So, here’s a bomb: we’re now sending M to a preschool/K-Prep program that is run out of a local, religiously-affiliated college.
Y’all know I’m an atheist, right?
I’ll give you a moment to get back in your seat.
Without getting into the nitty gritty of why we decided to leave the preschool we were at for the last 4.5 years, it was, without a doubt, time for us to make a change. And fast. Naturally, this all happened at the beginning of September, which as almost any parent knows, is a time of year when it is virtually impossible to enroll in a traditional preschool because of how their calendars run vs. the rolling admission of places like we were at which attracts families with two parents working outside the home.
We wanted to explore the traditional preschool setting largely because of the flexibility my current part-time, work from home/for myself situation; unlike my days as an attorney, this type of work allows us to consider other options beyond whether a school had early and late hours. Considering the last time we looked at places was when M was in utero (and one brief visit to a Montessori school that opened two streets over when M was 2), we really had no idea what to expect.
We had a couple of parameters. We wanted to stay within city limits, with the hope that M might meet some friends that she could regularly play outside of school with since there are no kids near our house, much less meet kids that might transition with her to elementary school. It needed to have hours that allowed me to write/work at least 22-24 hours/week because I ‘m already struggling to meet deadlines as it is. There were two or three other key features that we wanted, all related to M’s personality and factors that were leading us to switch schools in the first instance.
Oh, and I was trying to send her someplace secular. I am speaking only for myself here–I don’t necessarily think this criterion was on my husband’s “must (not) have” list.
We quickly discovered there were not a lot of options, primarily because of the time of year we started looking, as well as the fact that I was unwilling to drive her to another community to attend preschool. That left two viable schools that had the kind of social/play/academic mix we were looking for. After the tours, we immediately had to write one off because it would have only put her in school for about 12 hours a week.
But it didn’t matter, because we LOVED the other school. Still love, in fact. The teachers, the facilities, the kids, the layout, the structure of the day….all of it. We loved it. We went on two tours (one with M). We spoke with the director. We spoke with the teacher that would be in M’s classroom. We observed the kids. I reached out to some parents who sent their kids there (a big thanks to J for giving me the inside scoop!). I think I did more research about this school than I did for college or law school.
Why so thorough, you ask? Because I knew–even before the tour–that on Fridays, there is a 30 minute session they call “Fantastic Fridays”. It’s a time when all the kids in the various classrooms get together with the teachers in the “big room”, and they tell stories, sing songs, color pictures about … wait for it … Jesus and his messages of love, peace and friendship.
Yet, I was so impressed with the school and its people that I was, and still am, able to get past it. Sure, some might say I’m a hypocrite, “using” the school despite my non-beliefs. Or perhaps that I am selling out or sending mixed messages to M. Certainly debatable.
But after much, MUCH thought about it all before deciding to send her there, I just came to a different conclusion. Not that conclusion. No, my non-beliefs have not budged. I think I just have a different perspective about how this might actually be a good thing for her, for us. For me. I’m being open. I’m putting the needs of my child above mine. What a concept.
The school knows where I stand. I made that clear (in a respectful way) during one of the tours. I did that not to mark my line in the sand so to speak, but to make sure that the school is true to its word that they do not discriminate against those students and families who are not Catholic/Christian, and that they are not teaching religion in the classrooms or proselytizing (no, no and no). I was assured that there are other non-Catholic families attending, and that there is even one other atheist family there too, and that they teach kids about other non-Catholic holidays and celebrations throughout the year too.
Considering the school is only open for 9 months (though they have a summer camp too), I couldn’t imagine too much damage being done if she was speaking the truth, which I think she was. Although, as I joke with my husband, if M starts doing the sign of the cross over her dolls, we may have to rethink our decision.
But I also mentioned my leanings because I wanted to really understand what was going to be happening during the “Fantastic Friday” portion of the day, just so that we could put it all in some context for M when the time came. I mean, here we were ripping her out of her school of 4+ years without much warning and asking her to learn a whole new daily and weekly routine (she’s now there only M-W-F as opposed to M-T-W-Th like her old school). And, oh yeah, hear about some guys named Jesus and God in the middle of all this craziness. It’s not like she’s heard those names before, outside of me driving in Boston-area traffic, so we wanted her to be prepared.
Then I realized that I needed to find age-appropriate ways to 1) explain my/our position, 2) be respectful of the school’s view and the families that go there, and 3) allow her to come to her own conclusions in her own time. I’ve been living in this secular bubble with her for some time now, but she’s inevitably going to be exposed to other people and their belief systems. Indeed, this is part of why I am OK with our decision–I think it is a small step in her becoming culturally literate when it comes to religion. Yes, I will teach her about the various viewpoints as it becomes relevant to do so, and I am sure she will be getting various takes on it from her future schooling and family and friends too. Indeed, I do not want us (M’s parents) to be the only source of information in her life.
Though I do admit that I worry occasionally about the “air of truth” that the school environment can lend itself to. Learning how to read, the alphabet, adding/subtracting, gravity…these concepts and the host of others taught at school are “real” or “true”, as it were. Throw religion into the mix too and that’s where I get a little claustrophobic. But I am choosing to go to a school of which this is a foundation, not a public school. I cannot have it both ways with our decision as it would be unreasonable and unfair. But so long as we temper and contextualize the information she hears over these next several months, my energy for these kinds of battles will be saved for public school.
I think our choice to enroll at this school will help foster an acceptance of diversity that, so far, in M’s life has been limited to exposure to racial and ethnic diversity. Though I don’t think those differences even register for her. Going inside M’s mind, I think I’d find that, to her, it doesn’t matter that Sally might be Chinese and Marta might be Indian and look different from each other and M — they all like to play with dolls and love pink, so they don’t think differently than M. If anything, the only differences in thinking (i.e. toy choices) is probably observed largely through gender still at this age. So, as I think about this choice we’ve made, it seems to be one small on-ramp to the varied philosophies, virtues and ethical paradigms that are around us. No, beyond us. Beyond our household with our personal philosophies and values.
I also realized that I am unlikely to find anything that is “perfect”. So, when I was contemplating all of this, I asked myself whether I would have sent her to any other religious analogue, or if was I OK with this one because of the Catholic bent (which is how I was raised for a time). Being honest with myself I found that, yes, I would have sent her someplace similar that was Jewish or Hindu or the like, were there one available.
So, despite my tentative worry about M being exposed to more than what we bargained for, or that she might say or repeat something she heard from us that could be perceived as being confrontational or disrespectful at her new school, here’s how things went for our first three weeks.
M (first day): No tears at drop off, realized she knew one girl in her class already. Success!
T (day off at home with me): Weird. For me. Not for M.
W (second day): M reported that there’s a bubbler (water fountain) on their playground and there is apparently a kid named Puff in her classroom (later learned to be not true). Success again!
Th: I tell M that she might be hearing about some people named Jesus and God the next day at school during a story/song time in the big room. She asked who they were, and I said that they are men from a really old story. She asked who God was, and I said that some people believe he made the earth. I waited…she said, “well that’s silly, because it would have taken him like 50,000 years and no one can do that!” Worry averted.
F: No mention of Fantastic Friday, but they are saying “Pledge of ‘legiance”. She asked if that God was the same one I told her about, and after I said yes she wanted a snack.
M: M reported that somebody clogged the toilet. OK then…
W: M reported that the toilet paper at school rips too easily and she can only get one square at a time. Welcome to the world of industrial toilet paper, honey…
F: M reported that she likes the soap in the bathroom. See a trend here?
M: M showed me the “secret handshake” that S and J showed her. The three of them haven’t decided whether to let the other S know about it. *sigh* (Note to self: is it time to read Queen Bees and Wannabes already? Watch for signs of becoming a “mean girl”….)
T: Still weird to be at home with M in the middle of the week. But we’re getting into a groove.
W: M starts cupping her hands at dinner and signing “he’s got the whole world in his hands”. Hmmm….delayed reaction from last FF? I said to her that I remember that one from when I was little, and I start singing it, realizing right away I don’t remember how it ends. She advises me that “it’s amen, Mommy”. Quickly I ask her if she knows what “amen” means. She doesn’t. Perfect time for a language lesson/re-direction. I tell her it can mean “I agree”, as in “this dessert is good, isn’t it? Amen!” I figure that is a little better than the “so it is” definition, at least in my mind.
Th: In the car M asks me,
“Mommy, is my pee like a river?”.
OK…looks like she heard the song “I’ve Got Peace Like a River”. I tell her that, why yes, her pee is like a river, but what she is probably talking about is the song “peace like a river”. Then she asks what peace is. This is not what I had in mind when we headed out the door to go to the Goodwill store to hunt for some bargains!
F: Half-day at school for M. We’re headed up to VT and dropping her off at Gramma’s on the way. After this past month of switching schools, and weaving a new thread into our daily discussions, I need to get away. Amen!
So, given how the first three weeks went, am I worried? No (well, maybe about her listening skills if she continues to think her pee is a river…). We’ve essentially told her a few times over the past few weeks that there are lots of different ways that people think about the world, how it came to be and how it should be run (also a good message for an election year), and that even if we don’t agree with each other, we still have to be nice to each other. That it is ALWAYS okay to have doubt about what other people tell you, about what they may or may not believe, and that it is important to ask questions and find out the answers for yourself, to figure out what can be true and what might not be.
I remind myself that she’s five. She still thinks mermaids are very real, but yet doesn’t believe that a person-like entity could create our planet. She’s starting to ask some intriguing questions that chip away at whether Santa is real. If these are not critical thinking skills in the making, I don’t know what is. To me, this is good stuff. She’s becoming a freethinker. I mean who knows, what’s the proof that mermaids are not real?
Stay tuned … in a few weeks I will post my review of the timely book I am currently reading, “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief” by Dale McGowan et al. (but so far, so good).