yesterday after our morning of roses in the rain. Later I realized that being with those we love, even if it weren’t a happy day, might be what we would wish. Or maybe to do something worthwhile, maybe helpful or artistic, or inventive or groundbreaking, or everyday, familiar, like reading a favorite book, sharing stories might be what we would wish. Something more to think about today. Happiness for sure, but what else?

Today at breakfast my two calls me by her grandfather’s name. Then we talk about her family, which leads to a mention of her grandmother’s roses. I ask my girl if she would like to see the roses in my side yard. She says yes. I tell how my daughter and I saw the roses this am on our way to school, how well they are doing this year, the pink and red.  A four says she also likes roses, has some red ones in her yard, too. We talk about where they are in her yard, and since they are in the front, I look forward to seeing them next time I pass by, which makes us both smile.  I wonder if she cuts them to bring them in the house or if she leaves them on the bush. She leaves them on the bush, as I do, knowing they will die quicker in the house.

The three, listening intently tells us that he has a flower, but it died. I wonder if it was the sort of flower you buy in the grocery store and put in a vase or the kind you put in the ground. It is the kind you put in the ground, his older brother, our homeschooler adds. The flowers bloomed but then died. We talk about this, I wonder if the leaves are still green, the three says yes, looking thoughtful.

The two adds that her flower died, too. So much to know about pizza and roses and flowers dying.

The homeschooler and I talk about how long this plant in their yard will bloom. He thinks forever. I wonder if that means just the months that are warm. He thinks it has been blooming forever. I wonder if it will stop in the winter. He pauses, thinks maybe it will keep blooming all winter. Only one true way to find out, wait and wonder and watch, though he might be the sort to look it up online to see what the experts say, I hope he keeps watch.

This morning in my inbox there is another message from ExchangeEveryday, my source of provocation and inspiration each morning to think about life, work, child care. Today the quote at the top of the message, often my favorite part is: The present is the point of power. Kate Green. The title of the message had been Yes, We Can! The two pieces already have me thinking about our ventures in child care and alternative schooling and whether or how we can get something new off the ground in the present political, economic, and educational climate.

I read further and sure enough, today’s message is an excerpt from a woman named Betty Caldwell, whose name I may have heard, but whose work is not familiar to me. She is writing about the power of early childhood professionals to influence the world, specifically in this message, she talks about the context of the last presidential election, about the history of the field of child care, and about the generation of young voters raised in child care who were influential in electing Obama. To read her full message, go to the Exchange home page. For today, at least, it is posted there:

I have been thinking for some time about writing a piece on Child Care in Context. When I was first teaching in the Boston area, I took a course at Harvard Extension which I loved titled just that, Child Care in Context. We learned all about how child care has evolved in the US over the last two centuries, about the parallel development of early childhood education, and about the convergence of the early education and early care programs or perspectives which has occurred only fairly recently. According to Betty Caldwell, the period of time from 1961 to 1988 was a critical time in this last phase, with the beginnings of research into child care and its effects on children, and in particular, its potential to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, and the gradual recognition that  child care was here to stay and worth valuing as much as early education.”  To quote Betty Caldwell in her message to Exchange, “It took many years for leaders — professors, curriculum developers, community leaders — to accept the reality that ‘day care’ was what many families wanted and needed. But when that recognition finally took hold (over the period of roughly 1976 to 1988),  it was good for both ‘dots,’ both varieties of service. For early education it meant a more pragmatic and realistic orientation; for day care it meant improved training, more consistent quality, and higher status in the community.”

When I read this piece, I realized how my own life had fit into this picture, and how it is not at all coincidental that I have found myself straddling the worlds of education and care my whole career. I was born in 1966 in a generation when middle class mothers were not all working, when many of us did not require or expect child care or early childhood education. I went straight from home to kindergarten, and as my mother gradually returned to the work force as a teacher, first part time, then more full time, I was cared for by neighbors in informal arrangements, or my mother managed to be home when I was. By the time I graduated from college though, in Betty Caldwell’s critical year of 1988, child care was a well-established need. Few women of my graduating class expected to do anything other that get a job and work full time. We expected to work in the same ways, in many cases, as the men with whom we graduated. 

At that time, though, for me, jobs in teaching were hard to find. It was another recession when I graduated from Teachers College in 1990, and so my first and second jobs out of college were not in schools, but in child care centers. I got the first one after Cornell, with no formal teacher training, but a major in Human Development and Family Studies and some time working in camps and in a mini version of student teaching in a school in Ithaca as part of a course at Cornell. The second job was at the Tufts Day Care Center, when I wanted to move from NYC to be with my then boyfriend, now husband, who was working at Harvard. Sending out over 80 resumes to public schools, and hearing back from none, I took the job at the day care center, expecting it to be a stepping stone to work in an alternative public school.

It turned out that after two more jobs, one in an independent progressive school, as an associate teacher at Fayerweather, and the other at a public school far from the city as a second grade teacher in Mansfield, I was destined to spend the years of my motherhood and the majority of my career thus far in family child care. I had come into the reality of my generation, that not only would I need to work full time, I would want to be a mother, and in my case, would want to do that full time also.

I am one of those lucky few who has done both. Most moms don’t work full time and mother full time, but few of us, at least in my circle, have not found some form of child care necessary in raising our children, and I think every child I know has gone through if not a child care program, an early education program before kindergarten.

This is a huge shift. What I realized this morning, and cannot write more about just now, as I am neglecting my children and need to get them to school and me to work, is that the generations starting with mine are going to have very different views than the generations before us when it comes to early education and care. Starting with those of us born in the 1960’s, we will all have grown up in a world where early education and care is the norm, not the exception, not only for poor women (who have always had to work) and their children, but for everyone. Our children, and most children born since the 1980’s, if not the 1970’s, who are now adults beginning to raise their own children, will have experienced early childhood education and care first hand. This is going to have tremendous impact on the way we look at care and education moving forward. The ramifications are huge–political, educational, economic, societal. We are in the generation or the era that is figuring it all out. It is hard. Huge gaps are appearing, huge shifts happening in our midst, kind of like an earthquake, straddling the widening rift and wondering if we will fall in as a society with all our children dropping along with us, or if we will find a way to stop the earthquake, bridge the widening gaps, fill in the huge holes.

It is good, as I sign off to get my kids going for school, to know the next generation after mine will have first hand experience with child care. Maybe that hands on learning will give them a fuller understanding of the situation that will allow them to address the needs and challenges of early education and care in ways I could not even imagine. At the very least, it seems they will not question the value of child care in the same way generations before me have, but will see it as an essential piece of the fabric of our world and one worth making strong.

We are enjoying the fruits of our labor, devouring the pizza at lunch time (the four who made it of course thought we might be having it for breakfast, when it came out of the oven, but no, it was again for lunch!).  As we are eating pizza, and I am enforcing the choose the piece you want and eat the crust if you choose a piece with crust theme, the five who helped make the pizza says:

“This is kind of like magic,” she touches her finger to the crust of her pizza,”because I don’t know how this part turns to crust.”

Her four year old partner, says, “Yeah, it’s kind of like magic because the puffy part turns into crust.”

So many weeks and months and years of making pizza, so much still magical, mysterious, some becoming science. The yeast, the baking, the melting, the when we eat it, the forming of the crust all begin to take shape in the minds of the fours and fives, following wonder, magic, mystery to questions and exploration and discussion and facts shared and observations remembered, slowly turning experience into scientific understanding.

I read somewhere recently, I think in a Howard Gardner book, that much of our understanding of the world which is inaccurate is no different in adults than in children. I think how much experience we each need with something as simple as making pizza before we get to the stuff our elementary school science programs attempt to teach, wonder what in elementary school is understood, what is still mystery or misconception even in high school and college and beyond, what passes for knowledge or mastery on the MCAS, what portion of that transfers to later years or to other settings or to real life.

Today we have work to do. Graduation is on Sunday, pizza is for lunch. Kids come in and get to work with teachers making plans, making pizza. The plans for graduation must change a bit this year, from an evening event to a morning event. No pizza this year, but potluck. What will everyone bring, how will we coordinate? Liana and a group of kids get a big sheet of paper and many little sheets. Toddlers make their own little graduation posters, Liana writes out the words the bigger ones dictate. One five will bring hot fudge, sprinkles, whipped cream, remembering we always have ice cream sundaes for graduation. Another five offers cake with sprinkles and ice cream, remembering another piece of the tradition. Several families have offered foods they want to share. One Chinese grandma has been looking forward to making her special dish, fried rice. One dad thinks to make mac and cheese for the kids. One mom offers chocolate covered strawberries, her contribution for her kids’ birthday celebrations each year they have been with us, as we say good-bye to her number three. Another couple of moms write on the internet to the group what they will bring, fruit salad for the new mom who has not been in the day care since the baby arrived, sweets, probably not homemade from the mom with three young kids, working hard. Another mom who arrives offers juices and her boy, a newly four, discusses with a five, who says they will not bring beer this year, as it is too early, but that his dad likes orange juice, can the four bring that and other juices for the kids. We talk about the kinds there are, grape, apple, cranberry, and we talk about water, which the four offers in German, the five counters is not juice, I counter is often drunk in bottled form by people at parties, then the boys plan for this treat using the German word, which I search for on the internet using babblefish, but cannot find the right word to match the one the boys have used and which we want to list on our poster of contributions. Midmorning, I type a list of all the contributions into the computer, send it out to our day care listserv, hear back shortly from two more families saying what they will bring, filling in the gaps, we are doing very nicely with our democratically arranged potluck graduation party. I am pleased.

When this task is done we must make pizza, another more regular tradition. I advertise the plan, get my two older girls and two younger girls to help. We follow our rituals, spreading oil gives us extra pleasure now that we all know what to do, sprinkling flour on the dough is old hat for the bigger girls, the young ones need reminders to pat gently, to take only a pinch of flour, not to pull the dough too hard. The bigger girls and I teach these things gently in the context of our routine. Then we spread sauce, again the big girls cover the dough completely and evenly, the younger ones put piles on the dough right in front of their bodies, the bigger girls help to cover the whole thing. Same with cheese, where the big girls make snow, tell me they know what to do when I say my familiar words, sprinkle the cheese like snow, rather than pile it into mountains, the younger two make mountains, the bigger girls help to spread out the mountains, sprinkle, I turn the tray so the mountains are at least on four sides of the pan. And then the older girls remind us that the dough must go in the oven that the cheese will melt.

When these projects are done, kids are tired. Another boy has brought tape, covered the climber with the help of his friends in a spider web, reliving a favorite memory from earlier in the year. All this activity leads to calm, to kids dressing up and talking and pretending and singing softly in the living room and others working with playdough in near silence at the project table while the pizza bakes, I write the story, Liana helps. Soon clean- up, mats, toileting, book reading, drawing, quiet choices at tables, breakfast, dishes, coats, walk, park, all those pieces of our daily rituals and routines following in predictable order, done with some chaos, but mostly a strong sense of knowing we are together and that we are headed somewhere good. Then back to eat our pizza for lunch, to say hello to families who come for midday pickup, to nap or rest or to school to get the big kids, to homework and play and snack and outside time again if the yard is not too muddy or dancing or stories in the house if it is, then home, always home at the end of the day. And on Sunday we will meet for our annual tradition, coming together for Graduation, this year in the morning, something a little different, and honoring seven children on their way to school, more than ever before. We will read kind words to relive our lives together, we will share food we all made, we will hug and kiss and be kind and loving and feel our good-byes down deep before the summer and the fall changes are upon us, a good time together.

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