On Monday, Mara will go in to school with Lee and I’ll go back to work. The week before school ended before the holidays, Mara and I visited her school twice and Lee was able to scoot up once between classes. Mara will be in the three-year-old classroom at the daycare (though it’s also a Head Start certified program, so I use “daycare” and “preschool” pretty much interchangeably) that’s on the top floor at the community college where Lee teaches. They’ll come in to school together and leave together and sometimes eat together. After my two months at home with Mara, I think it will be great for them to have official Mama-Mara time every day.
I’m really excited about Mara’s class. She’s the tenth student and the biggest girl by far, but two of the boys are about her size and most of the exercise time is spent with the four-year-old class, where there are kids as big as she is. As far as I can tell by looking, her class has only one white student and the rest are black or in at least one case black/white biracial. (One has a Farsi name but looks black, so that might just be a coincidence. Four of the ten have names that, pseudonymized, are like DeShawn, Sean, Shonte, and Shauna, no duplicates but very similar.)
The classroom teacher has more than 25 years of experience and she and the teacher’s aides are black, though all the student teachers from the community college I’ve seen have been white. The kids in the classes (in general; I don’t know the demographics of Mara’s group in particular) are mostly the children of students at the school, but many parents on staff and some of the faculty like Lee also send their kids there. Lee has a lot of friends who’ve had their kids go through the program and have great things to say about it. We get a subsidy from the state to pay for Mara’s care and while it leaves us paying about $10/day out of pocket, I think even the full price is very reasonable and many of the parents are able to use vouchers to cover the cost of keeping their kids in quality care while they work on their educations.
We know that race matters to Mara. She is absolutely bonded to me as her Mommy and comes to me for cuddling and nurturing and whatnot more than she does to Lee, but she loves when she and Lee can put on lotion together and compare their skin. I think it’s great that she’s going to be in a situation where she’ll be in the majority, where the other kids have skin and hair like hers. We may not give her that for the rest of her education, but I think now is a crucial time. And even though Lee is appalled that some of the teacher’s aides say “axed” or “ea’in'” with the glottal stop and dropped g, I think it will teach her to code switch early.
Mara and I spent three or four hours in class on the last day before the break, and while not all the kids were there, a lot were. Her speech is on the low end, but there’s at least one other girl who has speech problems of some sort too. Mara’s speech is so much better than it used to be that we’re not even sure if she’ll need much speech therapy, and I do believe she’ll catch up quickly and make a lot of progress once she’s talking to the other kids. She knows more letters and numbers than they do (one of her favorite things, not anything we’ve pushed on her!) and so I don’t think she feels like she’s behind or anything like that.
There’s one girl I don’t want to call a mean girl, but you’ll probably know what I mean if I say that. She’s a bit bossy and judgmental, clearly wants to be in control. She asked me whether Mara was a boy or a girl (maybe because of Mara’s short hair, since she also commented on the dress Mara was wearing) and later told Mara that she (Mara) couldn’t sing her quiet “num num num” while eating lunch because only little kids do that. She also is pushy with the quiet girl with speech problems, and when the quiet girl quietly said, “Hi, Miss Mary. I like your hair!” when a student teacher walked in, the pushier girl repeated it loudly and took credit for the compliment. Anyway, Mara didn’t seem bothered by her and I think Mara is very good at standing up for herself, but this is something we’ll watch.
Speaking of watching, Lee and I are free to visit the classroom whenever we want to and there’s also an observation room. Especially during the first weeks, Lee will probably slip up there occasionally just to see how Mara’s doing. We expect it to be a bit of a difficult change for her, but she really liked being in class. She’d cry periodically and come to me for comfort, but got redirected quickly and went with what the other kids were doing. (The pushy girl was curious about why Mara was crying, too, and a bit scornful about that, but the teachers were supportive.)
The classroom has a lot of little tables and play/study areas, plus a chair where a kid can sit if he or she needs a quiet break. There are little cots that get pulled out for nap time. The bathroom (three tiny stalls and two sinks) separates their room from the four-year-old class and is shared by both. After breakfast, the morning is spent in free play and/or activities with the teachers, as the child chooses. The only time a child is pressured to do a certain activity is for situations like when a speech therapist comes in to work with a specific child. Then they do rug time as a group, songs and movement and a little focus on letters and numbers, focusing specifically on the kids’ names. This wasn’t the case on the last day before break, but they also do a version of Five in a Row, reading the same book every day for a week, which is an approach I first heard about on the Tinderbox blog and which I think will really appeal to Mara. After that, they head outside if the weather is good or to the muscle room with the four-year-old class for unstructured play/exercise. Then lunch is followed by nap, after which there’s more play/activity time and eventually a snack while they wait for parents to come pick the kids up.
We’re really glad that the class is so small and that Mara will get a lot of individual attention, that the teachers are committed to meeting her where she is and being careful and thoughtful about her special needs and preferences, just like they are with the other kids. (Well, there’s one chid I suspect has Fetal Alcohol Syndrom just going by facial features, and the head teacher is good with that one but the others aren’t quite as patient. This kid is also the only child Mara’s been ungenerous with, but to her credit the kid had rammed her shins with the toy firetruck six times before she got a chance to play with it and didn’t want to “share.”) One boy (I’ll go ahead and call him DeShawn since he’s part of that name group) was there during our short visit but not our long one, and he and Mara played together at the sensory table very well. He’s also very hands-on but fairly quiet, and they really seemed to like each other. I think she’ll find it easy to make a connection with him and will eventually find her place with the other kids too.
I’m sure there will be updates to this once school gets going, but for now we’re thrilled about how it’s worked out. Lee thinks this is another sign that our match was “meant to be” since there was an opening in the class when we needed one and since the timing of my parental leave worked so well. I still think that’s a fairly ridiculous way to look at the world, but I agree that things seem to be coming together well. Mara clearly benefitted greatly from our time together at home, but I do think she needs more time with peers and especially peers who also have brown skin and curly hair like hers. I’m very excited about the next step for her and think we’ll all be able to work together and make it great!