He needs an art project for school, and he needs one now. How about fish? I cut two out of construction paper and draw in eyes and scales. I think they will do, so I scramble to put them in his backpack. Lest you think I am one of those parents who does their child’s homework, let me explain. The fish are not for my son, Zachary; they are for his Cabbage Patch Kid, Abe.
When sending my 4-year-old off for his first year of preschool, I never imagined I would be spending my last few minutes of child-free time each morning creating backpack filler for a doll. Then again, I never thought Zachary’s whole bedroom would be turned into a replica of his classroom.
Zachary had a bit of a hard time adjusting to school during the first few weeks. Since he talked often about his buddy Abe, the teacher suggested that Zachary bring him along and teach him about classroom activities and rules. The idea worked, until two weeks later when the teacher took the next step of telling Zachary he should leave Abe in a special place in the room while the class went about their activities. Zachary was furious; he was Abe’s guardian, and nobody was going to tell him what to do with his charge.
Knowing my son’s temperament (when he grows up, his behavior will be called “independent” or “persistent,” but at four, he is labeled by most as “stubborn”), I knew I had to do something quickly or he would hold a yearlong grudge against his teacher. Thus, "Baby Preschool" was born.
I managed to convince Zachary that Abe was too small to go to his school and really needed a place of his own. Zachary decided that his bedroom would be the perfect spot for such a school, but it had to look right. The floor needed masking-tape markings so that kids could find the right place to sit during stories. Charts had to be posted so that classroom jobs could be assigned. A jar and some beans needed to be set up so that one bean could be put in each day they were at school. A calendar had to be hung so the weather person for the day could draw in a sun, clouds, or raindrops. A playground made of blocks needed to be constructed for the kids to have somewhere to go for outdoor time.
Classmates were not a problem. Zachary did a screening of his stuffed animals that would make the admission’s officer at Harvard proud. He settled on Wendy the yellow giraffe, Oscar the Grouch (every school has one, you know), Gonga the chimp, Snuggles the fabric-softener bear, Cat in the Hat, Thing One and Thing Two (there were twins in his classroom at school), Curious George, and the Easter Bunny.
In Zachary’s opinion, I was the obvious choice to be the teacher. After all, I was home all morning with “nothing to do” (can’t let little things like laundry and a writing career get in the way of feeding young minds). A polar bear named Mistletoe was appointed as my assistant because he was bigger than the other stuffed animals.
As Abe’s caretaker, Zachary is responsible for getting Abe to class each morning, finding the popsicle stick with Abe’s name on it to sign him in, hanging Abe’s backpack on the door handle (we actually used a plastic grocery bag until Santa was kind enough to supply Abe with his very own pint-size backpack), and picking Abe up when he himself gets home from school.
My chief responsibility is to make sure Abe has artwork, a notice, or a worksheet to take home every single day. Zachary promptly chewed me out for being a bad teacher on the one day Abe’s backpack was empty, not buying the excuse that we were too busy learning other things to make anything to take home. To my credit, Abe has had days with interesting and educational take-home material: rows practicing his phone number, counting exercises, alphabet games, color matches. And like any good parent, Zachary examines this work, learning a thing or two himself in the process.
I made the mistake one morning over breakfast of mentioning to my husband that I was going to take the car in for an oil change while Zachary was in school. While Mistletoe is a fine substitute educator for short spells, Zachary was none too happy at the idea of me leaving the preschoolers for an entire morning. Thus, I did what any quick-thinking parent would do at such a moment—I looked him in the eyes and told him the class was going on a field trip to the auto shop. Zachary thought this was a wonderful idea, but like any good caretaker, he grilled me for details: How will all the students get from the house to the car? Who gets a window seat? What are they going to do once they get there? Will they be back by lunchtime? Why is Daddy laughing and spitting out his coffee?
Zachary’s excitement about dumping out his own backpack, telling me about how he played cops and robbers with his friends Ben and Julian, offering an evaluation of that day’s snack choice, and getting to the toys he was away from all morning has slowly but surely put Abe on the extended daycare plan at Baby Preschool. Nonetheless, Abe always manages to get picked up somewhere before dinnertime.
At times, Zachary still puts extra effort into the class. When his own school was putting on a play, Zachary made a costume for every student in Baby Preschool so that they could do the same (with Abe playing Zachary’s role of Australia’s fastest bird, the emu). For Valentine’s Day, Zachary helped Abe make a card for each classmate, even Oscar (and, with much convincing, Zachary chose a card for each of his classmates, including the foul-tempered girl who complains that he drinks too much juice at snack time). He sometimes asks me if any of the kids did something wrong during the morning and had to be sent for a time-out. I always reply that someone did indeed push, not clean up, cut in line, or talk out of turn once too often. Then, I go to work on finding out why he asked. (Nobody at Baby Preschool has yet to be punished for telling a classmate that she is evil and should go to military school, but being that this was Zachary’s latest offense, I will keep it in mind.)
Zachary has already expressed some apprehension about starting full-day kindergarten in the fall. He does not like that he won’t be home in time to watch “Clifford” and “Dragon Tales” in the afternoon (though I promise to tape them, he says it isn’t the same), and he does not want to eat lunch without me. One thing he is not worried about, though, is Abe. I have already been informed that Abe will be going on to Baby Kindergarten—in my bedroom. I think I can stand an alphabet wall-border for a year, just please don’t let them have a class pet.
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