We recently spent a week in Southern California being surrogate parents to our granddaughters whose parents had work-related obligations. We got to walk our oldest granddaughter to her first week of kindergarten and pick her up at noon each day. We got to go to swim lessons at an indoor pool where the fumes of massive amounts of chlorine needed to keep a pool filled with 70 or 80 1- to 8-year-olds free of contamination gave me a headache. Of course the headache might have been caused by the shouting of 15 instructors over the splashing and shrieking of the 70 to 80 children and the shouted conversations of 40 parents into their cell phones, but I’m pretty sure the chlorine in an enclosed space was the culprit.
We got to attend a cupcake party — not the kind where one mother bakes and decorates 25 cupcakes for her child’s party, but a Southern California cupcake party where one goes to a cupcake store and picks out the flavor of cupcake, the type of frosting and toppings, and then watches it being decorated right before one’s delighted eyes. At 7:30 p.m., the little guests, half of whom had started kindergarten two days earlier, were licking 20 pounds of frosting, handfuls of gummy worms and pink sugar bows off their cupcakes. None of them actually ate the extra-large cupcakes which were really only there as convenient repositories for the frosting and gummy worms, but all of their parents put the remains in plastic take home boxes. I despaired of our thoroughly chlorinated and amped up grandchildren being able to fall asleep before puberty, but that was before I looked at things from the outside of the fence.
Schools are taking kidnappings and threats of violence very seriously. Our granddaughter’s school has a maze of iron fencing and locked gates surrounding the perimeter. In the morning, the place is abustle with hundreds of parents and thousands of children, outside the fence until precisely 8:10 a.m. when the gate is inched open just enough to allow small children bearing backpacks the size of Volkswagens to slip through. The gates are locked at 8:15 and if you get there at 8:16, you are routed through the office to explain yourself.
Each of the kindergarteners comes with parents and two or three siblings, so it’s a sizable crowd waiting outside the iron fence, taking fond photos of the little ones lined up inside. It felt exactly the same as going to the San Diego Zoo and waiting, camera in hand, for the bears to do something. The bears aren’t usually crying, however, although some of them do wave.
The teachers came out, gathered up notes and checked the conformation of their lines. Then the little bears marched past their adoring public, shyly waving or smiling proudly, quite aware of their status as new kindergarteners. There were always one or two in hysterical tears, casting imploring looks back over their shoulders. By Friday, the marching lines took on the appearance of the Bataan Death March as exhausted looking 4- and 5-year-olds dragged themselves forward, dark circles under their eyes, nearly empty backpacks weighing them down.
Having been on the inside of the fence for 23 years as an educator, being on the outside was a unique feeling. I knew exactly what the teachers were going through — trying to learn about each one of their students and figure out who needs what; memorize names and faces of both children and parents; decide who is going to need kid glove attention, who is going to need firm guidelines and maybe their own classroom and who is going to be smart and fun but whose parents might not be either one.
But, on the outside of the fence, I learned that ingesting 20 pounds of frosting and three sugar bows will not keep a new kindergartener from sleeping like the dead if it’s the first week of school. So many new things; so many first time things, so many rules. It’s tough to keep your undomesticated self under wraps for three and a half long hours especially if there is singing involved and you’re used to being the star performer. The rigors of the first week of kindergarten might also have accounted for the hour-long meltdown over clothing choices before school on Friday and the zombie-like appearance at the end of the day.
It’s good to be a grandparent on the outside of the fence — no papers to grade, no lesson plans to prepare. Best of all, we got to learn the “White Shoe” song from our resident kindergartener and fly back home before she and her sister made me play Red Riding Hood and the Dragon again.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.