Wednesday, April 28, 2010

End of the School-Brick Road

Today was Piper's last day of preschool.

After all the trouble we went through to find a place for her, we are pulling her out after only four months. I feel sort of ridiculous, but it's not working out. It's just not.

She likes it okay, but doesn't love it. It has been great for her sense of routine and her sleep schedule, but she went from loving it when we enrolled her at the end of December to sobbing every time the word school was mentioned at the beginning of February.  School staff, the grandmothers, our friends, and strangers on the street all dispensed the helpful advice that "she's just adjusting" and "she'll get used to it." But all through February and into March, we had to get her ready those two mornings a week without so much as a whisper about where we were going when we got in the car. To do otherwise, to even let her see that you were putting her school backpack in the car, was to trigger a meltdown of epic proportions. "I don't want to go to school today! No no no!" she would wail, thrashing and bucking as we tried to strap her into her car seat. Drop-off was worse. She would start to cry as soon as we turned into the parking lot; she would wail and cling to us as we tried to leave her classroom. It broke my heart to turn away from her as she cried, to ignore the huge teardrops sliding down her face.

Eventually, the massive crying fits became more subdued, but we still couldn't mention school at all or she would cry. On the mornings she didn't go to school, she would wake up and say "Probably not going to school today...?" cautiously, then repeat it with satisfaction when we anwered "Nope, it's not a school day. Today we're staying home." Sometimes she still cried when we turned into the parking lot or when we dropped her off. Many times, she was crying when I picked her up. Her teachers told me she'd been fine until she saw me in the hallway, or until it was close to pick-up time. Again, there were all reassurances that this was very normal.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when I picked her up and she was bawling. The rest of the class has naptime for the last 45-60 minutes she's there (annoying, since we're paying for her to sit at a table and play with plastic frogs while everybody else sleeps) and I came in and she got up from her table and she was sobbing, really upset, not just like the "when is my mom going to GET HERE?" tears that I was by now used to seeing. The teacher - a sub, her normal (very awesome, sweet and kind) teacher was out that day - said "She's been fine all morning, and she just got upset and started crying after lunch" before I even asked her what was going on. Piper was upset all the way out the door and started to perk up when we got outside. On the way to the car I tried to ask her what happened and why she was so upset, but all she would say was "I was crying at school." Finally, after I got her buckled in, she said "I was crying because [something something garbled] say mean things to me."

"What did you say, Kiddo? Who said mean things to you?"
"Miss Sarah say mean things to me."
"Miss Sarah said mean things to you?"
"Yep, she did."
"Why were you crying?"
"Because Miss Sarah say mean things to Piper. She said mean things to me."

I tried quzzing her more, but I couldn't get out of her exactly what "mean things" meant. We repeated the performance later for Ryan, but he couldn't get what "mean things" were said either. And, granted, she's two, so "mean things" could mean something entirely different to her. But still. She's started to cry and freak out whenever we enter situations with a group of other kids present; she won't go to story time at the library, she completely lost it when I tried to drop her off in the nursery at church. Maybe it's just her age - a friend told me her daughter got really clingy around this age, too - and maybe it's not. I just don't want to sour her on group situations and the idea of school altogether.

And it's costing a frigging arm and a leg. The place is more like a day-care, most of the kids go full time or at least half-time, and although she's only there 8 hours a week, we are paying 55% of what they charge for their full-time, five-day-a-week kids. There's always a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure to enroll her for more days or go up to full-time, and I resent that. Not to mention that part of that arm and leg we are handing over is paying for her to sit at a table for an hour and color or play with rubber insects while the rest of her class naps.

There are other things, like her sudden fascination with princess stuff (we don't use the p-word at our house, so there's only one other place she could've learned it), the food they give the kids being of the industrial not-so-healthy chicken nuggets/pizza/canned fruit in syrup/French toast sticks variety, and the computers at the "technology center" in her classroom where the kids play cartoon-character games. We enrolled her in this place because we liked that they had lesson plans and a set curriculum, but she doesn't seem to be getting much out of it. They studied planets and transportation, which I thought was kind of cool, but they also did an entire unit on fairy tales, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't any sort of "tall tales from around the world"-type of thing, either. She seems to be learning more when I work with her on academics at home.

There were a lot of really good things about this school, too. The day-care like atmosphere means she could go year-round if we wanted. The staff are all really nice, and Piper's teacher is terrific. She really cares about the kids (she's working on her Master's in Early Childhood Ed) and she's great with them. Everybody in the building knows my little girl, from the infant teachers to the cook, and they all love her. I loved dropping her off and hearing all the other kids call out "Hi, Piper! Hi, Piper!" in the morning. It cracked me up that the kids would all say "Hi Mommy! Hi Daddy!" when we walked in (or ask "Where's Mommy? Where's Daddy?" if only one of us was doing drop-off). Their playground is really cool and creative. The schedule they keep to worked out well for us and having that structure got my kid sleeping in five-to-eight-hour-chunks for the first time in her 2.5 years. And boy howdy did I love having those eight hours a week to myself. If Ryan was going into work later, we'd drop Piper off and go grab coffee together. Those few hours of adult conversation were precious and very much enjoyed. I could go home and clean without a small person un-doing all my hard work. I could write, I could go to the grocery store kid-free. But we weighed everything, and the things we liked weren't quite enough to make up for the 15-minute-plus drive each way two days a week (times two if I went home and came back), the cost, and Piper's unhappiness. So we decided to withdraw her for now, and keep looking for a new school.

And of course she had a great day on Monday. Her teacher showed me pictures she took of the kids doing music time, and there was Piper, marching in place banging drumsticks together. I started to feel guilty. There were some tears when I dropped her off today, but she was happily sitting at her table with her bucket of plastic frogs like normal when I picked her up. Her teacher hugged her and said good-bye, genuinely sorry to see Piper go. She gave me a giant good-bye card the class had made for Piper. I felt another pang of guilt. All our way through the hall and out the door, other teachers poked their heads out of classrooms and asked for hugs and told me how much they would miss my daughter. The Assistant Director was at the front desk when we got to the door and asked for a hug, too.

We walked through the parking lot for the last time, and I felt like I could, with very little effort, tear up. This was the first place we had ever left our baby, the first time she'd ever been entrusted to the care of anyone but us or her grandparents, the first time she went to school. I felt more guilt, not a pang but a stab this time, because I was ending something she liked, at least part of the time. For all her tears, she had been happy here too, and I wondered if we were doing the right thing. I still don't know. As parents, can we ever really be sure?

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