I was a really nervous fourth grader; even as a child I hated new experiences. The butterflies were never exciting ones, they were always weighted down inside of my cockles with dread. This particular day we were taking a class field trip to a local private school to do a workshop with kids from another school program, probably to “branch out” or “broaden our cultural experiences.” For whatever reason, my hippie public school teacher with feathers in her hair and earthy perfume had orchestrated an embarrassing exercise in which we would run improvised short plays. She made me act as the person who kicks Rosa Parks out of her seat on The Bus. You’re probably going; “What?”
I agree, there is absolutely nothing great about being the fourth grader who gets assigned the most racist role ever.
I walked into a small classroom with my large class and met the students of the class we were invading. There were silent, shy stares from both classes. None of us understood why we were there. While I quietly and blankly observed the faces of the new kids sitting in a semicircle in front of us I was also taking in the details of the room.
It was vastly different from my stark-white cement brick classroom background. These floors were hardwood, not thinly carpeted with an itchy, blue rug. The walls were softer somehow, with trimming and details and large windows framed with wood. Back then the bookshelves seemed so big, and the kids had bean bag chairs to sit on while they read. Having no architectural or stylistic idea of what I was appreciating as a fourth grader, today I know it was warmth and natural light, soft color palates and nothing harsh, metal and industrial like you’d find in just about every other school building I’ve been in.
It stayed with me, both the humiliation of yelling at pretend (and very much white) Rosa Parks and having only half of a clue what that meant, and the feeling inside that building. I wanted to keep it forever, carry it home in my pocket and try to transform some area of my life into a safe and cozy nook.
I grew up down the street from that school in a Formica house of hard lines and no yard. As I got older I went trekking up the enormous, winding dirt driveway that lead at first to a mansion transformed into offices, used mostly for Yoga, and then just beyond that is an inlet for public hiking trails. Nestled up there on top of that huge hill just beyond that mansion is a school house. Made of wood, neutral tones and big windows, sitting in the shade of ancient trees, there was the warm feeling I’d always wanted to recreate. It’s a unique location, off a busy street, and close to downtown but built so far into the woods that the cars are only noticeable if you crouch down and peek through tree branches. Life up on the hill feels a little like Shangri La.
I called the school as soon as my son was about to turn three. I knew I immediately wanted to enroll him in the place that had resonated so deeply with me. I potty trained him quickly to get him enrolled. The pee accidents still happen, but some kids just do that. The good news is that the school no longer requires potty training for enrollment. We agreed to send him there for preschool, and I thought we would keep him there forever. My husband agreed to send him there until he was old enough for public school, but the agreement wasn’t something we really talked about. I assumed that like everything else I would be able to change his mind.
School pick up was, interesting, maybe inconvenient but not everything in life is designed to be easy, but it builds character and glutes and that’s just facts. I adapted to walking up that steep and long road during heavy snow when my minivan would give out halfway up and I would be forced by the elements to have to back very slowly down the hill and park on the main road. I would hoist my youngest onto my shoulders and hike, feeling grateful for the workout but honestly displeased with the snow.
At Christmastime there were no Santas or forced themes, but there were kids sitting at picnic tables out front, knotting wire around rocks and handing them out to parents as ornaments.
I took the kids out to explore the trails, and they would get a few opportunities to go on them with their teachers and memorize a few trails. It was my preschooler who showed me how to use some of the trails I’ve never been on.
Every day I walked up to the door to pick up my big kid and he ran out, excited to see me, holding art projects and books in his hands, showing me his latest invention or spewing a ton of crazy stories about alien robot dinosaurs.
The parents met on the playground and chatted, when the kids came out at mid-day they would run to play structures and have built-in play dates.
In the micro chasm of preschool half day pick up I have seen families have new babies, talked about anything and everything with other parents, broken up spats between kids, chased my own three kids and watched them grow as they learned to navigate the playground equipment, the stairs and the big slides. They fearlessly took on the woods, the bugs and the salamanders. They played in the snow, only staying indoors on the most unlivable of northern New England days.
The school day wore them out for me. I would bring them home ready for naps. They played with all their might, playing chase or super heroes or some made up game that no adult could possibly follow, running back and forth across the hillside.
I picked my Five year old son up and drove him home on his last day at Neighborhood Schoolhouse, with three exhausted and played out kids in the car I felt stressed, but happy and emotional at watching the end of this truly awesome childhood era. My son from the “way back” quietly called out; “Mommy, why is today the last day of school? I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough to go to my new school.”
And at that I allowed a smattering of tears to flow down my cheeks.
There wasn’t going to be a way to hold them back anymore.
With the wet heat of an overdue cry stinging my eyes, I assured him that he had learned so many wonderful things and he would be so ready to take on his Kindergarten year. He’s learned the basics of reading and writing, without any academic pressure to perform. He was able to pace himself and every time we sat down to read he recognized more and more words, and towards the end, he has been adding and subtracting numbers. My heart pumps with pride knowing that we made a great choice for giving our kid a healthy start to his formative education.
I walked our dog tonight on the trails that lead up to the school. She’s familiar with the scents of those woods and eagerly pulled me towards the trail that leads to school. I was tempted to walk the whole way but felt myself abruptly overcome with emotion at the idea that I had to say goodbye to something I felt so deeply connected to, something that fit better than any pair of jeans I’ve ever tried to wear. I lead the dog back down the trail and let myself cry like no one was watching. My husband didn’t understand why I came home with red eyes, and I had difficulty explaining my attachment and my strong reaction, but when a place resonates with you, you react strongly to it. I said goodbye to my playground friendships, and my son said goodbye to some children he’s known for nearly half of his very short life.
It represents some form of an idyllic childhood, simplified. Where preschoolers and elementary kids experience nature and friendship, and education seems to find its way into that innate curiosity on its own.
On a side note; I haven’t seen a single kid since I was in fourth grade be forced to reenact a civil rights abuse, so either times have changed for the better or my acting ruined racially tense improv for everyone.
We may have to move on to establishment education, white-painted bricks, and state curriculum but the two years we spent on the hill in the woods will always be worth the money, and the time. Unfortunately, not even my tears could make my husband change his mind about the educational plan he has for our son, not any more than my tears could make money appear in my bank account.
Soon, my heart won’t feel as stung by this sense of loss.
But there are few places that evoke such a sense of closeness and security and I encourage anyone to look closely at the happy little faces playing under the Hemlock trees and think that maybe, this could be a dream for their kids too.
This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.