It’s been an emotional week for little Sarah, not to mention her mom and dad. Soon to be 4 years old and being raised by two parents with flexible work schedules and two teenager sisters as her only babysitters, she has spent nearly all of her life at home in the care of her immediate family. Rarely has she been away from us for even a few hours. She has been out in the world, of course, to play group at the Waverly Community House, story time at the library, special days at Chuck E. Cheese and countless visits to all the area play grounds. But all of these outings were hand-in-hand with an adoring mom, dad or sister.
I knew this week might be hard. It started with her first swim lesson, followed the next day by the beginning of preschool. We started at the YMCA. All summer she loved the pool at the country club, strapped into her extraordinarily buoyant “floatie suit,” with Mama, Daddy or Sister watching every move. We had talked up swim lessons and she was excited to get back into a pool, until we got there. Walking her through the locker room to the pool to gather with the other children in her class, all of whom had attended the prior session, she held my hand tightly.
The following 30 minutes were some of the hardest of her short life. My husband and I watched as she bravely tried to hide her tears. Lip quivering, she tucked her chin into her neck, suffering in silence. The teacher gave directions and she followed along the best she could, her face contorted and chest heaving in silent sobs. The perceptive teacher immediately saw her struggle and picked her up to move her to the end of the lineup, next to the only other little girl, a friendly child with a big smile who rattled on happily to Sarah. On that end, the life guard walking around the outside of the pool could see her easily and Sarah had a clear shot of us if she needed reassurance.
The other parents encouraged us. “My son was exactly the same last session,” one sweet mother told us, pointing out the strongest swimmer in the class. “He cried three times and now he loves it!”
“Look how hard she is trying to keep it together!” another commented. “She just did it all by herself!” We smiled widely.
By the end of the class, Sarah was having fun. They ended with play time, splashing in shallow water for a few minutes with toys. Sarah played with the kind little girl she had been expertly paired up with, looking comfortable and happy. On the way out of the pool she asked when she could come back again.
The beginning of preschool had been a hot topic for months. The morning of her first day, she was anxious and weepy.
We walked in to the classroom and the lip quiver began. Again, the head tilted down and the chin tucked in. She silently wept as we led her over to her cubby for the first time. My inclination was to hold her hand and guide her through the motions like all the other parents whose children weren’t crying, but my husband was overcome. He scooped her up and held her tight.
The other children had hung their jackets and had moved towards the colorful assortment of toys and stations by the time I was able to convince him that she needed to power through and move along. We finally approached the play area, her small body still shuddering, when a kind looking young student-teacher caught her eye. She squatted down and asked Sarah if she would like to play kitchen with a warm smile. Sarah engaged with her and never looked back.
The actual learning will come later. This week was about separating from us and building a rapport with her teachers. Talking it over with the family at dinner, we are all awe-struck at the competence of these teachers in the brilliant, subtle and compassionate way they work with Sarah and other children like her. For most people, spending an hour in a room with a group of toddlers, some crying, others whining and a few jabbering away, would be a test of their patience. For some very special people, it is an opportunity to use their gift: to reassure the frightened and to decipher the body language of the innocent; to utilize their calmest, most comforting tone of voice, and most of all, to nurture.