I was just a few pages into “Where the Wild Things Are” when my eyes welled with tears.
Sitting crisscross applesauce on a brightly colored rug in front of me, a bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds shouted comments, despite their teachers’ reminders to raise their hands. “I know this book!” “We have this book at my house!” “My DOG is named Max!”
It was my turn to be library reader at our youngest daughter’s preschool in Baltimore County, where she will graduate this week. My husband and I have had a child at this school since 2015, when our oldest started in the 2-year-olds class.
We did not choose the school because it subscribed to any vaunted educational theory. There were no Montessori-style learning tools or “sad beige” toys, but a collection of brightly colored, well-loved plastic playthings that enchanted our son as we toured the classrooms. In truth, we chose our preschool because it was close and affordable and the director was friendly and warm. There are likely scores of similar preschools scattered throughout the Baltimore area.
But what we soon discovered was that our preschool, much like the boat Max sails in “Where the Wild Things Are,” was a ticket to a magical world.
Preschoolers believe in magic, vehemently, and in their own invented worlds. Although their lives are bound by limitations — there are just so many things they can’t reach — they also have a sense of infinite possibility. When they grow up, they will be artists, baseball players, bakers, veterinarians, superheroes and unicorns, all at the same time. And their emotions, many of which they are experiencing for the first time, are all-consuming.
The children arrive as volatile, irrational toddlers, focused only on their own immediate needs. But somehow, over the daily cycles of circle time, projects, snack time and playground time, and the annual cycles of skipping around a pumpkin patch, tracing handprint turkeys, sticking gumdrops to gingerbread houses and planting marigold seeds, the children discover themselves and a sense of their place in the world.
They learn to take turns, help a classmate who has fallen, walk in a line, follow directions and manage their emotions. They learn to deal with the frustration of a ripped art project, the pain of a skinned knee, the sting of playground drama.
And the heroes in all this, of course, are the teachers.
When I walk past the 2′s class, I am always struck by the respect with which Mrs. Campbell treats these tiny, boogie-eating, diaper-wearing humans. She asks them how they’re feeling and what they’re playing and then joins in the play herself, whooshing an airplane or hopping a doll up the dollhouse steps. It is clear Mrs. Campbell not only sees the potential within each child but calls this potential into being in these patient moments.
Down the hall in the 3′s class, Mrs. Else can barely contain her excitement each autumn as parents squeeze into miniature chairs for back-to-school night. She loves 3-year-olds because they are discovering how to be independent — mastering potty training, tugging on their jackets, passing out fistfuls of animal crackers at snack time — and how to be part of a community.
Each spring, Mrs. Else and her co-teacher, Mrs. Jones, lead the children in performing The Sunshine Circus, the culmination of weeks of practice. The strongmen lift blow-up dumbbells, a lion jumps through a Hula-Hoop covered in paper flames, and the clowns stumble through knock-knock jokes. The children ripple with pride. They can’t put it into words yet, but this is their first taste of being part of something bigger than themselves. With imagination, practice and a shared goal, they have made something new.
And in the 4′s class, where our youngest is finishing up, the students trace letters, practice phonics and count out groups of colorful toys. Mrs. Garofalo and Mrs. DeFillippis have introduced the kids to the joys of authors such as Mo Willems and Ezra Jack Keats and helped them create artworks in the style of Wassily Kandinsky and Edgar Degas. They play Mozart and Beethoven at cleanup time, exposing children to the wonders of the arts.
The concepts that the children learn fit into tidy categories: shapes, colors, animals, community helpers. Much of the rest of education is about learning to challenge, transcend and explode rigid categories. But in preschool the questions have answers. The world unfolds in methodical order. Fingers crossed behind our backs, we tell these tiny humans that life makes sense.
Of course, the children, like all people, mostly just make sense to themselves. It’s at the edges of life — early childhood and old age — when people seem to be most authentic, unafraid of how others perceive them. When he was 2, our son regaled his teachers each day with stories about the firehouse where he worked when he was not in school. And at 3, he would come home with tales about the heroic battles of “The Legiance,” a team of superheroes composed of himself and his friends. (The name was inspired by a lesson on the Pledge of Allegiance.)
When our spirited middle child was 2, she developed a habit of pinching a classmate, and then, when the child started to cry, she would zip across the room, an angelic smile on her face. But those preschool teachers don’t miss a trick. They found ways to keep her so engrossed in play that she forgot about making mischief. Usually.
The following year, after the disruption of the birth of her little sister, this same child grew despondent at drop-off time, wailing and rolling on the floor when I turned to leave. Mrs. Else crouched down to our daughter’s level, held her close and distracted her with a toy. By the time I reached the parking lot, heart heavy at leaving my crying little girl, Mrs. Else would have texted me to say that little girl was happily playing.
But it is our youngest child who has logged the most hours at preschool, staying for the extended day since I returned to full-time work a year ago. To be honest, I barely know some of the teachers she spends hours with each week. But she comes home eager to tell me about them and her new friends from Lunch Bunch, her sparkly blue backpack crammed with egg carton caterpillars, popsicle stick flowers and blotchy watercolors. It is clear that these women I don’t even know love my daughter and she loves them.
Public school teachers are often in the news, and rightly so. We put immense pressure on them — to educate children, prepare for and administer seemingly endless rounds of tests, act as counselors and even shepherd children through the bleak ritual of active shooter drills. But preschool teachers fly under the radar. They didn’t get into this line of work because they want glory or prestige or money. They teach preschool because they love children.
How do you thank someone for loving your child? How do you thank someone for drying your child’s tears, wiping their nose, hugging them through the big emotions of early childhood? How do you thank someone who quietly, patiently builds society from the bottom up? How do you say goodbye to a cozy little world where every question has an answer and every child is full of infinite possibilities?
These were the questions that scrolled through my mind that spring morning, as I sat in the rocking chair in the school library. The sun shone on a tray of marigold seedlings emerging from paper cups. My daughter and her classmates wiggled on the floor, bursting to know what happened next in the story.
So I blinked back my tears and kept reading about Max, who decides in the end that he doesn’t want to be king of the wild things, but “sailed back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and through a day” to a warm place where he was loved.