Nursery group grew into lifelong learning experience
By Michele Herman
Once or twice if you’re lucky in this life, you stumble into a community so successful that it endures far beyond its original purpose.
My most recent luck began in 1994, in a low-ceilinged room on Horatio St., with a class at the West Village Nursery School cooperative called the “Two’s.” It wasn’t much of a class twice a week for an hour and a half the kids played while the grown-ups shared. I see us now as bats emerging from separate caves, throwing out sonar to the solid walls of our fellow parents to get our bearings. We sat in midget chairs surrounded by the easels, sprouting seedlings and the mute class bunny, and hashed out our worries over antibiotics, tantrums, “Ferberizing.” We learned to sort out conflicting advice and the conflicting worldviews that came attached to it. We pooled our small dreams of sleep and leisure, and our big ones of raising strong, stable people. Together we learned to be parents, one baby step at a time.
The following year the two small Two’s classes merged into one larger Three’s. Eventually we graduated to the Four’s room upstairs, accruing seven additional families along the way, all of them instantly becoming part of the fold. Even after the 18 kids dispersed to a half a dozen different kindergartens, we continued gathering regularly. They graduated from different elementary schools, and then middle schools, and each time we held a reunion. Sixteen years have passed since the Two’s, and I can’t even remember quite what Ferberizing is, but if my building were burning down and I had to evacuate, one of the papers I’d grab would be the dog-eared sheet listing their 18 phone numbers.
Now, on a Friday evening in spring, we’re coming together again in the low-ceilinged room. In one of many testaments to the miracle of this community, all five of our teachers are coming too. Tonight we are commemorating the most bittersweet milestone of all: The kids are going to college in the fall. It is the time we dreamed of and dreaded.
We ring the bell and pass through the cubby-lined entryway as we’ve done a hundred times before. The pleasure of this ritual gathering is so acute that even those of us who see each other all the time hug and exclaim as we set our potluck offerings on the low tables.
As the kids arrive, we kvell at each one as if they were family which, in a way, they are. Many of them, including my son and the other four who against all odds ended up together again at Stuyvesant High School, remain constant companions. But the rest have been siphoned off to schools in distant neighborhoods, and a few moved away. Tonight we’re expecting families from Jersey and Maine.
The kids are a tall, leggy crop, and they are more beautiful, educated and mature than any of us ever dared dream when we sat on their little chairs. The tender boy who cried his way through the Two’s is now distilled into a slim, confident jazz musician. The girl with the speech so thick I could never understand a word builds robots and designs her own dresses. I search the face of the boy my husband and I used to call the human teddy bear, and sure enough, there are the same button eyes, but now they’re atop a lanky, poised athlete who doesn’t seem to mind at all when we collar him and chat him up.
Some of the kids wear their new styles a little aggressively. The girl I always picture with chickenpox scars now sports spiky orange hair and hot pants, and the boy whose head was filled with plans and whose nose was filled with mucus is in full preppie mode, which somehow suits him down to the sockless boat shoes. But there is not a phony or an eyeball-roller in the lot.
One of our beloved, thoughtful teachers has set out the oak-tag albums that chronicle the kids’ first field trips, and these are almost too poignant to bear. Soon the kids will disperse to Clark, Colby, Bard, Brown, Kenyon, Chicago. Then a grand adventure meant visiting a backyard compost heap on Jane St. and to Dizzy Izzy’s bagel store on 14th. It’s enough to send some of us to the water table, where we used to scrub down the dolls on our “helping parent” days tonight it’s serving as the bar.
The kids gravitate, as always, to the backyard. For those who moved away, you’d think it would be hard to walk into the clump of kids who still eat lunch together every day. But the kids are behaving pretty much as they did when they were 3 feet shorter: yakking, goofing around on the slide and the big tree, making room for each new arrival. My son, the one headed to U. Chicago, has grown into a fine, serious student, but tonight he’s in his original element, balancing on top of a stack of old tires.
And us parents? Four couples out of 18 have divorced, which I suppose means we’re doing well. There have been a couple of career setbacks, one diagnosis of a serious but treatable disease, and one dramatic move to India by our most dramatic mom. But everyone has bounced back, and everyone is beaming. Most of the kids’ college news long since spread through our grapevine, so tonight we’re reveling in the details and the stories. Some of us with second kids are comparing notes about this generally less straight-and-narrow breed. I try to be disciplined and curtail my visits with down-the-block neighbors to leave time for the out-of-towners, but it’s no use I like all of these people equally.
Just before the sun sets we head to the backyard and sling our arms around each other for photos. We don’t much like seeing our picture these days, but we smile for the pleasure and comfort of being surrounded by people we have known so intimately and trusted so long.
Most of us have climbed past the summit of age 50. Here on the far side there are disappointments and terrors. But this is an unparalleled vantage point for looking at a human life span. I see now that the first half century is all about adding on: furnishing a life, attaining knowledge, propagating the species, and the second half (as much of it as we’re granted by our genes and our luck) is about letting it all go.
The kids go first. In one last glorious blaze of information gathering, application filing and second-guessing (big school, small school, New England, Midwest?), most of our daily work with them is done. Forget spreading their own wings, which they’ve been doing little by little all along soon they will spread their own peanut butter, sort their own socks, make their own doctor’s appointments.
Suddenly it’s late. We have to stop sharing, pack up the leftovers and go home. There was definitely something in the water in 1992, we say, as we have said a hundred times before. And though it’s hard to feel secure about many things in 2010, I know we have sent these kids into the world with a rock-solid foundation, something I wish all families were lucky enough to find.
We all know it will get harder to gather the kids, but we have each other to talk us through the lonely times ahead. As one of the moms reminds me on the way out the door, there are the weddings to look forward to.