Last month I woke up early, made a special breakfast of chocolate magdalenas and fruit, dressed everyone, and got out the camera for our son and older daughter's first day of school. Sort of. They are two and a half, and while our friends and neighbors with kids the same age sent their kids off to a typical, few-mornings-a-week preschool, we sent our kids downstairs.
My husband went to preschool; I did not. When I lived in Spain, my nanny/tutor was the only school I knew before first grade. It wasn't unusual then in Madrid for many children to arrive for their first day of first grade already reading in at least one language, and doing basic addition and subtraction. This is the experience that I credit with setting me on the right path educationally; from first grade through university, at parochial, private, and public schools, I remember only loving school and excelling. It ran counter to my experience, then, to hear about my husband's early formal school years, and certainly counter to my intuition to consider the same kind of American preschool for our kids.
"What do they do?" I demanded to know. "What do they do at preschool that's so important that tiny children, practically babies, have to wake up early, and catch who-knows-what germs, and learn curse words from the bad kids who will probably bite them?"
My husband looked at me as if I were a lunatic, although a lunatic not without her charm. "Arts and crafts. And songs. Circle time, too," he enumerated. "It's good socialization."
I gave him a look that tried to convey the fact that we have three kids under three in our house, and nearly forty kids under twelve in our immediate neighborhood. Socialization happens without premeditation.
But if I wasn't interested in the socialization aspect of preschool, there was one preschool possibility that fascinated me. Our city offers one tiny Spanish immersion school, one little school that has a toddler program, two years of preschool, and a kindergarten, at which the students hear only Spanish. From the first time I heard about it, from the minute I checked out their website, I began to imagine the benefit so much more Spanish practice would provide for our kids. I fantasized about the wonderful language base they'd develop, the base that would help them resist the erosion of their native language in the English-only public school they will most likely attend. I dreamed about the culturally relevant activities they'd enjoy, and how these would boost their identity and self-esteem and instill in them a life-long love of learning.
My husband and I determined a date to go visit the school, but really, only as a formality. If our kids were going to go to a preschool, this would surely be the one to give the experience a purpose. Only, when we arrived at the much-anticipated school visit, we (and I especially) were broken-hearted to find we didn't actually like it. It didn't remotely measure up to our hopes or expectations.
It turned out that I hadn't been as much against the idea of preschool as I'd been for the idea of ensuring the right first educational experience for our kids. It's not that I don't want our kids to attend school in English, it's that I know, I know, how easy it is to find parts of your identity snuffed out because those parts aren't receiving resources or reinforcement. This happens or almost happens anyway, but on my watch, it's not happening now. If preschool age is the age when our kids will look out into the world, and start to see themselves in others' eyes, it's my duty to make sure those eyes are warm and understanding: ojos carioñsos.
As a last and far-flung idea, we sent a call out for what can best be described as a native Spanish-speaking preschool tutor. Our city isn't exactly a hub for Latinos; we didn't really expect to find someone who was not only a native Spanish speaker with experience with kids and teaching clearances, but who also liked dogs, arts and crafts, didn't mind driving to our house, and who, in addition to all of that, would charm our family à la Mary Poppins. I felt pessimistic writing the job description; my only hope was that by naming what we needed, I could conjure it forth.
Within a week of putting out the call, we somehow found the perfect person for the task -- a smart, fun, big-hearted Venezuelan PhD student. When I say somehow, I mean I consider it nothing short of a miracle.
On their first day of "school," our older daughter and son head downstairs. I stay with them while they get used to their tutor. I watch while my son squeezes a glob of glitter glue onto poster board and my daughter spreads it with a paintbrush. Their tutor says, "parece el cielo:" it looks like the sky. I think of the preschool experience I worried about, what this day could have held for them instead and hold this scene, this moment, as a sanctuary.