The first time I realized my father was old was when I made him a mixtape of my new favorite band, Sachal Jazz Ensemble. He skeptically eyed the thoughtfully curated tracks of this fascinating Pakistani collective playing Dave Brubek. He quietly tossed the CD on a table and told me no music created after 1965 is worth listening to. He actually believes he’s heard everything he needs to hear. It breaks my heart to see his lack of curiosity and absence of wonder about the world he’s still occupying. He’s missing out on so, so, so much fantastic new art, culture and mind-expanding music. (Who am I listening to right now? The bitter, cranky genius of Courtney Barnett. You’re welcome.)
And now that I have Grace, who has nothing but the entire world to experience and taste and smell and feel and see, I am hungrier than ever to revisit the world through her eyes. The shittiest, I mean most thrilling part of parenting is just when you get used to the new normal, your kid grows out of it and you have to relearn the wheel of raising them all over again. So, when her daycare friends started migrating into preschools, we faced the terrifying ascent of the monolith of East LA preschools with denial and inertia. She was two, she was happy, we were tired and it was all going to be just fine.
Then, a certain super cool, crush-worthy rocker and his even cooler rocker wife returned from tour too late to get their daughter into preschool. l watched, a bit alarmed, as their kid Bandit had to cool her 4-year-old-heels for an entire school year with babies and toddlers in Grace’s daycare. Then, after repeated warnings from frazzled parents about how crazy competitive it was to get into preschools with years long wait lists, we got busy a year ahead of time. Yes, preschools. Yes, it’s insane.
Repulsively, we knew we had a bit of a ‘get into any LA school free card’ because we are white and Grace is black. We were told (very quietly in a near whisper) that we’d nab scholarships (yes, preschool scholarships) on account of providing the diversity that every preschool wishes to pride itself on. Just in case you think I might overstate the insanity of Los Angeles preschools, I humbly invite you to check out the twitter feed @LosFelizDayCare with nuggest like “We NEVER overpraise. When our kids succeed, they get a few non-toxic stickers, an achievement medal, 12 high-fives, a warm hug and that’s it . ” It is as funny but far, far too near the truth.
Our first school tour took the longest to set up because the directress doesn’t really respond to modern technology- which means she doesn’t answer emails or the relatively more established communication device also known as the telephone. We only persisted because our friends whose kids had attended Elm Grove gushed repeatedly about how their kids played outside, OUTSIDE, all day long and returned home at night filthy and exhausted from being in the earth. Since our kid would basically live outside if we let her, I enjoyed envisioning her gardening and learning about plants and bugs from a coven of aproned, make-up-free women in clogs, knee socks and crystals. After a month of no responses I sent the directress a photo of my daughter outside, hunched over plants, naked except a pair of fairy wings. That got the directress’s attention toot sweet. She even deigned to email me more than once- of course, it was June 2014 and they didn’t have an opening until Sept. 2015 but we agreed to set up a school tour. Nothing like no one having room for you to make you want them sooooo much.
The school resided in a rode-hard-and-put-away wet Craftsman cottage painted a muted and New England Hippie palette. The gate was sufficiently complicated to ensure children can’t make a break for it and the side and back yard were full of kids playing in actual dirt. With their socks on. If it wasn’t for their slightly stylish clothing and the white, Bierkenstocked women in aprons standing around sipping white tea, I might have felt trapped inside a Save The Children commercial.
I am no neatnik, I don’t own an iron and I have a very sheddy dog, but wearing socks in the dirt just icks me out in ways I’m not prepared to examine. The directress was a charming, grey-maned woman who clearly enjoys tending the flocks of Echo Park/SilverLake children as if they were urban hens. It was super charming and crunchy/dirty in a way that reminded me of much of my childhood in the 1970s, but for $1200 a month I could just fill my kid’s bedroom with dirt. And when I asked what the kids do all day the directress shrugged haplessly and said, “they play”. Which I love and adore, but play is what Grace’s been doing since birth. Also, since she is obsessed with sweeping, (she has her own quiver of brooms) and adores washing her hands more than even I am comfortable with, it just didn’t seem like the place for her.
A serious neatnik friend went the full-Montessori route. She fell in love with the most sought after preschool in Hollywood, a place so elite and sought-after they charge a nonrefundable 250 bucks just to APPLY. This preschool will teach your little peanut Chinese, about the Medusa myth, tapdancing, Shakespeare and pilates but they charge $1500 a month and aren’t even full time. However, on their website, Tumblr page and their WordPress page they crow over how the youngest pupils learn such necessary life details as how to sweep floors, bake bread and polish silver. How very Downton Abbey of them, growing future maids and butlers.
Next we visited a preschool tucked behind a high door, without a sign- like a secret nightclub you might only know exists if you know Gigi Hadid or Spike Jonze. Actually, it was as hard to get into as a secret nightclub- emails flew back and forth. Finally, we got on a wait list for a wait list for a tour and were told that our kid wouldn’t get in, if she was lucky, for another 18 months or so. Impressed by the complicated door knob I gave them a gold star for security, but noted that the inchy parking lot was going to make drop off and pick up time stressful and annoying and might even inspire Stella McCartney-clad parental fist fights. The place was crunchy and groovy, it resembled a miniature hippie compound- chickens stiffly wandered around the center open air square where children looked like they were crafting a mini burning man effigy. Cats and bunnies lay together in the shade as the directress guided us up a Swiss Family Robinson-like-rope-and-driftwood staircase into a classroom packed with toys, books, a turtle, a pregnant cat and little folding chairs that were slightly more comfy than sitting on hay bales.
The directress was proud that this preschool was over 40 years old and founded by psychologist-nudists- in fact, while this school was nut and sugar-free, it was also pro-vaccine and clothing optional. The tuition is $1200 a month yet they require parents to pretend it is a co-operative, meaning parents are expected to donate many hours on top of the dollars donated- apparently for new buildings and new turtles. We wandered the schoolrooms, eying the children and their teachers who looked like they just graduated from preschool themselves. In fact one of the teachers had attended this very preschool. “Just last year?” I wanted to ask. Favorite student names? Oak, Bones and Rocket.
I worried how we could afford the tuition if we had to take time off work to volunteer at the school. My husband, a builder, could see his entire life be swallowed whole doing stuff there- on account of him being boundary-intolerant like me, AKA, a huge pushover. We backed away sad to know that we were mushy enough to be taken advantage of here, and quietly said no.
Then we were invited to a birthday party at the Beyonce of preschools. From the street it resembles an old medical office building with decent-ish parking but crap 1980s architecture. But once parked, when you walk past the aviary full of irate hens and slip into the horizontal red wood fence with a top of the line secured knob way out of child-reach, you enter a Valhalla of pre-Waldorfian bliss.
A jumpy castle, a light filled two story art shack resembling Charles and Ray Eames fabled Pacific Palisades home, a hilly racetrack for little cars, a rocket ship, slides and jungle gyms and a sand pit rivalling our home’s footprint. Turtles swim, bunnies hop, finches beep and sun shades make the light extra flattering for parents and children alike. I wanted to live there. I didn’t even need to see the schoolrooms, because the playspace sold it. We could sleep in the jumpy castle, live in the Eames mini-house and be the happiest family alive. It’s better than Disneyland, it’s that Beyonce.
We signed up for the orientation, waited on a line wrapped around the block, and listened as teachers and the directress gushed about their brilliant campus. A kiddo art display hung above the mini picnic tables informed us that the toddlers were learning all about Banksy and doing their own version of subversively comic yet bleak street art. Compelling.
i’ve heard that each kid gets their very own cape and superhero avatar, once they get past the rigorous admissions process, that is. There’s the application, the three hour orientation, then the parent interview, then the child interview. For PRESCHOOL. The only reason I wanted to go through this process was because I was dying to plant a tape recorder on my three year old to hear how she holds up in an interview.
Interviewer: So Grace what do you like to do for fun?
Grace: I like to peel the skin off my feet and eat it.
My husband hated it there and I hated him for hating it. He loathed the purposeful preciousness and the carefully curated totems of childhood. Of course he was right, the place is designed to make a parent SWOON with how much enforced joy they can ram down their kids’ throats, and yet the parents get to feel lucky for coughing up 1500 smackers a month. All this for a campus with a great security system but no vaccination policy. Checking out the directress’s Tory Burch flats and fashion forward poncho at the orientation settled it. I wasn’t going to buy her shoes I can’t buy for myself.
A few favorite mothers at our daycare told us about a tiny Montessori preschool and kindergarten way up in Echo Park. After Castle Etsy-Precious, Echo Park Montessori was sweet but a bit dog-eared. Cinderblock walls and bare windows sported old kid art and a few drowsy mobiles. The fence and gate suggested no one in charge stares at milk cartons anymore. Anyone can just walk in, I thought as I just walked in.
Two of the teachers had grey hair that was not St. Vincent gray but just plain old lady grey. No make up and sensible Easy Spirit shoes appeard to be the uniform. The senior citizen directress was sporting a Ralph’s Supermarket T-shirt, sans bra. She briskly let us know she was no-frills and grilled us on our understanding of Montessori. She told us to read a book in such a direct manner that I was ordering it in the car on the way home. I was ready to do a book report that evening on Maria Montessori’s remarkable life.
Two cats chased the sun around the room. The office was disorganized, with files all over the place. The bathroom was old. But I was struck by how silent a room full of 3 to 5 year olds could be. 25 childen sat at various tables with teachers, either cutting, counting or debating the intricacies of the alphabet.
While I mourned how much like a classroom it seemed, I liked how the room smelled of old wooden puzzle pieces, softened by decades of little hands. The playground toys were termite-y and worn, patches of grass were releasing their tenuous grasp on life, but the decorations on all the walls were made by actual children, not Etsy artisans replicating child crafts. The children didn’t care about any of this- they played as heartily on old metal swings as they would on ergonomic, conflict-free swings with hemp weave cruelty free seats. Water balloons were being tossed from teachers to kids, and other teachers sat on benches, watching kids play until their parents showed up. The Directress was droll and gently direct with the kids, less patient with the fumbling, hurrying parents. Notes for parents were taped on the front door. It was the 1970s all over again.
No email addresses were exchanged, we were given actual mimeographed pages to fill out and physically return. After one ten minute conversation, our child was admitted and we had a seven month wait for an opening. It felt strangely too easy, and I had to keep calling the directress to double check she wasn’t just losing her mind or fucking with us. She’d laugh every time I called, and soothed my worries. Yes, we were on the list- an actual, paper list sitting on a wooden desk in an actual real classroom.
After a few marital debates and many playground chats with other parents, our choice became clear. I wanted my daughter in a place with real, as opposed to created, history. I wanted her to be with educators with forty years experience in their craft. I wanted my daughter to stare into wise, wrinkled faces full of grandmother experience and wisdom. I wanted to give my hard earned money to the place where things and people might be old but carry the weight and potency of their historical experience and usefulness. In a city that reveres youth over just about any other currency, I wanted to expose my child to the irreplaceable beauty of age and all it knows and carries and bestows on us, if we are lucky to be exposed to it and smart enough to value it.
Please enjoy Sachal Jazz Ensemble’s take on Brubeck’s Take Five. Then make your dad listen to it and see if it can shift his curiosity back into drive.