I was impressed at first. Dozens of quiet, well-behaved little children marched into the classroom in single file, all wearing identical plastic aprons. All seemed organised and well-established. Pleasant outside area, with bikes and toys in pristine condition. James and I smiled hopefully at each other – this seemed promising. (Yes, he tagged along, looking and sounding serious with his navy pullover and pertinent questions. We’d been together almost two years by then, and I was sporting a semi-engagement ring. I was ever so proud of my ring, even though I strongly suspected it had been recycled from a previous girlfriend).
My first impression of the principal was good. She looked like a comfy granny, all floral blouse and Estée Lauder. As she showed us around, once again I was struck by how tidy it was, and how quiet. Too quiet… A little warning bell began to ring, but I shushed it. What did I know about preschools anyway? These were professionals. Who was I to question? Meanwhile, Steven had formed his own opinion – and he was not amused.
He clung to my leg like a limpet and refused to let go, no matter how I coaxed, begged, ordered or contorted my body in the hope of dislodging him. I smiled sheepishly at Principal Grandma as I tried to peel him off, so that I could read the indemnity form like the proper grown-up I was trying to be. I expected to see her smiling indulgently back at me: Don’t worry, I see this all the time, it’s quite normal.
That’s not what I got.
Her lips pulled into a thin line, and she said in her best stepmotherly voice, “You need to put that child down now.”
Good grief. Nobody had ever called my boy That Child before. I was taken aback, but pressed on with my list of questions.
“So… um… how do you handle discipline here?” I asked in my best excuse-me-for-breathing voice.
This time, the indulgent smile did appear as she chuckled, “We find we don’t have too many discipline problems here. I’ve been in this business for a long time and I know how to handle the little buggers.”
Did she just call the children buggers? Alarms screeching now. Warning! Warning! Red Alert, Defcon 1, self-destruct imminent… Yet I stood and listened.
“I had problems with a boy in my class last year who was exposing himself to the other children…” she continued.
Oh my. There’s just no good ending to that sentence. My expression of polite interest froze in place and my eyes glazed over as I waited for the undoubtedly disturbing punchline.
Chuckle, chuckle again. This lady was rather impressed with herself, you could tell.
“Yes, I handled it quite well. I just told him his tollie would fall off and the dogs would eat it if he did it again. He’s kept his pants on ever since. His mother thought it was a wonderful idea.”
I’m sure she did, you bitch! That’s because she’s obviously crazy, too. She’d have to be to send her child here. What is it with all these creepy people in my story?
This was clearly not the place for Steven. Not even close. I felt so sorry for the children stuck there. I wanted to open the front gate and help them escape to freedom, like a Greenpeacer let loose in a vivisection lab. Run little ones! Run while you can! Of course I did no such thing.
We left Auntie Cruella, tollies intact, but illusions shattered. I wonder how many innocent kids she’s bullied into chronic adolescent bedwetting. It’s a sad thought. Finding a preschool was proving to be not as easy or as much fun as I’d imagined.
Our nerves fragile and optimism greatly reduced, we moved on to the next place on my list. Noisier, less tidy, a nicer looking principal. The children seemed to like her. I saw lots of them skipping up to her for hugs. Stockholm Syndrome, I realise now.
When I asked my discipline question, cleverly mentioning smacking specifically, she seemed shocked.
“Oh no, we never smack the children. Good heavens! Definitely not.”
Such an open, ingenuous face. She looked absolutely horrified that I could suggest such a thing.
At last, a likely option. This little school seemed to have it all – friendly teachers, finger paintings, dog-eared books, mess and noise. All strong indicators that learning was taking place. And I liked her. I admit it, I was taken in. She was younger and snazzier than the other teachers I’d seen, and although she mentioned, too casually, her Christian Principles, I believed it would be okay. Surely, the whole point of Christianity was basically to be nice to others? What’s wrong with children learning that? Nothing, as far as I could see. So I could easily overlook my slight unease at the join-the-dots crucifixion pictures.
As we left, application form in hand, I heard the soggy, heart-warming tones of twenty three-year-olds singing The Wheels on the Bus, accompanied by postnasal drip. Nobody could remember what the Grannies on the Bus did, but that’s hardly the point, is it?
First day of school. Scared as hell. Lots of tears. And that was just me.
Steven’s little brown suitcase was packed with spare clothes, fruit, notebook for the teacher to write sweet, encouraging notes in (so I imagined).
I’d been preparing him for this day for weeks and I thought we were ready. He seemed excited. As we went inside, he went off to play immediately, which encouraged me. I chatted briefly to his teacher. Miss Timid was a soft-spoken lady with frantic eyes, who was obviously out of her depth and actually looked like she could snap at any moment. She assured me he’d be okay. He was happy enough as I hugged him and left him playing with blocks. I wasn’t sure if he understood that I was leaving him there, but it was too late to turn back now. I left quickly, before I could change my mind.