Stella started preschool six weeks ago.
When we first visited the Little Lambs school, located in the back of a small house, we almost immediately fell in love. There is a small yard, no bigger than a postage stamp, filled with bits of grass and dirt that have been stomped on over the years. A one room detached garage had been converted into a playroom with a few old toys and tables scattered about. Some pictures of the alphabet and children's art hang on the wall. Adjacent to the playroom is a small patio with a long picnic table, covered by a makeshift tarp. Inside the back of the house is another small space where the kids eat their meals and sit in a circle to begin the day. There are no fancy toys or plush children's furniture or corporate style check-ins anywhere to be seen. It's all very urban and earthy, giving it an unpretentious and accessible feel.
As we toured the the school and asked Miss Alma our questions, Stella seemed to fall in love simultaneously with us. She roamed around, from one room to the next, exploring each little nook and cranny for what it had to offer. She spent a few minutes eyeing the kitchen, opening the oven and then closing it, as if taking mental notes on it's durability. She eyed the crayon drawings on the wall, perhaps imagining herself drawing something similar. She spent a minute or two running around the yard in circles, acting as if she was testing the ground's softness. I half wondered, as we were wrapping up to the tour, if she would wink at me and say, "This will do, Dad."
The first time we dropped her off, she was giddy with excitement. The tiny universe in which she only barely scratched the surface of exploring was back at her fingertips and she barely noticed us walking away. When Kari walked down the driveway four hours later to pick her up, she immediately began saying no and ran away. We were delighted. Miss Alma, her sweet yet strong teacher, was delighted. It seemed the day had only been hard for Kari and I. I voiced the obvious question to Kari, feeling a deep sense of pride. Is our daughter so fiercely independent that she's not going to have to adjust to preschool?
Two days later Stella and I turn the corner towards the school and I can see the questions marks shooting off in her head. Why are we back here? Is this going to be a regular thing? She seems bewildered, her eyes expressing confusion. I can see her apprehension growing as I slide the Element into a space along the street. It's school time buddy, I say happily. She immediately breaks down, whimpering as I open the door and take off her seat belt. No school, she says sadly. As I walk down the driveway to the back of the house, she wraps her limbs around me as tightly as ever, clinging to my waist and back and burying her head into my neck. I love and hate every second of it. We enter the back room optimistically, hoping Miss Alma can work her magic on my frightened little girl. Stella quickly scans the room and dives back into my neck, her tears rolling onto my shirt. Miss Alma looks at me with empathy and gently peals her away from me. I can hear cries as I walk back toward the car. I tell myself to be cool on repeat.
The next few weeks are no better. Monday and Wednesday school days. More tears, more clinging, more confusion.
Our Wednesday morning routine before preschool goes something like this: At 8:15am, I pack up her bag and get some breakfast going. At 8:30, I sneak into her room and snag a diaper and her outfit for the day and throw them on the living room rug. Then I walk back in and enjoy the brief few seconds of watching her sleep before she turns over and squints at me, her eyes adjusting to the light. Then we gather up all her animals and her blanket and sit together in the living room rocker. Then breakfast, then the car. Up to this point, she is as sweet and happy as can be. Then we start the drive down El Molino, towards school, which I have yet to mention. A week or two in, I began noticing something unusual about her mood in the back seat. Since my rear view mirror has been pointed at her ever since she started facing forward, I can track her mood, eyes and demeanor as we ride.
It suddenly dawns on me that she is moving through the five stages of grief as we ride south, moving back and forth through the stages with each new passing neighborhood. Initially, I can see her eyes recognize where we are going. Fear replaces an easiness that she exuded during breakfast and leaves her in denial. No school, she says, crying out. No school, no school, she says over and over, her voice getting softer and sadder as she repeats herself. I try and calm her with some tenderness and understanding, which only aggravates her further. She grows angry and begins shifting in her seat, doing everything in her power to break free from her straps, which may be her most hated enemy in twenty two months of living. She pulls at them and cries. I know it's hard buddy, offering her the empathy I already feel.
She immediately begins bargaining. Home, she says excitedly, as if it was the key to unlocking her from a day at preschool. House? Play? She offers them up with a smile, knowing exactly how happy it makes me when she uses her new found vocabulary. In that moment, she almost talks me into a trip home. I'm ready to throw in the towel, call off preschool, and turn the car around for home. Okay buddy, let's just play today, I want to say to her. But I keep driving, telling her that school isn't a choice. She has to go to school. I want to explain to her that Mommy and Daddy need some time together. We need to read books and have a two hour lunch and do some laundry. I want to tell her that this will be good for her too, after a little while. It will be good for all of us. But all I can muster, all I know she needs, is to tell her that school is a go today.
She sinks into a depression for the last few miles toward Miss Alma and the Little Lambs. Her eyes tell a story about the sadness that is sinking into her. She drops her head against the side of the car seat and blankly stares out the window. And for once in her life, she sits quietly, without making any sounds or movements. I feel much the same way.
Until yesterday, this is the way the last few weeks and preschool have gone for us. Stella moves through the first four stages of grief and we stay fixed on what we think, we hope, is something that will eventually be a good thing. But then yesterday something beautiful seemed to take place in the car as we drove towards school. Acceptance. The sadness she felt at breakfast when I told her it was a school day slowly gave way to a miraculous acceptance. There was a perk in her as she ate her peanut butter sandwich on the way to school. Her big blue eyes, though still not their usual fiery glow, seemed to reveal some level of understanding, as if she was thinking that school might just be okay. And as we started the long walk down the driveway, me briefing her on her show and tell, she took her head off my shoulder and flashed her perfect little smile. Yeah, I said to her, everything is going to be fine.