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School Daze: Josie Leaves the Nest

It has been a tumultuous couple of months in the Ingall-Steuer household. Zayde died. Josie’s beloved baby sitter was badly injured in an accident, breaking her femur and pelvis. Our new baby’s birth is so imminent, the milk in our fridge will expire after my due date. My husband is still trying to start a new business. (Translation: we’re so poor, we can’t even afford to pay attention; we’re so poor, we put penny candy on layaway; we’re so poor… I’m sorry, when did this column become a “Sanford and Son” rerun?) And Josie started preschool.

Preschool is huge. It’s the beginning of a child’s life as an independent being, a scholar (we hope — we’re Jews), a self-starter. The first year I did this column, when Josie was tiny, I wrote a mocking essay about parents who get all loony and obsess-y and bribe-y about getting their darling into the “right” preschool. By the second year, I was less sanguine. This year, I get it. Parents feel that if they miraculously find the school that’s the perfect fit, their child is ensured a happy, successful academic life. (Of course, I can still mock the parents who define success as, a) a life blinkered from all the glories of the urban experience, and b) the Ivy League. There are a lot of sheltered, unhappy, spoiled dim bulbs in the Ivy League. Trust me. I went to Harvard.)

After several school visits, we chose Gani, the preschool at the 14th street Y. And I couldn’t be happier. It’s Jewish, but not insular. Josie’s classmates have names like Padma, Aiko and Keyshawn, as well as Josh and Sophie. The first day, the kids dipped apples in honey and wished each other “L’shana tova”… but the school also feels like part of a wider community. (And once again, I have managed to put off my philosophical dilemma about whether to send Josie to kindergarten and beyond at a public school or a Jewish day school. Go, me.)

At Parents’ Orientation, right before school started, I knew I’d made the right choice. Several parents of Josie’s friends from Tompkins Square Park also were there. One Tompkins mom took one look at the row of cubbies with our kids’ names on them and promptly burst into tears. “Oh God, soon he’ll leave for college!” she sobbed. I knew just how she felt. But I loved the cheery, slightly ramshackle classrooms with blocks and toy food and art supplies, all at kid’s-eye level. And when I asked for a moment after orientation to talk with the principal about all the upheaval Josie has experienced in the last month, and will continue to experience once her baby sister arrives, I almost cried at the kindness I was shown. The principal, Carole, tracked down Kiki, the social worker who directs the Y’s Parenting and Family Center (she who called me on my cell phone and talked me through telling Josie about my father’s death, when I was standing numb in my mother’s living room in Rhode Island), and we strategized about what might be best for Josie. The three of us considered whether we should switch Josie to a classroom with younger kids and more gentle, soft-spoken, nurturing teachers (I decided no, because my kid is a steamroller and I’d rather she stay with more no-nonsense, loving but extra-experienced teachers); whether we should keep her at three days a week; how best to handle the many transitions she’s dealing with at once. We processed and explored for almost an hour. I caught my husband playing solitaire on his Palm Pilot.

Ultimately, we decided that since Josie already was feeling bereft about her grandfather and her adored sitter (we visited Rita in the hospital, but afterward, Josie kept asking: “Can Rita talk?” despite having just conversed with her, leading me to think that Josie is still concerned that Rita’s trajectory will be like Zayde’s), we should enroll her in school five days a week instead of three. Carole assured us we could easily cut back to three if we’d chosen wrong. Kiki thought that having more structure would help while Josie coped with a new sitter and a new sister. Everybody was ultra-relaxed. And I felt great.

But the fact that the Jewish holidays keep falling on schooldays makes things harder; here it is October already, and many students have only been in school for a few days. Still, for us, so far, so good. As classes got under way, I beamed with pride as Josie exhibited no separation anxiety whatsoever. New friends! Glitter paints! Pretzels at snack time! Another parent sent me a sweet e-mail, telling me how Josie tried to make his anxious child feel more comfortable by offering to share her chair and stickers. (I was delighted. As I wrote in an e-mail back to him, Josie is a loving kid, but sometimes hers is a caveman/hair-pulling kind of love.) I congratulated myself for having raised such a self-reliant child. I tsk-tsked about those parents who sneaked out of the room when their kids weren’t looking, causing a delayed tsunami of freakoutedness. Just like my own mom when I started kindergarten, I tucked loving notes with drawings of kitties and me and Daddy into Josie’s lunchbox. I wondered about a whole year of making kosher, dairy lunches for a kid who’s allergic to peanut butter and in an age when tuna fish, with all its mercury, is the equivalent of feeding your child crushed thermometers. But overall, life’s okay.

Just as I was about to send off this column, my husband called from Gani. I heard the deafening shrieks in the background. Josie apparently cried all day at school and wouldn’t let him leave. Carole was reassuring; sometimes kids freak out after an initial honeymoon period. But, she assured us, Josie would be fine. Transitions take time, for all of us.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].


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