Loch “graduated” this week from the preschool he’s attended for the last two years. I use the term graduated loosely because, unlike his friends, he’s not off to kindergarden next year but a pre-K program reserved for those birthdays that must complete a full three years of preschool. Quite honestly, I’m fine with that. One more year of him being a little is a good thing for me. What I found interesting however, is how emotional I was by the completion of this phase of his life. As I carried him out of the school after the festivities he was keenly aware that his time there was through. He understood (with tears) that his friends were all heading off to new places and he’d never have that wonderful teacher again. Though I know his life will be full of the pain of change and recognize the importance of it, it was still heartbreaking to watch.
Looking back at the last two years I’m struck with what a special experience it was and how much I personally got out of it especially since I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it in the first place. The Sherman Oaks Cooperative Nursery School is situated at the side of a huge local park. It’s essentially a fenced-in dirt lot that over time the co-op members have continued to improve. We now have three little houses for a library, dress up, kitchen, and toys. Five various sized sheds for school supplies, gardening, sports and maintenance equipment. A phenomenal playground with a sea of playhouses, a sandbox and equipment for the kids. A permanent floor and cover for circle time, snacks and activities, a bathroom and tons of sail shades. It’s a childhood oasis run by a marvelous and patient teacher who truly loves children. It’s also a co-op which, before I started, I had absolutely no experience with and, if asked, probably would have said I wasn’t into.
The school is able to function because each family designates a working parent that comes one day a week to do an assigned job that helps the school run. I was personally in charge of the Drama curriculum and worked on Thursdays. We played theatre games and animal charades. We put on a Thanksgiving play and I wrote a song for the graduates to sing at this week’s ceremony. Sean did maintenance, hung sail shades, and traded off with me to work the Thursdays that he could. The working parent is also responsible for assisting with activities, games, cleaning and gardening as well as attending a once a month mandatory meeting and a number of fundraisers throughout the year.
I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of personalities, a lot of opinions and a fair amount of eye rolling trying to get everyone to cooperate. Sean and I only decided to be part of a co-op because the private pre-school I chosen wouldn’t take Loch unless he was 2 years 9 months as of September 1st. Being that he was 3 months shy of that number I had to wait another whole year for him to begin. The co-op however, would take a child as soon as they turned 2 years 9 months, which meant Loch could start as early as November instead of having to wait until the following school year. Seeing that Loch really needed the stimulation that would only come from other children and a semi-structured environment, we decided to opt into the co-op until his chosen school was available.
My first meeting before Loch started was at a members home that was drastically different from mine. It was very hippie, very commune-esque, very un-me. I sat silently listening to people “voice their opinions” hoping against hope I hadn’t made a mistake. When I arrived home that night I was in tears. I told Sean “these are not my people” and I wasn’t sure I could do it. We decided that anything was possible for a year and that the price – one fifth of the other school’s – and the fact that Loch would have something to do 4 days a week was worth making the effort.
The first year had it’s rough patches. Just like any freshman experience you have to learn the ropes and get to know the procedures so they don’t feel overwhelming. You have to take the time to make friends so you’re not alienated and alone, and you have to settle into a new environment and accept that not everyone is going to get along. But honestly, until that spring I still believed I was only doing a year.
I changed my mind in March just after the co-op had it’s biggest fundraising event, the Spring Fair. When we arrived I realized what a pleasure it was to enter a space you felt totally comfortable in. An environment where you weren’t worried about where your child was or who they were with because everybody knew him and he knew everybody. A place where if a child was crying there were at least 15 parents he or she was comfortable going to, and another 20 who could take that child to the appropriate parent. I was profoundly affected by that day. I hadn’t realized how isolating parenthood was. How hard it was to raise a child in a city without family. What a pleasure it was to be a part of something bigger than my little family of three.
When my acceptance letter to the private school arrived later that month I was torn. I recognized it would be a mistake to leave such a positive and healthy environment, not just for Loch but for me. The co-op allowed me the opportunity to share in his school experience in a way I would never get again. It also gave me a community of people to draw on for both help and experience. There was someone to ask if I had a parenting question. There were people to turn to if I needed someone to take Loch for a couple of hours. Functioning within a co-op environment I realized how many people are willing to lend a hand if you need it. Not having family in town and being someone who’s sick, it was an amazing relief to find myself with a solid handful of people I could truly count on. When I had the stomach flu and Sean was away, one of the mom’s came to my house to take Loch for the day. When I was sworn in as an American, another mom picked up Loch from school and took him home until I was done. There seemed to always be someone willing to step up. Plus, I’d made a number of truly great friends and I wasn’t sure I wanted to trade that for the abbreviated relationship you get in the allotted drop-off/pick-up window of a traditional pre-school . The co-op was a marvelous and unique environment I knew I wouldn’t readily find again. Modern parents are so conditioned to take everything on that we often end up martyring ourselves at the alter of motherhood. It’s hard to ask for help or let people know we need it. Sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child and if you don’t have a village, what do you do?
I decided to keep my community a little longer and stay at the co-op for another year. Loch would go to the private preschool two afternoons a week so he could acclimatize himself to the school he would attend in his third year, but would stay at the co-op to graduate with his friends. As it turned out, another mother (and close friend) was doing the same thing and, in true co-op fashion, we split the responsibility. Monday’s I’d pick them up, have a picnic lunch and drive them to the other school and Wednesday’s she’d do it. That way, there was one day a week we both had almost a full day to work (9-4). It was a great compromise and a really fun routine for the kids.
My second year at the co-op was marvelous. Not only did we lose the unmanageable children from the year before, we lost most of the unmanageable parents that came with them. The new families were terrific and the co-op mentality really clicked for me. My dear friends were the President, Vice President and Head of Fundraising respectively, and under their leadership the school flourished. Everyone – save a few, there’s always a few – did their job exceptionally well and we were able to raise most money the school’s ever made. Loch had play dates with friends and went home with other people after school. We had dinners out with parents who had become our friends, and there was always someone to talk with and confer when parenting (or life) became overwhelming.
As I watched our enormous graduating class receive their certificates surrounded by friends, families of friends and spouses of friends, I realized there would never be a time when I knew all those associated with my son as well again. As I thought back to that first meeting, and how I’d determined this wasn’t going to be my kind of place, I could accept that not only was I wrong, I was glad to be. I learned that leaning on and working with others can be a huge source of strength and that taking the time, even when you think you don’t have it, to devote to your child is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
I’ll never get this time with him back, but at least I was able to be around for so much of it.
It’s been an incredible time and I’m moved it’s over.