Updated: Jul 1
Remembering My Time as a Preschool Teacher -----------------------------------
Back in 2017 I ramped up my freelance copywriting career by taking an onsite job at Disney. I'd worked for them for years, including a salaried position from 1997 – 2002. The latest stint was odd because I was returning to an office setting I'd left long ago. As a result, my team of a dozen or so creative types was much younger. Also, there was only one other guy on the team. Everyone was nice, and I'm pretty easy to get along with, but I did feel like an outsider.
At a birthday lunch for one of these colleagues (Yes, I was invited to the lunches.) we celebrated her turning 33, an age shared by a few others on the team. I was coincidentally 53 at the time, so I thought back twenty years which happened to be the biggest milestone of my life: my twins being born. For kicks, I looked back another ten years, and a strange mathematical serendipity started taking place like some metaphysical sudoku puzzle. At 23, I was teaching a preschool class of 3-year-olds.
Do you see it yet? Read that again in its entire context. My toddler students from 1991 were now the same age as my lunch companions. I shared the wild coincidence and was met with collective politeness that ranged from confusion to disbelief. Like I said, outsider.
Teaching preschool was the best, natural fit job I’ve ever had. Too bad, as it’s nothing I could ever return to without being assumed to be a creep (or worse). Like my time with the Millennial women at Disney, I’m not claiming any kind of discrimination. That’s a pretty weak stance from a straight, white guy in his 50s. It is true, though, that I would never be considered for a job teaching young children now, which is a shame because, if you’ll excuse my language … I was fucking great at it.
I worked at the municipal preschool/day care in the small Connecticut town where I did most of my growing up. I didn’t have any teaching experience, but the Director, a cool, no-nonsense woman I always admired, liked the idea of a male presence for the kids. She knew my family and took a chance hiring me as an assistant teacher. Almost immediately, she had to double down on her bet when the head teacher in my room fell ill and was out for six months.
Instead of freaking out, the Director let me run the room. She skillfully watched over me without ever letting on that she was watching over me. I led my fifteen or so kids through their days of play, letters, numbers, colors, art, science, reading time, lunch, and naps.
Raffi was replaced with cool music. I remember a mom at morning drop-off laughing telling me her son was singing De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da at dinner the night before. I hand-picked a playlist (known back then as a “mix tape”) of songs that could connect with the kids on some level. As a result, my kids became fans of not only The Police but also the likes of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Elvis Costello.
My time with those kids showed me so much. To say the preschool job helped me become a better parent would be an understatement. I've written a bit about that adventure as well. To this day I love the 3 and 4 age because it's when a kid starts to form his or her own system of logic. They start to have opinions on things beyond what they want (although those opinions remain quite strong). They're elated and take great pride when they achieve something (Which letter starts your name?) or when they teach you something. (Which one is the Stegosaurus?) The way kids interact when playing with each other is fascinating. Don't worry, I'm not hanging out at any parks watching them, but I do miss it, and I love when I happen upon such a scene.
I'm in a hotel on vacation as a write this, and just yesterday in the lobby a brother and sister whom I'd guess to be around 2 and 4 were fascinated by an R2-D2-looking carpet cleaner that was rolling around minding its own business. The siblings followed it, careful not to get in its ever-changing way, saying "Hi, robot! ... Hi, robot!" It was really cute and funny.
Kids that age also explain things in simple terms because that's all they have, and they express and exchange ideas in ways that are, quite frankly, more engaging than a lot of adults trying to accomplish the same thing.
If you’ll indulge me pushing the Director gambling metaphor just a bit further, she bet on me then doubled down, but she eventually cashed in on the bet one afternoon when a guy I’d never seen before came to pick up little Brittany. I asked him to go check in with the office (standard procedure) and was surprised when he declined. When it became clear Brittany wasn’t going anywhere until he did what I asked, he started showing a little temper. I didn’t fear he’d get violent, but I was quite certain he wanted to. I’m paraphrasing, but our conversation went something like this:
“I’m her dad.”
“Cool. You still need to check in.”
“Have you ever seen me before?”
“Same. You wouldn’t want Brittany at a place that gave her off to someone her teacher didn’t know, right?”
“I’m her dad.”
“You mentioned that. Go check in. The office will confirm.”
“Just ask Brittany.”
“We leave stuff like this to the grown-ups. You know ... policy.”
The next unexpected plot twist was him simpy leaving without Brittany. A few moments later, the Director came in. (She’d been listening the whole time.) She told me he was indeed Brittany’s father but the parents were divorced, and he had no custody, no visitation, nothing. He’d most likely come to kidnap her. It hasn’t happened yet, but if I’m ever asked if my snarky, sarcastic attitude has ever done anyone any good, I’ll say: “Well, actually, there was this one time . . .”
The day care center was also like a tanning salon for my ego. We had staggered arrival times so there were always kids playing when I got there. Every morning when I arrived, every kid in the room stopped what he or she was doing, called my name, and ran over to me. I’m not kidding. Once gathered around me, they all waited patiently for their turn to get a touch on the head and personal good morning greeting from me. Every morning looked like community theater doing Jesus Christ Superstar. The other teachers shook their heads, lamenting how many years they’d worked there and never got a reception like my daily one.
I have so many amusing anecdotes from my time there that choosing just one to share here was hard. But I got one, and it doesn’t involve a restraining order.
Meet Jennifer, whose last name I remember but won’t publish here. She had a twin sister who was with the 4-year-olds because the parents wanted them in different rooms. Jennifer was extra small and had thick eyeglasses she wore with the help of an elastic band that pressed down the spaghetti-mess of blond hair on the back of her little head. She was chatty, had an adorably goofy sense of humor, and aside from her sister, I was pretty much her favorite person on the planet. (Except maybe her parents. Maybe.)
The head teacher was back from sick leave, and all four teachers from both rooms took the kids to the park at the end of the block. While the other teachers sat on a bench, I played with the kids on what was a fairly tall jungle gym, the design of which featured an open cylinder of space down the middle (which is important to the story, if you didn’t already guess that). I was sitting on a bar about halfway up that middle space when Jennifer made it known that she wanted to climb to the top. The teachers politely objected, but I was convinced she'd be fine. After a minute of “She’s gonna fall.” … “She’s not gonna fall.” … “She’s gonna fall.” Jennifer climbed past me and triumphed.
Then she fell.
As she dropped in front of me, I grabbed the back of her overalls. Doonk! All twenty-eight pounds of her hung in midair, twisting slowly with her shoulders pulled back, about two feet off the ground. I caught the other teachers looks: a mix of “told you so” and “What's with this Ferris Bueller guy who just seems to luck out at every turn?”
Jennifer, of course, couldn't stop laughing and wanted to do it again.
I loved that job, and the parents all loved me (except for Brittany’s dad). According to many of them, I was all their kids talked about at home. “Michael this and Michael that.” One summer, little Jessica spent a week talking up her birthday party on Saturday at a local pizza place. All the kids were invited. So I stopped by to say hello and happy birthday. The kids flipped out seeing me outside of school, and Jessica’s parents were floored with appreciation. I didn’t even have to twist any balloons.
The crazy realization at the Disney work lunch made me think of those kids again and all the time we spent together. I wonder where and how they are now. I hope their lives are going great and that they pick up their own kids from schools who have teachers who really care about them. If by some bizarre miracle a reunion could be planned, I would jump at the chance to see any or all of them. I’d approach the unlikely event, however, with a healthy dose of bittersweet caution. When we hung out every day they were only three. They most likely wouldn’t remember me.
THANKS FOR READING!
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