I have a complicated relationship with preschool.
Complicated because, as an educator, I know it’s important. I’ve read the articles, seen the case studies, have a passing knowledge of the demographics suggesting that early childhood education is a strong indicator for later academic success. I want everyone to go to preschool, and I want it to be free, and I want a government who cares about this—and all education—as much as I do. It was one of the hardest things to leave behind in Germany, the affordable preschools (there called Kindergarten) where kids played outside and learned to use—I’m serious—hammers and saws to built creations in their own little wilderness.
Complicated because, as a parent, I feel an immense amount of peer pressure to offer my kids as much preschool as I can. There are many for whom preschool doubles as necessary childcare in dual-income households, but oddly most of the pressure (which is of course mostly of my own imagining) comes from fellow moms at home, searching and cataloguing and touring and waitlisting. I have a spreadsheet like they all seem to, made last summer when I felt like we were missing some critical step in our oldest daughter’s development, and I can boil it all down to one sentence: This just costs too much.
Complicated because, well, I didn’t go to preschool myself. And this is not like elementary school, where I say “I didn’t go,” but also that I was homeschooled through sixth grade. I didn’t go at all, nor did I do any kind of organized school until Kindergarten.
And complicated because, as a final result of a series of circumstances beyond my control (including, but not limited to, a global pandemic) my daughter won’t be going, either.
Or rather, she will; I received official confirmation yesterday that she’s enrolled in a class adorably named the Eagles, where she’ll encounter units titled things like “Pumpkins,” “Mittens,” and “Dinosaurs.” But her school orientation in September will be online, as will her thrice-weekly classes. She’ll have a teacher, whom she’s met several times in real life, and classmates, most of whom she’s never met, but for the foreseeable future preschool will happen at our dining room table.
This wasn’t what I planned. I planned for my daughter to go to an outdoor forest school, where kids wear rainsuits and read books on blankets in the woods. I planned for to start this year with a new backpack and one of those little signs telling everyone it’s her first day of school. I planned for her to use these few afternoons a week to practice being away from us before the big plunge into Kindergarten, for her to get to experience nurturing and instruction from other adults, trained early childhood teachers, a discipline in which I regularly bump up against my own lack of expertise.
A friend whose own son starts Kindergarten in a few weeks recently told me that though she doesn’t get sentimental about many things, the thought that she’d never get to walk her son to his first day at elementary school made her a little sad. I turned the thought over, imagining that it was Kindergarten rather than preschool that I had to reimagine, and found myself instantly mourning this hypothetical in a way that surprised me.
“My first day of school was in sixth grade,” I told her, helpfully. “He’ll have one eventually.”
Maybe that’s the trouble. Though I’ve come to understand and respect the reasons it is a part of my story, I didn’t love homeschooling as a child. I always felt I was missing something, even something as simple as a backpack and a desk with my name on it. I didn’t have a first day of Kindergarten, either.
But that’s my story, not my daughter’s. She misses her friends, misses going to the zoo and the grocery store and playgrounds. She does not miss school, classrooms, little desks or circle time or cubbies. She is curious, but she can also wait. For her, this year of preschool isn’t some shadow version of itself; this is brand new, a shiny addition to her little life.
My husband and I were comparing notes recently about our own school traditions as children. He grew up on military bases on the East Coast and in Italy, while I was homeschooled until middle school. “Even in Italy, we’d take that picture,” he said, referring to the backpack-laden kids by the front door. “That’s just what you do on the first day of school.”
“We just… started,” I replied, gesturing vaguely at the date between the beginning and end of September on which we decided school would happen again. “But there was this day. The day that the books came. That was our first day of school.”
Toward the end of every summer, a heavy box of books would arrive at our home in the mountains, and we’d take them out one at a time, these brand-new textbooks. Their covers were still shiny, their spines unbroken, empty workbooks waiting for my heavy, left-handed writing. I loved it, all those possibilities, the promise of a year to come. I’d flip to the end of a math book (back before I went to school in seventh grade and learned that girls were supposed to be bad at math) and squint at problems I couldn’t possibly dream how to untangle now. But would learn. Eventually, I’d understand.
Sometimes, in these last months, I’ve failed to give myself room to name the things I lost. I am hyper-aware that I haven’t lost much, in the grand scheme of loss that faces my country, and the world around it, so it seems useless to complain. A lonely spring, a quiet summer, an unusual preschool—these aren’t real losses, in the end. Still, every once in a while I need to pause and acknowledge that the disappointments are real, anyway.
And then, once I’ve named them, I can look around at what remains—a healthy family, meaningful work, a home—and what brand-new surprises have risen out of my own unmet expectations. The evenings on porches and patios, sitting a little farther from people I love than I normally would. A new friendship that sprouted out of the convenience of living five blocks apart. A Zoom preschool a few days a week, a few punctuation marks in the sentence of my daughter’s life. And another year—yes, the years are slipping by so quickly—at home with my firstborn before school imposes a new set of structure on our lives.
I smiled a few days ago, as I read the email inviting us to enroll in this local co-op preschool, when I discovered that this year of learning at home will include a “yearly supply box,” whose contents are still being decided upon by a hardworking committee of parents. Normally
the supplies live at the school, of course, but this isn’t a normal year, so they’re sending them to us. Here. A package of markers and paints and pipe cleaners, just for her.
Over the years, I’ve made a certain amount of peace with doing things differently than other moms, and this is a different year for all of us. I’ve never gotten around to purchasing one of those letterboards that moms are supposed to have. I don’t intend to buy my kids any new clothes for a while still, for school or otherwise. A new backpack seems like a silly investment, given the state of things.
But my daughter, like me, will have a Box Day, at the beginning of her first year of something like school.