The Kindergarten Boogy-Bunny
by Lora Jost
I lay awake restless until the first birds twittered in the new day, thinking about bunnies. Those twitchy-nosed creatures that look so cute but are truly wild, sitting quietly, watching, gnawing away at your lettuce, your sleep, your mind, your very soul. I was visited by some of those bunnies while coming to terms with my son Toody's impending entry into kindergarten. You've heard of mothers having trouble with this little transition, haven't you? Well, let me tell you.
I felt uneasy the morning of Kindergarten Roundup, an orientation where next fall's kindergartners and their parents sat upon pint-sized chairs to experience our neighborhood elementary school for the very first time. I felt the same nausea I felt every morning of my own public school years. I ate a pro forma breakfast and cried, hiding this from my son who was twittering around like any other morning. By the time we arrived at the school, I was taking deep cleansing breaths, doing my best to project a positive attitude.
We were greeted warmly by the principal, Mr. Peppercorn, and made friendly chitchat over fruit and glazed doughnuts. I tried to appear normal. Then I watched my husband take the hand of my now tearful son and lead him to the kindergarten room where he would meet one of the teachers and stay for a few "activities."
The parents filled out forms and listened to the counselor talk about school "readiness." The head of the lunch program explained the futility of requesting orange juice instead of milk without a doctor's orders. Finally, Mr. Peppercorn read a poem that made me squirm about the school and family working together to mold our children like clay. While two cheerful PTO moms gushed about the school's carnival, I frantically composed what I hoped would be a convincing essay, in the space provided, about why our son had to be in the morning session, had to have some friends in his class, and had to have Ms. Nelly as his teacher.
My son's preschool years, while charged with delight in learning and vigorous play, also included periods of flat-out dread, tearful separations, and times when I would pick him up with his spirit missing. I knew what it was like to go to school with a heavy heart. Was I molding him, unawares? I read books on temperament, finding labels like "spirited" and "highly sensitive" sometimes fitting me, too. Perhaps the molding was deeply imbedded in our genetic material. I glanced around at the other parents' forms, surprised they were stating their preferences via a simple check mark. What were they thinking?
As the nurse checked Toody's immunization record, he came bounding into the room. There were no signs of stress holds or waterboarding. He carried a baggy with a snack "we made ourselves" with gummi bears and dinosaur crackers. He was jubilant. "You survived!" I said excitedly. Mr. Peppercorn, just within earshot, looked at me with genuine surprise.
By afternoon, I was crying again. I met my husband for coffee. The roundup had gone wonderfully for our son, he noted. Why was I such a wreck? Yes, Toody had been drawn in by the affable Ms. Nelly, with his friend Len at his side, but how could we ensure these conditions with eighty percent of the parents requesting the morning session? As our conversation unfolded I found myself in my first grade classroom in 1969, terrified. The teacher, Miss Husk, was thumping the head of my friend Kathy, hard, with her middle finger, threatening to shake us up in a gunnysack. I was so scared of Miss Husk that I would throw up during class. Reading out loud for her initiated a devastating fear of reading out loud that followed me into adulthood. Then I started having nosebleeds.
Talking this out was helpful. Perhaps I was, on instinct, trying to protect Toody from another Miss Husk. It had never occurred to me before our conversation that some of the things Miss Husk did then are illegal today. There would be no more Miss Husks. Relieved, I nevertheless continued to obsess. How could I ensure that school would go well? Write a letter to the principal? Meet with the teacher? Or just let it go?
A week later, Toody and I went outside to weed the garden. "Hey, there's a bunny," I said. Then I saw two more, the largest cottontail rabbits I'd ever seen. But the bunnies didn't freeze and run away, like normal. These bunnies stayed. Then one looked me straight in the eye, from fifteen feet away, and charged! I faced it with my hoe, ran toward it a little, and yelled "Hah!" But the bunny didn't run, it simply circled around, sat down, and stared. Later friends chuckled about the rabbit's "big nasty teeth." But one question remained. The bunny had charged at me, hadn't it?
A few days later the bunnies moved on to greener gardens, and I sent a letter to the principal restating our concerns. Kindergarten would be okay. But it wasn't long before my husband drew my attention to a newspaper article. "Don't overreact," he said, nodding at Toody. The local school board had just voted to institute all-day kindergarten. There would be a half-day option, but no half-day curriculum. My heart sank.
All-day kindergarten would be a blessing for many. Others wondered whether our kindergartners should really be in school for the whole freakin' day. But going for only half the day meant getting only half the curriculum. As I became increasingly anxious about these "options," my friends reconfigured their child's needs, chose the all-day option, then let it go.
But my bunnies stayed. Kindergarten was becoming just like first grade, I told my parents over the phone. And there I was again, the frightened little thrower-upper. Mom told me how it started. One day Miss Husk told us that we would have a substitute teacher the next day so "don't anybody cry." Well, I cried. Then I became terrified of what Miss Husk would do.
I continued obsessing about the kindergarten options, a catch-22 of all-day horror versus half-day learning deficiencies. Late one night, I began to read about reducing stress through meditation. I read about the "attitudinal foundations of mindfulness practice" until midnight. The final principle was letting go. "Letting go is not such a foreign experience. We do it every night when we go to sleep," stated John Kabat-Zinn. But just after reading about letting go, I couldn't.
I had never been good at letting go. If I let go, I would be giving up some critical foundation of my very being. Tired and scared, I tried to let go all the more, but all I did was cling harder to my worries. If I sent Toody to all-day kindergarten, someone—a kid, a teacher, a counselor—would mold my child with a nasty threat, and he would go uppity chucking all over his desk, little crumbs of antiseptic sawdust soaking up the juice. I clung to not letting go and saw my own face as that of my mother-in-law with pancreatic cancer, inside the harrowing process of letting go. I didn't want to let go, because letting go was dying, and I didn't want to die because I wanted to hear my son's voice every day of forever, into eternity...
At 5 am the cock crowed in the form of a little chirping bird. I wasn't just not sleeping anymore, I was actively stirring. And this stirring woke my co-sleeping little Toody. My husband dragged himself out of bed and took Toody to the porch to watch the rain. Then I slept for two whole hours before my husband woke me up because I was scheduled to volunteer at the preschool in half an hour.
I dealt with some pretty big bunnies that night. But they were just bunnies, that's all they really were. I no longer read about mindfulness before bedtime, but I am making strides towards living in the moment. My son asked me about the word "mind." I told him it means to pay attention to something. Now he says, "Mom! Mind the airplane!" Or, "Mom! Mind the butterfly!" Or, "Mom, mind the kid on the high dive!" And I do.
We still don't know what to do about all-day kindergarten. We'll decide after our meeting with Mr. Peppercorn. A few days ago I saw the cutest baby bunny in our garden. Remember the bunny that charged? Perhaps, on instinct, she charged to protect her young. My mother told me another story that I'm clinging to. When I was in fourth grade, I really wanted to go to summer camp. Mom was so worried that she wrote a letter to the camp, sharing her concerns, noting my shyness. But I went. And when I got home, to her great relief, I had had an absolutely wonderful time.
Lora Jost is an artist, illustrator, community arts educator, and co-author with Dave Loewenstein of Kansas Murals: A Traveler's Guide (University Press of Kansas, 2006). Jost lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband and son who, after a rocky first week and a half, appears to be enjoying all-day kindergarten.
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