*This is a fictionalized memoir style piece
It is 7:30am in the city of Boston; two males enter a well lit room. There is a whiff of the bleach in the air. A table sits in the middle of the room with a large bowl filled with cereal. Near the large bowl is a stack of 15 smaller bowls, a bucket of plastic spoons, and a large pitcher of milk. With serious looks on their faces, the two males pass the cereal table and approach a table covered with papers. Three females are sitting there. The taller male says “you are going to jail!”He is not dressed like police, but his voice, posture, and mannerisms would be familiar to anyone who has ever interacted with a police officer. At the table, a female who has been writing at a furious speed stops, looks up, and says “ I don’t wanna play that game today.” The two male who had just threatened her with being sent to jail appears to be flustered; he pauses for a moment seeming to gather his thoughts and says “how about Ghostbusters? You guys be the ghost and we will trap you with our proton packs?” The other male who is standing smiles at this suggestion; but, the female who seems to be spokesperson for the table replies with a one word response of “no” and then goes back to drawing.
Scenes like this one will play out in my work place about 250 days a year. The participants will be between the ages three and five. I am their teacher but, before 8am, I am not their teacher. I am merely their early bird supervisor.
The early education center where this room is located does not technically open until 8am. However, some parents needed to be able to drop off their children before 8am in order to get to work on time. The “Early Bird” program was born to accommodate this and parents pay an additional five dollars a day to drop their children off before 8am. During this time, the children have the options of engaging in free play or eating cereal. However, they do not have the option of eating any cereal. They are only offered cereals that have been vetted by the federal government’s food cost reimbursement program as being sufficiently healthy and nutritious. This regulation occurs to provide children with nutritious meals that will combat societal health issues like obesity.
Today that cereal is Kashi’ Heart to Heart. The box which is sitting on a shelf above the table is covered with marketing boasts about its nutritious nature on the front, back and the side. The box states the cereal has “No High Fructose Corn Syrup, Low in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol, Certified Organic, 6 Natural Antioxidants, 7 Whole Grains, CERTIFIED by American Heart Association, Helps Maintain Health Arteries, and Helps Promote Healthy Blood Pressure.” The nutritional label also highlights the vitamins and minerals in the cereal and notes the cereal is nut free. This last fact is the most important of all. It may be easier to get a bag of marijuana into this early education facility than any product with peanuts. This is due to the high rate of peanut (and related nut allergies) and the constant fear of lawsuits if a child with an allergy is exposed.
Eventually, the four year old girl who refused to play police and Ghostbusters’ games leaves the table where she had been coloring. She holds a paper which is now covered with the strokes from a variety of bright Crayola Ultra Clean Washable Markers. Her completed product could look like random scribbles or the work of a famous abstract artist depending on one’s perspective. I take a note that she used a tripod grasp when holding her marker instead of the cylindrical grasp which she sometimes uses. The information will be important to me later on when I evaluate her handwriting development in her progress report. The girl who is just over three feet tall confidently strides to her cubby and with the assistance of going on her tippy toes, places her art on the top shelf of her cubby; the sounds of jingly bracelets and earrings can be heard as she hops to the cereal table.
She sits down to eat and does not ask me for help. She takes a small bowl from the stack, scoops up some Kashi cereal with a scooper from the big bowl, and places the cereal into her own. She grabs the small pitcher of milk and pours herself some cereal. None of this is an accident. The pitcher of milk is designed to be small enough to be used by a young child. For months she has heard her teachers preach that she must try to do things like this on her own before asking for any assistance. One of the official goals of the early education program is that young children build independence skills and are able to do things like this for themselves. We are a nation that values independence and that includes independent three foot tall four year olds children who we hope to “get ready” for an ever increasingly academically rigorous kindergarten; our politicians constantly are worried about maximizing children’s potential so they can one day compete academically, economically, and militarily with the citizens of China, Russia, Japan, Iran, India, or whatever country we are said to be in competition with at the moment.
The parents of these children are currently in this competition. They must work long hard hours with the constant fear that someone else in this country or in another country or a machine or a computer program will do their job better, faster, and cheaper. It is especially difficult to live in Boston with only one parent bringing in an income. Many of these children will be dropped off before 8am to the early education center and not get picked up until 6pm. Parents will often feel guilt for not being around their children enough. Many have expressed this to me. The morning drop offs can be especially hard, not just for children, but for parents who are the ones often with separation anxiety, sometimes will comeback for one more hug, and parents often lament that they don’t even have time to make a proper healthy breakfast for their child.
In the Early Bird program, they will get that healthy breakfast. The confident four year old girl we met earlier finishes her cereal, scrapes the soggy remnants she does not want to eat into a trash can and places the bowl in the dirty dishes bucket. She does all this without speaking a word before going back to the art table where she begins chatting with her two friends again. She knows this routine. She has the independence skills. She is on her way to developing the writing skills she will need in kindergarten. She is developing the social skills she needs to succeed in the modern world. She has gotten to eat a nutritious breakfast that fulfills all the current health buzzwords and is approved by the government. If everything goes right, all this will allow her to compete as an adult for the jobs of the future. If she has children of her own, the money she makes from that job will allow her to send her child to an early education center at 7am one day.