In the Fall of 2014, I took a job at Headstart in Liverpool, N.Y. I had moved back to Upstate New York after living 26 years near Dallas, Texas, in the wake of a divorce. I longed to be closer to my family and the land of four seasons, lush green summers, and snowy winters. Employment was suddenly a necessity. Having taught high school English in Connecticut in the late ’70s, I decided to try something new. Vastly new. While my teaching certification was in grades 7-12 English, I was curious about the other end of the spectrum. In the years preceding my return North, I had written a children’s book series, and wanted to learn first hand about the pre-school reading process. Working with 4-year-olds seemed like a good place to start, and I had always been curious about the Headstart program.
As in all my teaching stints, I experienced great joys, coupled with myriad frustrations. It’s the nature of the vocation, but my time spent as a classroom assistant to a young woman fresh out of graduate school was an education unto itself. Call it my apprenticeship or trial by fire, it was a crash course in elementary education. And I had, (as do most high school teachers) great respect for my elementary counterparts. Despite the non-stop nature of the job, it was a pleasure to have a classroom to go to every day, work with the same team of dedicated teachers, and get to know the same group of children personally.
Sadly, I could not live on the pay that was offered to a classroom assistant and moved on to substitute teaching at a local high school. It was a difficult but necessary choice, but my time at Headstart was full of memories–so many that I wanted to write them down to keep them close. Memories shaped themselves into chapters, and I decided to print some here. Perhaps someday I will cobble them together into a book.
This was to be Chapter 3: Spaghetti in My Hair
The site I had been assigned to was under construction for the first few months of the school year. Previously, my director’s site was in the basement of a neighborhood church, but an increase in rent pushed them out and made way for a wealthier “for-profit” day care.
Now we were waiting for the school’s maintenance crew to renovate a hair salon and window store in a strip mall into a school, and over the next few weeks they did just that. Meanwhile, we met at a sister site, an old elementary school downtown that made room for our little band of homeless teachers. It was there that my first lessons in pre-school began, and the first occurred in week one, when Janet, our director, took the rookies of our group into a classroom for lunch.
Lunch in this program, like all activities, is a learning opportunity for the children. It’s served family style, and while we are required to sit and eat with our little charges to model behavior and manners, we are not to assist them unless absolutely necessary. Independence and self-sufficiency are two of the main goals of the program, so learning to pour milk from a small pitcher into a small glass (all plastic), is something to be learned and encouraged. So too was serving oneself from a common bowl of noodles or vegetables, without diving in with one’s own fork or spoon, and eating right out of the serving dish. When that happened, the bowl was quickly whisked away and replaced by a new, clean one.
I sat across from Janet, and watched her interact with the children; it was an invaluable lesson in Headstart 101. She spoke to them in a quiet, respectful tone, asked them about their day, their likes and dislikes, encouraging them to try a vegetable, but not insisting. She was absolutely nonchalant when one youngster’s milk-pouring turned into a Niagara Falls of white, flowing from the pitcher to his glass onto her lap and then to the floor. She simply got up, politely excused herself from the table, and went to get paper towels to help the child mop up the mess. No fuss, no muss. I was determined to achieve this level of composure and skill. She was inspiring.
She moved on to another table, leaving me and a fellow rookie in charge of our kiddos, and I learned all about the joys and love of “noodles,” or what I would call, spaghetti. Pasta was a favorite, and subsequently, double and triple portions were taken. We did not rush the children at mealtimes. When the majority were finished, they went to the “toss and scrape table”, where they cleared their plates and dumped the empty dishes into a bin. This was done in such a fashion that I realized it was a daily routine they had mastered. And it was only late September. That was impressive.
Two little girls, however, were apparently extra hungry that day and took serving after serving of the sticky spaghetti to their plates. They told us stories as they ate, reveling in the attention of two new faces. Spaghetti that stuck to the little serving tongs was shaken loose onto plates and went flying everywhere. When I got up at the end of the meal, I found spaghetti in places I’d never imagined. And, most noticeably, in my hair.
Driving home from work that night, I composed a little verse, as is my habit, to celebrate the occasion:
Spaghetti on my napkin,
Spaghetti in my hair,
Spaghetti stuck beneath my plate–
Hey, would you like to share?
Spaghetti on my blue jeans,
Spaghetti on my chair,
Spaghetti with and without sauce,
Spaghetti on the table,
Spaghetti on the floor,
Spaghetti on my sweater.
Please pass it, I want more!
Later, when our site was up and running, I did learn to model my behavior and stay calm as Janet had taught me during that first meal. I learned to let accidents happen and consequences ensue. No more jumping in to prevent spills. No more hovering to “protect” the table from floods as I had done as a mother with my own sons. I watched in amazement as these little 4-year-olds learned to navigate a table full of silverware and bowls of hot food. I don’t know who learned more over those months, but I had a good idea.