“Papa, would you hold me?” Samuel asked, with a lump in the bottom of his throat, a cry just ready to leap out. He sounded so plaintive, so sad, and yet trying to be brave at the same time. I wanted to scoop him up in my arms right then, to hell with the traffic lined up behind my minivan.
“I’m sorry, sweet boy. Papa is driving right now. I’ll give you a big hug before you go into school.”
Samuel has started Montessori pre school. We had intended to enroll him in April when he turned three, so that he could have a couple of months with Rose in the classroom to adjust to life away from home without Mama or Papa. But they called us December, did an interview in the first week of January, and told us he was ready. We knew he was ready. He had spent a half hour in class once which he spent intensely focused playing with the math beads. He had cried when it was time to leave and play on the playground. He wasn’t done with the beads. But Dawn wasn’t ready to let him go. “My baby!” she cried. She tried every excuse she could think of.
“He’s not completely toilet trained.”
“He’s doing better than many children in the class.”
“He has food allergies.”
“So do half the children here.”
So off he went, crying at separation time every morning for three days when he got sick and had to stay home for a week. Now he was back in the saddle again.
“Papa! Papa! Papa!” he called from the back seat as we pulled up to the gate. The dam burst. The crying began. From the far back seat, Rose sighed at this interruption. She was in the middle of her latest library book, “Junie B. Jones And That Meanie Jim’s Birthday.” She doesn’t remember two and half years ago, how she spent the first two weeks of Montessori pre-school bursting into tears at the door when Mama dropped her off. She doesn’t remember spending two weeks of sitting by the window, looking out over the parking lot waiting for Papa to come pick her up.
I put the car in Park and wait for someone to show up. In a Montessori classroom, a teacher greets your child at the door and walks them in. It is part of the philosophy; the school is the children’s space. Everything is their size and their height, and they are responsible for keeping it neat and ordered and beautiful. Parents cannot barge in whenever they please; they must be invited to observe. This helps the child own the space and want to cherish it and take care of it and not share it with adults. In this sense, I think of it as a precursor to the teenage bedroom.
The teacher comes to your car, opens the door, unbuckles your child and walks them in. It’s certainly convenient, and Rose is already unclicked with her bag on one shoulder ready to leap out when Jen opens the door. Samuel cried. He wanted a kleenex. He wanted me to hold him. I knew the drill. One of the nice things about a mini-van, one of those things that you wondered how you ever lived without, is that you can get out of the driver’s seat and walk to the back seats where the children are without leaving the car. Thank God they didn’t have mini-vans when I was growing up. All the times my father threatened to pull the car over and spank his mis-behaving children – can you imagine how often he might have actually carried out that threat if he didn’t have to get out of the car to do it?
I untethered Samuel from his seat while Jen was helping Rose out.
I gave him THE BIG HUG.
“OK, Samuel. Time for school. I love you and Mama will come pick you up at noon. Have a great time!” I tried to sound enthusiastic, but it was 8:15 in the morning, and I had a small child screaming two inches from my ear drum. At least I was not impatient or surly. I rolled him over the folded seat in one neat motion. Jen was ready and caught him in her arms, like clowns in a circus act.
“Good morning, Samuel!” she says, a lot more chirpy than I could ever manage. “Let’s go inside. Are you ready, Rose?”
“I sure am!”
“PAAAAPA…” and Jen slid the door shut. Rose duck-walked over the frozen slush. Through the car window, I could hear the crunch of Jen’s feet, weighted down by my crying son, as she crushed the rime of corrugated ice on the gravel. She opened the white picket fence, now gray from months of dust and debris blown off Route 2, and they walked through the play area to the front door. Other cars full of tethered children and parents late for work were in line behind me, but I paused until the children were inside the door.
ThenI pulled a U-turn and circled around the parking lot. In the back, out of view, I found a spot to park the minivan. I pulled on my gloves and hat and walked the long way around to the office door.
The Montessori office and the classroom share a single wall about twenty feet long, broken only by a large double French door that is always open and a picture window, three feet tall by four feet wide with a see-through lace curtain. Between that wall and myself was a set of floor to ceiling bookshelves that went halfway across the room. As long as I stood by the entry door, I was invisible to everyone in the classroom, and they were invisible to me. A woman I did not know was inside at a desk, and I explained I was there for an observation that I had arranged with Kristen. She nodded and shrugged apologetically. She didn’t know anything about it. She was a substitute, just there for the day, standing in for some of the staff who were ill. She excused herself and disappeared behind the bookcases into the classroom. The rest of the staff were either outside greeting children or inside guiding them in their work for the day. For the moment, I was alone in the office.
In order to properly spy upon my children undetected I would have to get to the lace curtain, where I could observe the children without being clearly seen, assuming they did not look directly at the window and scan me carefully. Since there was more light in the classroom, it was unlikely they would see much, and since they were usually engaged in their work or the other children, it was unlikely they would even bother to notice. My children at least have inherited their father’s honed ability to tune out and ignore the rest of the world. But there were other potential problems. The bathrooms were on my side of the French doors, and if any child needed them, they would be able to see me as they went by. But even more problematic, in order to get to the curtained window, I would have to walk around the book cases, temporarily exposing myself to the classroom through the French doors. I would have to time things just right.
I peaked with one eye around the corner of the book cases. Fifty feet away there was a low, half wall that ran perpendicular across most of the room. I knew that on the far side of this wall were the cubbies and hooks and benches where the children left their coats and boots and hats and mittens before coming into the classroom proper, and as luck would have it, Samuel and Rose were still there. Samuel was still upset, though not crying quite as much. Jen was removing Samuel’s winter clothes while Rose was trying to distract him. She was bent over, and though I could not see them, I knew her face was not more than two inches from Samuel’s, as she reverted to patronizing baby talk.
“Does Samsy want to pway with the poke-ee-pine?”
“Ooh,” cooed Jen. “That sounds like fun. Let’s get your boots off first, though, okay?”
Both children were out of sight, save for the very top of the sea-anemone tassle of Samuel’s fleece winter hat sticking over the half-wall. Rose was completely out of view. I walked quickly and quietly around the corner and then stood out of view next to the window and counted to twenty. When I dared to peek through the mesh of the lace curtain, I saw that they had already entered the classroom proper, searching for a project. They had not seen me. I let out my breath.
Already the class was filling up with preschoolers. Rose and Finn are the oldest children, the only kindergarteners, the only ones who will “cross-over” this year, which is Montessori-speak for graduating to the next peer group stage. At that moment, Finn walked through the French doors, turned to me, smiled, but before he opened his mouth, I put my finger to my lips and raised my eyebrows. Either he understood me, or he didn’t remember who I was and wanted to get away from this stranger, but in either case he went back into the classroom and did not tell Rose that her Papa was here.
Rose is the only big girl in her class, an unprecedented chance at being the responsible big sister to twenty children. We hear stories from her teacher all the time about how she loves to help the younger children. I have often found this difficult to accept, because when she comes home from school, she usually wants to read books and be left alone, especially from Samuel. So I was amazed to watch her alter-ego blossom. She helped Samuel carry a tray all the way across the room where they set up the porcupine – a wood model with toothpicks that can be inserted in small holes on the back. The two of them played with it for ten minutes together, Rose lovingly helping him and praising him. No more tears, no anxiety, no crying. Samuel was completely absorbed in the work, in the classroom, in the environment. Next they brought out some paper and colored pencils and began drawing, and then Rose was off on her own, helping other children and doing her own work. Samuel finished his drawing and proudly showed it to every adult teacher and aide in the room.
After twenty minutes or so, when both children seemed completely engaged in their activities, I slipped back around the bookcase and back to the door where I had left my coat. I had just put on my hat and gloves when Michael appeared in the office wearing his trademark jeans, plaid flannel shirt over a T-shirt, and a knitted hat. I have never seen him without that knitted hat, and I wonder at times why his unkempt, curly, brown hair hasn’t grown and tangled through it. He is the Head of School, a half-time position, and fills in when other teachers are sick. He had seen me behind the curtain and stopped to say hello. We chatted briefly about the school and the potential for an elementary Montessori starting up in the future. I spent a year on the board as Secretary, when Michael was treasurer (before he took the Head of School position), and I always enjoyed talking with him. He’s a good six inches taller than me, and perhaps fifty pounds heavier, but I have never felt intimidated in his presence, even when I felt he went around rules to push his agenda. His heart was always in the right place, and his speech was never anything but gentle.
“Did you see Samuel come up to me?” he said, as though a rainbow had appeared in the sky.
“Yes, he was showing you his picture.”
“He knew my name! I don’t think we’ve ever spoken before, and he just came right up to me and started talking to me. Most children won’t do that. That’s phenomenal!”
I kvelled. What else can you do when a Montessori professional calls your child “phenomenal.” Then we were interrupted.
“Michael, we need your help.”
It was Rose. She and another student were walking into the office. She was walking with her head down as she often does and hadn’t quite made it around the bookcase. Michael was between us, so I tapped him on the shoulder, held up a finger, and disappeared behind the door of a private office next to us.
“We can’t find any glue and we’re trying to put this together. Can you find us some in the classroom?”
“Well, let me see… How about this glue right here? Will this work?”
“Yes! That’s perfect! Thanks!”
I waited, peaking through the crack in the doorjamb until Michael retrieved me.
“Is she gone?”
“Man, you’re fast.”
“Well, it’s her space, right? I didn’t want her to think I was trespassing.”
“Did she see you?”
“No, I didn’t give her the chance.”
“Then how did you know she was coming?”
I shrugged. “I can pick out my daughter’s voice across any room full of children.”
We shook hands, and I dashed out before Rose or Samuel could catch me.
Two days later, I dropped the children off at school. This time, we were early. No one was ready for us, so I turned off the engine and unclicked the children from their car seats. Samuel was starting to get sad, so I read him a book, but I only made it to page two when Jen appeared, walking from the front door. She saw Samuel and started playing peek-a-boo through the car window which made him smile. By the time I get the door open, Samuel was right behind Rose, ready to leap out.
“Jen!” he said, in his enthusiastic two-year-old way where the thoughts run ahead of the words, “this morning we heard the birds saying, ‘It’s cold! It’s cold!'”
“Really!” she laughed. They head into school with Rose leading the way. I called out “Goodbye! I love you guys!”, but too late. I get no answer and they were already through the gate.