April 2010

Today I am off to Lesley University, right down the way in Porter Square, where one day care mom works, I know just where to park, I think, to be part of the Lesley Reggio Emilia Pre-Insitute. Today is the one of the three day Institute I am looking forward to the most, in honor of the Hawkins Centers of Learning http://www.hawkinscentersoflearning.org/. I can’t wait to go today, partly because it is my first time out in the larger world of education for awhile, partly because I am going to write a paper and get a college credit for the weekend, something I haven’t done in a long, long time, but mostly, because I am going to be in the presence of a group of amazing women today, some who have been mentors to women I have known and loved, others who have written books I have read, one who was a parent in my classroom a long time ago. The Hawkins Center website talks about the Hawkins couple in whose honor the Center was founded, about their lifelong commitment to learning and teaching, about their involvement with Head Start and Open Education and Reggio Emilia, all things from which I have a lot to learn, but also it talks about the centers commitment to democratic dialogue and to the experience of becoming as open-ended. So, for today, I am looking forward to that, hoping to take away images of these great women that I will hold in my mind until I am very old, and to take wisdom from their words and experience to inspire my own living and learning and teaching and caregiving, and if I am lucky, to make some connections to folks outside the famous ones, maybe to someone who wants to sit with me at lunch and share stories of our lives with children, bouncing ideas off one another, thinking about what next.

And while I am at the Lesley Institute, back at home in the day care, Liana will be holding down her own intergenerational fort. She will work with Emma Rome, second generation family day care provider, who I met at age nine at the birthday party of her cousin and my good friend’s son, first friend to my oldest son. Emma probably held Ben that day when she was nine and today she will spend the day with Liana and the kids, including our homeschooler, also nine, who wants to work with children, and who will hold our babies dear. Also, Liana will bring her good, lifelong friend, Eilleen, who was Liana’s teacher when Liana was nine years old, and who Liana helped in her classroom when Liana was a college student about Emma’s age and Eilleen was teaching third and fourth grade. Eilleen has come to town to visit our day care, to see where the grown-up Liana works, and I am both sad not to be part of this special day (Liana and I didn’t realize the conflict when we made our plans) and thrilled that the day will have such resonance and potential for intergenerational learning. I wish I could be two places at once. Lucky for me, after the Lesley adventure, I will have dinner with Liana and Eilleen, and if all goes well, and we are not all completely exhausted, we’ll share our stories then.

We walk the same route from the day care to the park and back again nearly every day. Today on the way home, my two and a half calls down into the metal grating covering a hole in the ground the size of many Somerville living rooms, adjacent to the apartment buildings, “Hello Mommy Daddy!”

He calls out with the same vigor and intonation as his older friends who have been saying “Hello Mommy Daddy!” down that hole for months. But today he is the one to say it first, and he grins broadly. Then the others join in and the chorus of “Hello Mommy Daddy!” from one to four is full of happiness and pride in each child’s sense of belonging to the group, and I think today, of calling joyfully to their parents, saying on some deeper level, “Hello Mommy Daddy, I’m ok! Day care is fun! My friends and I are here on our way home from the park playing our Hello Mommy Daddy game. Life is good.”

As it happened, I wanted to write it all down for you, partly because it was cool for my two and a half year old, whose first language is not English, to be leading the game, partly because I realized most parents probably don’t know about this game, and it would be fun for you to sit at your desks each day around 12:30 or 12:45 and listen for your children calling you, voices echoing in the big grating covered hole, and partly, because the sense of group was so strong right then that I could feel it in the children’s voices, smiles, and bodies, it was a vital force that needed to be shared.

Kids in day care get something good, and it is something different, I want to say, than what kids get when they are home alone with parents, or in a regular playgroup, or with a sitter or a grandparent or an aunt. Young kids living and learning in groups in child care are a phenomenon whose social rules and development may be unique. I hope someday the news will be as full of all the games kids play in quality programs with their friends as it is of all the challenges group care presents. Today I had nearly as much fun observing the Hello Mommy Daddy game as I did observing the twos through fours share knock-knock jokes at breakfast.  I listened carefully for the first time to the jokes and wanted to understand the rules of knock-knocks at different ages. What makes something fit the pattern of a knock-knock joke, what do I say next, what makes it funny, what makes each friend laugh, all questions our kids are exploring. These things deserve as much attention as the challenges some kids exhibit when they are in poor quality programs or are in care too much of their lives or are living with highly stressed families.

Today I am sitting in the project room of the day care. It is a cluttered space. The walls aren’t pretty, but the sun shines through the newly refurbished old windows, through the white cotton polka dot curtains, onto the table where we work. One boy brought rolls and rolls of bar code stickers to day care today, and I thought to put them on the art table with heavy white paper and dot markers. Turns out this was a very popular activity, and kids did all kinds of interesting things with it. Eventually, though, there were only the four who brought the stickers and his companion, a nearly three. They sat and painted, and while they did, the four asked the nearly three, “Did you get flooded?”

She replied, “Yeah, a little bit.”

He persisted, ” I wonder, did your basement get flooded?”

“Yeah, a little bit.” She replied, amazingly thoughtfully for a two and many months.

“How much?” asked the four.

“I didn’t get that much.” and she pauses to think. “About a foot. Not much in my basement.”

I sit astounded. How is it that when two and four year olds have the freedom to talk as they wish, when they are relaxed in the company of adults who help them to get out the paints and paper and stickers, who don’t tell them what to do, too much, that their talk drifts to flooding and basements? I might as well have been at Dunkin Donuts in Sudbury, where I stopped yesterday for a decaf, envied the table full of older folks drinking coffee and talking with animation to one another, intensity and eye contact at 10 am for the companionship of friends, old and young. Conversation, freedom of expression, a basic human right, a privilege of those who are not alone, is a gift to many of our old folks and to our children, no rule here that says no talking, that says, it is spring and therefore your artwork must look like this.

I think as I overhear this conversation about the privilege of privacy we have in our little family day care world. No one walks down the hall to check up on us and to see what we are doing. We can do whatever we want within the regulations, and even without if we so choose and don’t get caught, but mostly we stay inside the rules and still we have enormous freedom, and privacy, which we share and extend to our children.

I wonder how many other programs use this same freedom and privacy to do things or to neglect to do things that we might all wish were more visible. Sometimes I hear stories about family day care providers whose kids live on donuts and tv, who leave ashtrays of cigarette butts on the end tables in reach of their toddlers, who keep toys put away in closets so only they can take them out. I have seen kids in carriages from day care centers strapped into their seats and walked around the block, never to touch the ground, and back to their square block classrooms in time for lunch and nap. And then I think, privacy for us is wonderful. Transparency, though, has it’s place, and while I feel lucky that the state doesn’t require me to make lesson plans, that bar code stickers and watercolor paints and conversations about the flood can happen in one room while kids play good guys and bad guys or lay on the couch or read books with a teacher, or dump buckets of toys to explore in the other rooms, I know it isn’t all rainbows and happy trees for kids and grown-ups in many places.

One friend left his job, though, because of too much accountability. He could have been fired for failing to take attendance in his toddler group every ten minutes by the clock, forget about reading stories uninterrupted, or changing diapers when a kid made a poop, if it was 1:10 and his supervisor walked in, he had to be taking attendance. Same place required the kids to sleep with lights on, to have lights on at all times in fact, the overhead flourescent ones that give some grown-ups migraines were required by the national corporation to be lit for their youngest children from earliest morning to darkest night, never turned off in case something bad might happen. Something bad happened in one of their other centers one time, when the lights were off, and therefore, to lessen the chance of another such bad thing happening, all the kids and all the grown-ups in all the centers run by this corporation worldwide had to live with the lights on all the time. Shocking but true, and my friend moved on, while other, likely less qualified and less experienced teachers or providers moved in, the way it goes in places that deny freedom, those with less choice, with fewer options, accept the position of less freedom, learn to live by the rules that to some of us would feel like torture.

I wonder if it is a stage of adult development, this realization that you can’t have it all. I drive the carpool to Sudbury Valley today, surrounded by kids whose families have chosen or are in the process of trying to choose to send their child off on a different path, away from organized academics, traditional school, to a place where kids choose how to spend their time, what to think about and explore and do. On my way home, I think about what is lost and what is gained, how hard it is for me to accept sometimes the reality of life, how hard it was to understand that being divorced also meant being without my children, that choosing to work in my day care means not having a role in the public schools, other than as a parent, that I both love and value the time I spend with children, and am a working mom, am supporting other moms (and dads) in being separate from their kids by being together with mine and theirs, by working hard and never having been a stay at home mom, other than for a few months when Ben was first born, how hard it has been to accept that living my life in Somerville, far from home and family and the friendships of my early life, means never going back, starting and making my own way, how tricky it has been sometimes to reconcile myself to being a city person when my roots are in the country, to stop imagining that some day I might be a farmer, or a public school teacher, and maybe I will be someday, the willingness to suspend knowing the tricky part, to accept many rights and many wrongs on each path, in each model, within each decision, just to go on living every day, feet splayed like the horseman in the circus last Friday, balancing on two galloping horses in a ring to a clapping audience, guided by a woman in a beautiful dress with a whip, telling the horses what to do, the man with super strong legs and nerves of steel, the audience amazed at two horses keeping pace, at the rider balancing as the horses leapt and circled, speeded up and slowed down, at the beautiful woman smiling in synchronicity with the man and horses, keeping it all together with a glow. And you figure there were times when the man fell, when the woman shouted, when the horses moved at different paces, when the audience, if only an audience of one in a practice ring, when one or all of them were disappointed, hurt even, and somehow they all went on.

We are studying growing and dying and changing things, mostly plants. We have had our hands on all kinds of flowers, inside and out, and bulbs, and roots and shoots. Awhile back, Liana brought some sprouting onions and a sprouting potato. We started wondering, after having the potato on the windowsill for a week or so, why the potato hadn’t gotten long shoots growing out of it. The shoots were short and stubby and knobbly. We wondered if it was to do with light, thought it would be interesting to put one potato in the dark, one in the light. Today we had those two potatoes, both left out, one on the counter, one on the window ledge. I asked if we should put one in the dark. Our four thought we should put both in the dark. At first I said it would be hard to tell the difference between light and dark that way, but when he insisted, I thought, why not, this is his version of science, and also, we’ve watched awhile on the windowsill and have a sense of what the potato is doing in the light. Now we can find out about the dark. I suggested someplace in the kitchen, either in the cupboard under the counter or in the drawer of the stove, then thought twice about the drawer, realizing it might get hot when the oven is on. The four liked the cupboard idea, put both potatoes there inside a cooking pot. I took pictures so we could see what the potatoes looked like when we started. He suggested we check back next Tuesday, looking up at the ceiling as he calculated, as kids do when they are seeing something in their mind, and I realize it is Tuesday today and that is his day to come, and I say, one week sounds about right for checking on the potato.

Later in the morning, my four comes to the kitchen and says, let’s check on the potato. He opens the cupboard door and looks. I wonder how many times he will check, if he will forget about the experiment, how he will react, my own experiment, part potato, part kid.

Sorry the photos are a little blurry. I was having trouble with the camera today.

Today we arrive at the park after a tour de force of the neighborhood blossoms and flowers. There is a four from Macky and Michael’s family day care standing there by the fence, eager to greet us.

“Hi,” he beams. “Isn’t it funny that the world just keeps on going?”

Just what I love to hear, more wonder.

Partway to the park, my three had her version. “Look!” she had said. “Lilacs! Spring is here!”

Not that different from the Tolstoy quote in Writers’ Almanac this morning, struck me hard, didn’t know who to share it with til just now. Enjoy, from Tolstoy and the kids and me, the world keeps on going, lilacs are here again, and spring just keeps on coming.

In April of 1858, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author) wrote to Alexandra Tolstoy, his aunt twice-removed and his closest confidante. He called her babushka,or grandmother, as a sort of joke, although she wasn’t much older than him. He wrote:

“Babushka! It’s spring! It is so good to be alive on this earth, for all good people and even for such as I. Nature, the air, everything is drenched in hope, future, a wonderful future. … When I think about it more soberly, I know perfectly well I am nothing but an old frozen potato, rotten, cooked and served up with a tasteless sauce full of lumps, but the springtime has such a powerful effect on me that I sometimes catch myself imagining I am a plant that has just opened and spread its leaves among all the other plants and is going to grow up simply, peacefully and joyfully on the good Lord’s earth. … Make way for this wonderful plant that is filling out its buds and growing in the spring.”

Today was our first day back from vacation. I felt lucky, as I always do, to be back in the day care, to be with the kids and families and teachers again, to visit our park, to make food and share it with the kids, to tidy the place with young hands, to be out in the world and soaking it all in from the perspective of the kids, to see all that has changed in the neighborhood in one short week, cherry and apple blossoms bursting, jonquils fading, tulips passing their peak, friends at the park with stories to share of things they have done, leaves all burst out and the world green as ever, winter truly past, spring in full bloom, still cool enough today for sweaters, but possible now to imagine sun and water and skin and channels in the sand.

When I’m away for a week, with friends and family who are teachers, lawyers, doctors, students, retired, living in the country or the suburbs or another state, it seems possible to imagine another life, one where I might have accomplished more, lived differently, been somehow and in some ways happier or more fulfilled, to think sometimes of other paths I might someday take, other lives I might someday live. But when I am back, and in the moment, buttering warm, freshly baked bread for my charges, hearing my four ask how do the geese cry, then making tender whimpering sounds that feel just right, when I am tearing apart cone flowers from Ashfield with my hands, flowers dried and turned to seed, surrounded by a table full of toddlers and threes, when my three asks to help each time I am in the kitchen, first with the rice, then with the breakfast, then with the lunch, when my fours make homes for their loveys while wearing fancy dress up clothes, then willingly take stacks of bricks from my hands and place them thoughtfuly, tightly on the shelf, when Alice says something just right to a child, again  and again and again, and I have the privilege to overhear her while I am busy across the room, when my two smiles and gives me my first real hug from her as I change her diaper, having said Hello, Maria to me, grinning broadly and looking in my eyes from across the room two times already this morning, when my new dad calls midmorning, and at first I don’t know who he is, then I do, and he is calling from the hospital where his wife and the new baby are so nearby that I can hear them in the background, then I think, how could I do anything else? How would any other life be better? What would make me happier? Where would I rather live? What work could bring me deeper satsisfaction? And I count the years this afternoon that I have been with my nines, eight years almost, from toddlerhood through middle childhood, and on the playground today after school, we stay over one hour, out in the sun two times today sitting with adults who keep their children company so the children can run and play and be outdoors, like minds, happy hearts, good conversation, very lucky to be me.

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