If you are a first-time mom, you may not know this, so I feel the distinct need to warn you that something ABSURD may be coming your way.
It’s preschool–more specifically, it’s fact that if you’re even thinking about signing your child up for preschool, you’re probably going to have to do so nine or more months in advance. In other words, you have to prepare for preschool longer than you actually had to prepare for the birth of your child. See—absurd. Anyway, this preschool sign-up phenomenon appears to be universal. We don’t live in a big city like New York or even D.C. anymore. We live in small-town North Carolina. Still, here, the waitlists are endless, the open houses have strict requirements, and the registrations are binding with hundred dollar deposit fees. Thankfully, our small town does not yet require entrance exams for two-year-olds, but I’ve heard tales of these things happening elsewhere.
I offer these tidbits only because when I realized that if I wanted to get William into preschool somewhere next fall, several of the open houses had already started happening and the registration dates were only weeks, or in some cases—days—away. Thus commenced for us what I’ve termed: “Preschool Week,” a frenzied and all consuming equivalent of “Shark Week” except that instead of being confined to the Discovery Channel, we had to meet the sharks in person.
Our first preschool tour was at 11am. When I showed up at 10:59, I was mentally high-fiving myself for my timely arrival until I saw eight other families already waiting, feet tapping, in the lobby. The preschool director passed me her last handout.
“Now that we’ve all arrived,” she said, “we can begin.”
Say what??? Does no one know that parents are supposed to be late? That things like bathroom stops and spilt milk and tantrums seem to always happen on the way out the door, and these are not things you can just overlook. They are things that must be dealt with. Immediately. And they make you late, but it’s okay because they make everyone late?
Apparently, they don’t make everyone late on preschool tour days. A woman with a three-year-old and a newborn arrived before me. Note to self (and to all potential preschool surveyors): arriving on-time is not good enough; you must arrive at least five minutes early.
I was all set for an early arrival at school number two when I read on its website “no kids allowed”—something that made a whole lot of sense, since, you know, it was a preschool. So I crossed that one off the list and moved on to school number three. I arrived there promptly (though the gathering room was already packed) and brought William (since kids were technically allowed). While several other parents had brought their well-behaved children, many did not, including a woman with curled, brown hair sitting to my right. She was pristinely dressed in a pressed blue blazer and matching shoes with golden medallions. I made the executive decision a few years ago not to buy anything that needed to be pressed ever again, so I was wearing something wrinkled underneath my bright red hooded jacket (a staple of clothing that I love, but that also makes me look like Little Red Riding Hood, or an oversized Hot Tamale).
Unlike the first tour in which the preschool director talked as we walked through the halls, this tour began with a forty-five minute information session, complete with a slideshow and a four-page printout presentation. William sat patiently in my lap for about the first two minutes, and then I directed him to the small stack of toys in the middle of the aisle. While the freshly-pressed brunette took notes on every word the preschool director said, my son took a pig and started slamming it into the top of the farmhouse.
It sounded something like this: Slam, Slam, Slam. Squeak. Then William’s laughter. Then his look to me for approval and praise.
He wasn’t doing anything malicious, just having fun, so I said, “Oh yes, that’s very good! But here… Let’s try this instead.” I then offered him a quiet picture book.
He ignored the book and resumed smashing the pig against the roof to try to get it to squeak again. I couldn’t tell exactly how loud the pig banging was—that is, if the banging was not actually that loud but only loud to me because I was focused on it, or if it was, in fact, bothering everyone.
It was at least bothering the well-dressed brunette. I smiled at her and offered a shrug that was meant to convey: kids, what can you do? She gave back a tight-lipped smile that didn’t reach her eyes and then returned to her detailed note taking.
At about this point, I looked around and noticed that everyone else was taking notes too. Like EVERYONE—moms, dads, a couple of the rising four-year-olds… I decided I should also take notes so that the director didn’t single us out and block our enrollment.
I usually have approximately seven different pens rolling around the bottom of my oversized diaper bag—along with old receipts, small picture books, a miniature cow toy, a cheese stick or two, some hand sanitizer, and (on more than one occasion) a magic trick. I was certain I had at least one writing utensil in there somewhere—if not a pen, then a marker, or a broken piece of crayon. But as the search commenced, I couldn’t find a single thing to write with. Soon I grew fervent, digging deeper and faster, and becoming progressively less aware of what was going on around me until I glanced up to see the brunette staring, mouth slightly agape, with a look on her face that said: this is why we need an entrance exam, to weed out people like them.
I decided she must be the kind of person who carried extra pens, so I whispered, “Do you by chance have a pen?”
She shook her head once and then glued her eyes to the slideshow. After that, I gave up on the pen situation and decided to take notes on my phone. I soon realized, however, that instead of looking like I was taking notes, I looked like I was texting. And not texting like a normal person. Texting like a fiend. I was suddenly overcome by the desire to get rid of all evidence of my fiendish behavior, so I swiftly tossed the phone back into the pit formally known as my bag. This violent reaction obviously screamed “not guilty” and overall really helped my case.
Eventually, this preschool session ended, as did the others on our list, and it was time for executive decisions. I decided against sending William to the school that used thirty minutes of screen-time during the day. I also decided against the one I really liked but would require approximately an hour of back and forth driving every day because with a new baby coming, that just seemed kind of far. Ultimately, I opted for the one I liked closest our house. But instead of just signing up and being done with it, that’s when the worst part began.
I have heard tales of how twenty or so years ago moms would line up starting at four in the morning on preschool registration days to sign their kids up for slots. To some this may sound crazy. To me this sounds like something I could get behind—waking up early one morning with the guarantee that the best slots would go to the most devoted moms—there’s a kind of meritocracy to it. Although, I know if I got there at four, people like the stylish brunette probably would have arrived at three. Still, I could have at least beaten out those slackers who arrived at five or six, or heaven forbid, seven o’clock in the morning.
Anyway, to eliminate the need to deal with crazy people, preschools in our town have eliminated this merit-based system and have instituted a lottery system whereby each child is given a number that is physically or metaphorically pulled out of a hat. A determined mother, therefore, can do nothing except turn in her paperwork and pray that the lottery is kind to her.
The lottery was not kind to me.
The preschool I chose was connected to a church, but not to our church, and its lottery system went something like this. First picks went to returning kids and their siblings. Second picks went to church members and then to members of affiliated churches. Last picks went to community randos. I was a community rando. Out of 36 children who wanted to be in two-year-old preschool, William was picked 34th. Not dead last, but essentially so—we didn’t get our first or second or third choice. We did, however, get a one-day slot on Mondays. When I told John about our luck, he suggested that maybe we should try for a different preschool that had two-day options still available; the school that didn’t allow kids on the tour had its registration tomorrow, so maybe I could just try to register there and see how things went.
When I arrived the next day and asked if I could just take a peek around, I was shunned and ended up crying on my way out of the building because how was I supposed to make a decision without even getting a chance to look inside? By the time I reached the parking lot, I was slightly hysterical. If I thought my car would provide refuge for me to cry in peace, the hoards of people arriving for registration made that impossible. (The car also, as an unfortunate side effect, did not offer the convenience of a tissue, thus forcing me to wipe my runny nose on my Red Riding Hood sleeves).
It was there, with snotty sleeves, that I’d had enough—enough crying, enough worrying about making the right choice. Mostly, I’d had enough of the cultural pressure that has turned preschool into the new college. It’s not college. It’s preschool. It’s sort of a big deal, but not really. One day a week is more than fine, and notes don’t need to be taken—not with pens, or cell phones, or anything. They just don’t. Our children are two and three and four-years-old. The most important thing they’re going to learn in these early years is how to get along with others and how to share, which is apparently something that some preschool-probing mothers need to relearn. If it takes a village, then preschool is part of that, but so are we all—and we’re missing the point if we’re so consumed with our visions of our children’s future success that we fail to see how, right now, they are looking to us for approval and praise.
So if you are about to enter the preschool phase, here’s my take: prepare yourself early, show up on time, forget the pens, and ignore the haters. Then tell your toddlers to bang on. And maybe, for the first day of school, put some tissues in the car.