Getting your child into a preschool that’s a good fit in Maine can be insanely hard. I know–I just got my four year old into Montessori.

This feels like a major achievement since a) I can’t afford it and b) I don’t have enough money. But the stars aligned, and there she is. Before I knew the stars were on my side, I decided to send her and her two year old sister to the YMCA’s preschool a few mornings a week while I grade papers. I have happy memories of being a “Y” kid (we used to swim there all summer) so my default position on all things Y is that it’s always good, and always right.

I visited their classrooms; they’re cute and they all have an insect theme. Babies that look too tiny to be out of the womb are swaddled in the “Honeybee” room. Anne would be joining the adorable “Ladybugs” and Caroline gets to be a “Butterfly.” What could be better? I filled out a library of paperwork, bought the Frozen lunchboxes, and voila, we were all set. But they hated it. Why? I do not know. Was it the kid still in his pajamas playing in the mud? He didn’t bother me– I usually feel like the mom who doesn’t have her s#!* together, so knowing that some frazzled parent is transporting Nolan directly from bed to school makes me breathe easier. Now I don’t have to worry about whatever item I invariably forgot. Last year, all the moms at Caroline’s preschool arrived at 8:30 drop off having already done their runs or baked three pies for the fundraiser. Yeah, whatever. The one morning I got up at 5 a.m. to make play-doh for her class is a day that will live in infamy.
And the list of what to bring to school now is INSANE. I’m not saying this for humorous effect–other parents will bear me out. Why has the amount of stuff a parent has to pack for school quadrupled in the time I’ve grown up? For some reason, the number of items to put in a three year old’s backpack has senselessly mushroomed since the ’70’s.
So, my point is that I got all the stuff—the classroom slippers, the change of clothes for each season (don’t kids just get wet anymore? I think I got wet…then when my mom picked me up, I got dry. Right?), the nut-free snack, the carefully labeled sippy cup, the cuddle toy for nap time, the blanket, the fitted sheet for the small mattress for naptime…You get the idea. And the idea is madness. I mean, it’s like a mathematical formula: any time I garner a few hours for other endeavors, the preschool makes sure that I spend EXACTLY the same amount of time preparing for or otherwise acquiring items for the preschool.
Last year, as Caroline’s teacher gave us the instructions for what three pies to make from scratch for the pie sale, my inner voice went rogue and escaped through my mouth: “But that will take me more time than she’s here for!” There was a sharp intake of breathe from the other mothers, fresh from their runs. Oh, wow, she said it. Then, as if to disassociate from me, they quickly signed up to bake six pies. See? It’s really not so hard.
Well, it’s hard for me. But I still managed to get them organized and enrolled in the Y, only to find my two year old hiccupping and in tears when I picked her up: “No. More. Ladybugs! No. More Ladybugs!” It was too sad to even contemplate sending her back, so she’ll have another year with Mama. Which is fine. She’s still a baby. But I expected her sister to have a better experience. I saw the Butterflies doing art. I saw Miss Karen handing out baby maracas for a jam session. It all seemed so cute, so normal, except, I guess, for the two hour naptime. When some kids are dropped off at 7 a.m. and picked up at 5:30 p.m. it makes sense for them to rest but Caroline was only coming for four hours, so I understand that when I finally got her to articulate what she didn’t like, she said, “It’s weird to sleep at school!”
So, back to square one. I filled out another library of paperwork, the Montessori library. They seemed surprised that I had even tried other schools. “Oh, you will be happy here; we are the best.” I tried not to hear this as elitist but rather as ingrained support for the fabulous teachings of Maria Montessori. I actually feel bad for Maria when I see the crazy quilt the children made of her face that hangs in the front office. Signorina Montessori was a trailblazer, the first woman doctor in Italy. But goodness, she looks ugly when her nose is yellow, her left eye blue, her chin purple, etc.
The application of her teachings has fared better. In Caroline’s classroom the preternatural calm of Miss Elaine and the soft music lull me into a reverie as the prayer flags flutter above little ones “doing their work,” and we are reminded of what could be. A world at peace, with children leading the way. “Caroline, come here, ” says Miss Elaine. “Can you spread your mat before you do your work? Then the other children will not step on the puzzle. It is your space, and we must respect that.” Good Lord, can I bring my work here? Will Miss Elaine help spread a mat for me, a small island of goodness and respect where I can drink coffee, check my emails, and grade high school English papers? I won’t disturb the other workers. I’ll just try to get more centered. Maybe then the endless to-do list for a modern parent won’t seem so overwhelming. After such a morning I should be able to bake ten pies, all the while bringing more peace into the world.
Maria Montessori was close to Gandhi, and visited him in India. I now know why the Y can’t compete with this. I certainly can’t. I guess all I can do is humbly prepare my child, knowing that I won’t do it very well much of the time– but also knowing that each of us, whether we have it or not, deserves an island of peace and respect. A place of repose and reflection where learning makes its voice heard…even if we can’t make play-doh or scratch pies.
Catherine Ahlawat

About Catherine Ahlawat

I grew up in Maine, am a teacher and an actor and have lived in New York, California, Vermont, and Italy (where I met my husband, who is from India). We were married in his hometown, and naively thought the cultural differences wouldn't be that big a deal. (!) I write about my experiences as a mom, as well as about what it has been like to bridge such a great cultural divide in our marriage.