A few months ago, my husband and I started our preschool search in earnest. In Los Angeles, preschools have become a source of parental hysteria, the belief that if one’s child doesn’t get in to a good preschool, they won’t get in to the “right” elementary school, or high school, and then they can kiss all their college dreams goodbye. You hear horror stories of professional photo shoots for the “informal” family photo, hiring writers to pen the essays, bribing of school administrators. Since all of them are private, preschools are quite pricey, and we’ve somehow been convinced that our kids need three years of preschool (four if you count the increasingly prevalent and often required Toddler Program) before Kindergarten even begins. All of that said, my husband and I chose not to opt out but, instead, to throw ourselves into a search for the perfect preschool for us. We tried not to catch the hysteria bug.
For our young daughters, we wanted something “developmental,” code for learning through play. This is preschool, after all. We feel children have the rest of their lives to color inside the lines, so when either of us would visit schools, we’d first look at all the artwork on the walls, hoping to see diverse, kid-directed (not teacher-dictated) work. In order to foster a lifelong love of learning in our daughters, we want their first school experience to be fun. Creative. Messy. A place where they can play, learn, and thrive.
Last month, I went on a tour in a lovely, quiet, tony residential neighborhood. It was love at first sight – everything I could’ve dreamed of for my kids and more. The school had a white picket fence around it, a garden of flowers spilling over it. I walked in, along with 20 other parents arriving for the tour, and admired the raised beds of vegetable gardens, each with handmade signs saying which preschool class planted which. The tour began and I loved what I saw – the unabashed joy on kids’ faces, the doting, patient teachers, the excellent adult to student ratio. A cooking class was in progress; the kids were making rhubarb bread from stalks grown in their own gardens. I was smitten. I noticed I was starting to sweat a little, not just from the mid-morning sun but from the thrill of finally finding “the one.” I texted my husband at work that this was it. I’d found the place, it’s “everything we want.”
After the tour, the prospective parents and I sat down in tiny primary colored chairs with the head of the school, a bright woman with a very clear and admirable philosophy. She took questions. A man raised his hand immediately and asked about “all the gates with no locks on them.” Other parents nodded their heads emphatically.
How had I missed this? Was I so in love with what I’d seen that I had completely missed – or deliberately skipped over? – the flaws of the school? I thought back a mere ten minutes: 20 parents and I had walked through three different flimsy waist-high gates with no locks on them. Nothing held us, 20 strangers, from standing among a sea of 70 kids on the playground.
The school director had clearly been asked about this before. “We find it upsets the children if we put up extra walls or locked gates,” she said.
The man who asked the question shook his head, gathered his brochures, and stormed out.
We all sat in stunned silence for a moment until another parent asked: “How many entrances to the school are there? And are they all unlocked?”
The school director replied, “I don’t know, maybe 4 or 5?”
Two parents walked out.
She became defensive: “You have to think about how this affects kids psychologically. What happened in Newtown last year was awful, but it was rare,” she said. “We can’t live in fear.”
I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want sharp shooters on the roof of my kids’ school. But don’t we have to learn from the past? A month before, my husband I ruled out another school because it was right next to a dilapidated liquor store. We wouldn’t even go on a tour.
As more parents filed out, I stayed, wanting to hear the director’s explanation for the lack of security. I wanted her to say something that could make this okay.
“A gunman is going to find his way into any school if he wants to enough,” she reasoned. “Sandy Hook elementary WAS locked, the gunman broke a window,” she said. “If we try to explain why security is so tight, we will scare the children even more. And it teaches kids that there is always some bogeyman to fear.'”
On some level, I agreed with her. I know I worry about everything too much – I am parent, therefore I worry. And sending my child to preschool is the first step in letting go, sending them into the world, which I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully ready to do. But I started to wonder if what the director was saying was true and based in core beliefs or merely defensive about a flaw she hasn’t gotten around to fixing at her school. Did she really have positive faith in the world or was she justifying a budget cut that won’t allow them to afford taller, stronger gates and a security system?
I thought about the Newtown families. Their school was incredibly secure even though they lived in a beautiful, idyllic small town, where “crime is low and values are strong.” I remembered reading that, since the tragedy, some of the victims’ parents started Safe and Sound (safeandsoundschools.org), a Sandy Hook Initiative. It’s completely apolitical and focuses on making schools safer. On their website, they wrote about when their family members boarded their school buses the morning of December 14th. “We never imagined it would be the last time we’d see them alive.” I think about the heroic principal and teachers who tried to protect the children and lost their lives in the process. I remember the TV footage that awful day – chains of children being snaked out of the school. From my tiny red seat in this classroom, it’s so hard to imagine that my daughters live in a world where not only could something like that happen, but it did.
I stare at a wonderfully messy picture of a heart, painted by one of the students at this Los Angeles preschool. There’s so much paint it is practically caked on, crusting off. It’s every shade of blue. “I love you!!!!” is written in huge, exuberant letters beneath the heart. My older daughter paints like that, as if the amount of paint is proportional to her pride in the project.
As a parent – and, as I imagine, a school administrator – we try to find the line between paranoid and practical, a balance between being protective but not so overprotective that our children are scared of the world. They run around and trip and fall and learn through these experiences. There’s no way to eliminate risk. It’s impossible. And I don’t want to exaggerate the statistical likelihood of a tragedy like Sandy Hook happening in my town.
But a lack of security seems an unnecessary risk for a school to take with their students’ – our children’s – lives.
Two more parents walked out. “Does anyone want to hear about our early readers’ program?” I heard the school director say as I, too, gathered my belongings and left. I already knew I wouldn’t even apply because the security issue outweighed everything. Outweighed her philosophy, the vegetable gardens, the perfectly imperfect blue heart on the wall. I’d never let my kids attend. Maybe that makes me overprotective. Maybe it means I’ve let fear win. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, the never-quite-healed wound left on our world last December 14th.