Friday, July 1, 2011

The Altamont Of Preschool Graduations

Yesterday my wife and I officially moved into the second phase of parenting. Having survived the first phase -- consisting of the sleepless newborn part, the bull-in-a-china-shop toddler part, and the awful third year (which dwarfs the so-called "terrible twos" in terms of irrational screaming, pointless contrarianism, and all-around obstinacy), we are now the proud parents of a four-year-old who yesterday finished his first year of Montessori preschool. And thus begins the second phase: the phase that will be punctuated by frequent, poorly conceived, ineptly executed, largely pointless school events, starting with yesterday’s “Graduation/Moving On” ceremony.

My son is not actually graduating from anything, even by the increasingly lax criteria that we seem to be applying the word – he will be returning to our local Montessori preschool in the fall, and then starting kindergarten (God knows where, don’t ask) a year later. So a person might reasonably ask why he was part of this ceremony. I certainly asked, more than once. But my wife, who had attended a rehearsal, assured me that it would be super-cute and very brief -- the kids had been taught to sing a couple of songs in unison, she said -- so I got the blessing to leave work three hours early so I could make a 3pm curtain at the storefront church next door to the school.

The moment I got there and took a place for myself and my wife about halfway from the front -- the closest I could get -- I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be able to see anything. The church was a long, narrow room with a small stage (maybe 8" high, tops) at the front. I'm sure it works great when adults are standing on it, but the performers we were there to see are all just over three feet tall. No big deal, I thought -- he's not actually graduating from anything, and I'm sure the other parents will take about a million pictures and put them all on the parents' listserv. 

Then the music starts: A funky little clavinet riff with a hip-hop beat, with some cute kids' voices, barely audible over the backing track, freestyling strained rhymes about "Montessori." ("You won't be sorry," etc.) My wife, who's joined me after dropping off our boy and a platter of Rice Krispie Treats in the staging area in the basement where refreshments will be at some point be served, tells me that the director of the school composed it with his nieces. It's cute and very short, about a minute and a half. But I soon realize it's on repeat. And what's cute for two minutes wears out its welcome pretty fast on the eleventh consecutive listen. Imagine a TV theme song -- any TV theme song -- played over and over and over.

A bit ambitious
My wife notices that people have programs, so I go back to the front door and grab one. And it is here that I begin to realize we are probably in for a bumpy ride. There are 15 different items on it, with an intermission in the middle. Then I notice the kids' names on the opposite page. There are a lot of them -- I count 44. So the plan is to gather 44 four and five-year-olds and expect them to behave through 15 different songs, speeches, and presentations? You folks work with kids -- it could reasonably be suggested that you know our kids at least as well as we know them ourselves -- and this is the plan you're going with? We can't get our kid to sit still for five minutes if there's another kid his age present. Once again I shrug my shoulders. The stakes here are so low, I'm not about to get upset about anything, I just find it curious.

After 15 or 20 minutes, and about as many times through the now-quite-irritating Montessori Rap, the music fades and we all turn around to see that the kids are lining up in the lobby for the opening processional. A couple of the more precocious kids are hustled up to the stage first, where they read (they can read!) a short welcome to the parents. It's adorable, and we all give an enthusiastic round of applause. This will prove to be the last part of the program to come off seamlessly.

The rest of the kids begin a single-file procession to the stage, (some of them) singing "Let There Be Peace On Earth, And Let It Begin With Me." It's very, very cute, although our son looks mortified. As he realizes how many eyes are on him he totally freezes up to the point of holding up the line. It is at this moment that I realize he will not be singing anything. 

He reaches the stage and is maneuvered into the front row, far stage left, and a backing track begins to play "America The Beautiful," complete with kids' voices. The live kids on stage are meant to sing along, and some of them are, but we can't hear them at all because the track is too loud. Way too loud. It doesn't matter much to me, because my kid isn't singing anyway, though it takes me a minute to determine that: all the parents immediately rose to their feet for this song, frantically taking pictures, and from halfway to the back of the room I can't see my boy in the front row without some creative positioning and neck-craning. 

After "America The Beautiful," one of the teachers reads off a bunch of kids' names, and those kids run out into the audience to find their parents, our son among them, as the teacher with the microphone explains that not all the kids are performing the next dance. The noise level in the room begins to rise from "quiet and attentive" to "somewhat disordered." A lot of these kids have younger siblings in attendance, most of them infants, many of them crying, so a certain level of parental anxiety is beginning to take hold. (For about the thousandth time, I marvel at the courage of people who intentionally decide to raise two kids at once.) Nothing happens on stage for a couple of minutes, and then another couple of minutes, and then another teacher takes the microphone and announces, "In our haste to get the show on the road, we made a mistake -- all the children are in this next dance! So please, will everyone come back to the stage." By now the boy has found the Hot Wheels he had brought in his backpack and hidden under our chairs. We make no effort to send him back to the stage, and several other kids also stay with their parents.

Under the chairs.
After several more minutes, the dance finally begins: Louis' Armstrong's rendition of "Hello, Dolly" fills the PA, once again drowning out the kids' voices, but the dance they do is very cute. Then the kids are hustled through the door at the side of the stage leading to the basement for a costume change. Several minutes pass, and I notice that we have already diverged significantly from the printed program. The director of the school takes the stage, and the program indicates he will say a word about the teachers; instead he announces that the teachers are busy with the costume change in the basement, and he feels like they should be present for his speech. Is he going to do it later? Is someone going to get the teachers? Nobody knows, and nothing happens for several more minutes. Then the Montessori Rap comes back on and plays about 25 more times while the director and one of the teachers try to set up a laptop and projector for a slideshow with photos of the kids. Having done this several times myself I can tell you that it can be done in less than five minutes; here it takes at least 15 or 20. The computer was not turned on in advance, so it takes a while to boot up (it's running Windows), and aiming the projector at the screen seems to be much more challenging that it might appear at first glance. The image is bobbing and weaving ceaselessly, as though the projector is not on a table but being held in the lap of someone in the midst of an epileptic episode or perhaps some kind of chemical withdrawal. Finally the lights go out and the slide show starts, but for some reason it just keeps repeating the same four photos over and over. After about five laps of this the lights go on and the Montessori Rap resumes.

As the technical difficulties are addressed, the feeling starts to spread that this thing is not going well, but before anyone takes up torches or pitchforks, it seems the second dance is ready to commence; the kids are dressed in spangles and sequins and actually pull off some couples choregraphy for a tune I'm not familiar with (the program identifies it as "It's Showtime," which still rings no bells). The (still participating) kids go back to the basement, and it seems the slideshow issues have been worked out. The lights go off and the show begins. Lots of cute pictures of lots of cute kids. (There are a lot of charming and adorable kids going to this school.) Then in the middle of the slideshow, someone apparently decides to start flipping lightswitches one at a time: First the wall sconces go on and off. Then the row of chandeliers goes on and off. Then the can lights in the ceiling go on and off. The spell of the slide show is totally broken, chaos once again takes hold, and I break down into an uncontrollable giggle fit at what a total disaster this thing is becoming.

Now the head of the parents' group that, ahem, organized this thing takes the mic, but almost no one is listening to her. The kids are talking to each other, the parents have given up trying to keep the kids quiet, the younger kids are getting antsy, and the noise level goes up another notch from "somewhat disordered" to "floor of New York Stock Exchange." But I listen attentively, because there's not much else to do, and she explains that it was important to her and the other organizers to have all the kids -- both classes of 20+ -- together for this ceremony in order to underline the feeling of community and family in the school that she knows we all feel.

Here she is mistaken. I am quite fond of the kids in my son's class, as I know he is, but with the exception of his best buddy who he has known since around his first birthday, he doesn't know or care about anyone in the other class. He's four years old. He doesn't know from community, or a "feeling of family." If I were to carefully explain it all to him, I have no doubt at all that his reply would be, "Can I have a Rice Krispie Treat?" Most (but certainly not all) of the problems in this thing spring from this misguided projection of adult niceties onto these little kids. Why not have two ceremonies for 20 kids each? That would have been manageable. Why not just have a ceremony for the kids that are actually graduating, and have a separate picnic or something to foster all that community spirit? That would have allowed all these four-year-olds to act like four-year-olds.

Anyway, I don't want to get too critical, because her heart was clearly in the right place. My wife at this point starts talking about leaving, and I reply that I'm ready to go anytime, but the boy is aware of the refreshments in the basement (which includes cupcakes and Rice Krispie treats), so we start to sneak down there. The graduating kids are down there lining up in their unbelievably adorable little caps and gowns, however, and we are thwarted. We go back to our seats, and everyone is deafened by 10 seconds of microphone feedback, made all the more curious by the fact that no one is speaking into a microphone.  At this point I am starting to notice that people are getting visibly angry. Cue second burst of microphone feedback, and my second uncontrollable case of the giggles, only exacerbated by the return of the Montessori Rap. The Montessori Rap. I can hear it even now.

The kids finally return to the stage, coming single file up the center row in their caps and gowns. They are adorable. When they reach the stage, the distribution of their little diplomas (which no one but the first five rows can see) seems to take about three or four minutes per kid, for reasons that are never clear. We can't take anymore: We slip out, grab a cupcake for the boy from the basement, and exit through the fire door. We go home, put some fish sticks in the oven, and I toss him a few wiffle-ball pitches in the back yard. He hits the first one solidly and misses the rest, and I think how glad I am to be in the second phase of parenting.

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