Graduating… from Preschool

Eden Preschool Graduation

Tis the season for graduations. Lengthy commencement speeches endured in sweaty crowdedness. Florid leis and loud hoots reminding us that every kid deserves a family that roots for them, that takes pride in their strut. Pictures, pictures, pictures, and muscling other people for position… for pictures.

In our small household, we “only” had a preschool graduation (someone isn’t done with his dissertation….)  I remember, early in his national fame, Barack Obama on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me ribbing the notion of a preschool graduation ceremony (I think Malia was that age at the time), suggesting wryly that maybe we ought to set our sights a bit higher. I know what he means, but I sure appreciated a little (actual) Pomp and Circumstance, because these first five years felt like they deserved some ceremony, some celebration. Is a preschool career worth that much hullabaloo? I say yes. Not because she’s accomplished the remarkable feat of surviving naptimes. But let’s call it a dress rehearsal for the bigger things that are bound to come, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these years for us.

As we soaked in the cuteness of dance performances and pledge recitations, I reflected on the significance of preschool. I won’t repeat here the promise and power of preschool for all, as has been eloquently argued by one of my heroes, David Kirp. Suffice it to say, there are few social policies that I’m more assured would make a positive impact than guaranteeing quality preschool universally. I know that sounds simple, and it’s not so simple– for instance, preschool teachers in our current system are severely underpaid compared to their K-12 counterparts, so we might be looking at a fairly expensive proposition to expand preschool access. But the investment in those critical years has a substantial body of evidence to show huge long term benefits. Especially if we can make sure the preschool we provide kids is quality.

But I’m immeasurably thankful that our kid got a great preschool education. Truly great. Those teachers of hers are amazing. We really didn’t need them to drill her in the ABCs, she had that covered. We didn’t need subtraction worksheets, or tough discipline for the “unruly” boys who pushed her off a slide. What we cherished was the social-emotional learning, patiently and lovingly rendered by her teachers. The way they comforted her when she was hurt, whether physical booboos or emotional ones. The way they taught her to talk to her classmates about taking turns, or not biting people, or joint projects of Magnatile kingdoms.

My wife and I teach adolescents, so early childhood’s not necessarily our realm of expertise, but we know enough to know that what’s going to be most consequential for her future test scores, earning power, and whatever reductive social indicator you want, is how capably her preschool teachers helped her to set goals about what crafts she made, how gently and persistently they taught her to respect boundaries, and how patiently they listened while she practiced using her words. What made our kid’s preschool quality was not how they “pushed” her towards “achievement,” but how lovingly they included and integrated all of the kids: the non-English speakers, the inattentive squirmers and handsy pokers, and all the four year-olds parroting their parents’ home-brewed inanities to one another– including ours. So three cheers to her preschool teachers, and to preschool teachers and staff everywhere.

I mentioned the dress rehearsal for things to come. As a teacher, one of the pleasures of the job is to see families come out to celebrate their children’s graduation. Especially when you have an inkling of the dedication needed to wake up every day and send them to school fed, the trials and tribulations to make sure their children aren’t left behind, and even the struggle with teachers and principals sometimes to broker a fair shot for their kid. Despite all of my family’s advantages and privilege, I can think of many times when my ability to provide the right steerage and environment for my daughter’s learning was tenuous. So I can only imagine the challenge if a parent is raising multiple children at different ages and stages, perhaps on their own, dealing with financial or legal insecurity. Parenting a child, even through those first five years, takes tremendous resilience.

A preschool graduation is a little oasis, a foretaste for those parents of those rewards, and a reminder that the efforts, headaches, and arguments were worth it for the wonder of the little one who is becoming her or his own person with every milestone.