Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

My First Day at Kindergarten: Age 39
by Theo Pauline Nestor

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a grown up. I wanted to wear eyeliner, light one cigarette off another, drive a stick shift and laugh into the telephone. I know all children play dress up or office or house, try on grown up roles, dream about how great itís going to be when theyíre the moms but it wasnít a game for me. Adults often made grim comments to me like "enjoy yourself while you're young," or "ah, to be young again," but I knew that they were lying, that they didn't really think childhood was all that great. Surely, any adult could see that the childhood world of dependence and tuna fish sandwiches and knee socks was a terrible sentence that one must march through so one could finally arrive at the adult Promised Land of pina coladas, strapless sundresses and self-volition.

I was a grown up trapped in elementary school, I was sure of it. I would much rather hang around an older sister, drinking endless cups of sugary tea and watching, watching, cracking the code of adulthood, than play with other kids. I despised their relentless competitions I could never win. The barbarisms, the rejection. Among the company of adults, I was safe. No adult ever shoved me aside, called me "feeb" (short for feeble, I learned), or mimicked the way I ran on tippy toes.

One of the worst parts of being a kid, as far as I was concerned, was recess. I hated it. Why couldnít we just stay inside and talk? Maybe chat at our desks about our feelings, sipping hot chocolate? Now, that would be a break from the rest of the day, which consisted mostly of listening to Mr. Bird and writing stuff in our notebooks, but as it was, recess was a mountain range that had to be crossed daily. Each day I endured. I learned to play their games --  barbaric all of them: pig in the middle, dodge ball, red rover -- just enough so as not to call attention to myself.

It was a crime against childkind not to enjoy these games, and so as not to be seen as a traitor, I gave the appearance of playing. When the group ran left, I went left. Right, and I would go right, and I even managed to run or leap or whatever was required and still maintain my fantasy life. My legs were scrambling all over the dusty gravel field but in my mind I was twenty-five, clicking my way to an important meeting in high heels.

But then occasionally, something would happen that would require my full involvement. Suddenly, I was "it" or the red rover who had to cross over or the pig in the middle who had to dodge a gigantic rubber ball. My high heels and briefcase dissolved quickly as if I had been dunked unexpectedly into an icy bath. OK, Iíd think, perform! Dodge, throw, run! Do whatever must be done, whatever task of skill or speed. Just be average, but be average. Do not be feeble. Do not be singled out!

But I never could run or throw or dodge quickly enough or with enough grace to keep the eyes of ten-year-old judgment off of me. I suppose if I could have done any of those things well, I would've been one of the kids who liked recess, who ran with glee, braids flying behind her, at the sound of the recess bell, who watched the ball like a cat following a mouse, who was always taut, awake, ready to swing or catch or throw, who only cried when my team lost, and then the tears of the solidarity, in the dugout or on the uniformed shoulder of an equally capable friend. And then, I suppose, I would have grown into one of those mothers in khakis and Keds, alert and able, who can articulate the rules of basketball, who can hit the ball with the crack of a bat, strolling around the bases and back to home as her kids look on with a kind of pride that is so normal and natural to them they are unconscious of it.

She, the Keds and khakis mom, was there the first day I worked at Elizabethís elementary school. They passed around a schedule at the first parent meeting, and of course, all the good mothers were signing up to volunteer. Sure, I thought, weíll hand out papers, bang erasers, print out a block letter alphabet in pastel-colored chalk on the blackboard. Sure, I can do that! And I wanted to, it was part of being a Mother Love, a good mother. My daughter would feel cozy and warm and safe inside because I was one of Those Mothers, one of the ones who didnít work, who could be counted on to bake orange-sprinkled cookies on Halloween.

I showed up at two on the first Tuesday afternoon and peeked my head in the classroom. Just Ms. Jenkins, Elizabethís kindergarten teacher, was there, sipping a drink from a thermos lid, grading papers at her desk.

"Oh. Am I early?" I asked. It was sort of a relief to see the empty classroom, quiet with each chair tucked into its desk. Maybe sheíd put me to work alphabetizing the books in reading area.

"No, no, theyíre outside already. Afternoon recess. The afternoon volunteers start outside and then come in with the kids at 2:20.

Outside? I looked out the classroom window. Tree branches were spastically jerking their arms with the wind. A few spots of rain had darkened the grey pavement of the parking lot. Oh well, I thought, how bad can it be? Probably lots of other parents are out there. Weíll talk about the school, ballet lessons, and weíll be back inside before we know it. Or, Iíll find Elizabeth and her friends and weíll tell knock-knock jokes while I braid their hair.

The playground is sort of an embarrassment. We live in a middle-class area of Seattle, but to see this playground, youíd think we inhabit some dry and barely developing nation. For two hundred and something kids, thereís a couple of insubstantial play structures and a huge expanse of cracked and uneven concrete with nary a tree or bush or spot of green grass in sight. But the kids donít seem to care or notice. As I arrived on the playground, recess was in full swing already. Waves of children swirled in tide pools of play all around the beach of broken concrete. I stood at its edge for a moment, wondering how to wade into all of this.

I scanned the horizon for other grown ups, and I spotted her over by one of the play structure in her blue parka, baseball hat, tennis shoes and khakis. She had a whistle lodged in her mouth and just then she blew it, dropped it from her mouth, and shouted something I couldnít make out and pointed referee-style to a bench where I supposed some offending child would take a time out. I started to head over to her, thinking sheíd give me orders, direction, or perhaps Iíd just hide in her shadow, and just then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the classroom windows. Red lipstick, leather jacket and strappy sandals, what was I thinking? I look over at her, the adept mother in sensible shoes. Of course, I should be dressed like her, suited up for speed not style. Ready to serve. The children, they should be the focus. But Iím here now, I thought, and I have a job to do, and dressed as ridiculously as I am, I will make my way over to her and receive my instructions, for she is clearly the alpha dog here.

"Hey, I need help." A boy around six was tugging on my sleeve, my absurd, self-indulgent sleeve. I was sort of flattered and surprised by his request and wanted to ask him how he knew to ask me, and then it occurred to me that while felt like a little kid on the first day at a new school, he looked at me and saw a tall person, an adult. "That boy over there," he said pointing to a blonde Tasmanian devil of a child who was spinning in place, flailing, striking out at anyone entering his sphere, "he hit me!"

"Oh." I wanted to say, Why donít we just let it go this time? I just got here. I suggest laying low, stay clear of kids like that. Perhaps you could line up early to reenter the building? But instead I asked, "Hard?"

The injured boy looked at me oddly, as if he were on the verge of realizing that I was an impostor.

"Why donít we go brainstorm some solutions with him," I said, crouching down beside the boy, full of dread, knowing I lacked both the diplomatic skills and the patience such an exchange would require. Just then the whistle blew sharply, and the injured boy and I looked up to find Competent Mom jogging over to Tasmanian Boy, her whistle banging on its string against her parkaed chest. He had struck again. A girl a few feet away in ripped yellow dress was shrieking. Injured boy and I trotted over.

"Iím taking this one into the office," CM called to me.

"Good," I said, anxious to align myself with her, with adult capability and confidence, "He hit this boy too," I said, nodding at Injured Boy.

"When?" she asked, her brows lowering with suspicion.

"Uh, four minutes ago, Iíd say."

"You saw it? Why didnít you pull this boy off the field?" She was incredulous. I was the baton dropper in the relay race.

"I, I, I was on my way."

She shook her head, glanced at my sandals (I think) and started into the building, calling over her shoulder, "Iíll be back in a minute. See if the girlís all right."

I went over to the girl. She had settled down to a steady sniff, and we talked about her dress, how it could be fixed, how everything would be okay.

The other mom returned. "Iím Kate," she said, extending her hand. Short clipped nails, simple gold band, a no-nonsense hand.

"Theo," I returned.

She frowned a little as people often do when they hear my name, as if it were a name I had chosen myself to be exotic or to confuse people. "What gradeís your child in?"

"Kindergarten," I said cheerfully, hoping no grief would come to Elizabeth because of this incident.

"Oh," she said, smiling, nodding.


"Oh, nothing."

"No, címon, what is it?"

"Itís the kindergarten moms. They just, they just donít know what theyíre doing sometimes."

Now, I was mad, and not just at this woman, but at all those perfect girls who could hit a home run and how I always had to put up with their snotty questions like why do you always have a cold?

"Well, if someone took the time to explain the playground rules, maybe things would run a bit more smoothly," I said.

"Iím sorry. Youíre right. An orientation, thatís exactly whatís needed."

Maybe she wasnít that bad. "So what is the protocol on hitting?"

"To the office. Immediately after assessing the needs of the injured child."

"Makes sense. Name calling? Swearing?"

"Five minutes on yonder bench," she said, and then the bell rang. Children from all over the playground sped over to the line up area, and I made my way over to where Elizabethís class was lining up.

"Mommy! Youíre here! Youíre working at my school!" Elizabeth was hugging me with all her might and I just felt a little like crying.

Inside the classroom, we were greeted by Ms. Jenkins. Sheís the happy, cheerful kind of kindergarten teacher who hugs the kids whenever they come to her with open arms. When I toured schools, I learned that Kindergarten teachers generally fall into two groups: Mary Poppins and Cruella DeVille. But Ms. Jenkins is nice and talks to me with the same sunny, simplicity she uses when she speaks to the children. I donít mind it, itís sort of reassuring really. She told me Iíd be testing children individually in the hall on vowel sounds. I should have the children look at the letter on the flashcard, name it, outline it with their index fingers, and then sound the letter out. Simple enough I thought: B, straight line-half-circle-half-circle, buh, butterfly. Got it! Now this, I thought, will be fun. Language, my area! and I knew I could be encouraging to the kids who stumbled.

Suzanne was my first student. An impossibly petite girl, it was difficult to imagine that she and my Amazon Elizabeth were the same age. Her smallness made me worry. Her size somehow made her seem younger, more susceptible to the damage that could be incurred by bad teachers. We sat out at a little desk in the hall, and I was filled with a tremendous sense of responsibility. I shuffled the cards a little and straightened them, tapping them against the desktop.

"Okay, Suzanne, hereís your first one."

"E," she identified the letter on the card and then promptly outlined it.

"The sound of E?" I asked, smiling encouragingly. I could teach! I wasnít only a mom at home, I could also teach children not my own to read and they would remember me and my kindness when they were grown.

"Eh?" She said and looked at me for affirmation.

Eh, was that right? Eh? Hmm. Well, letís see whatís a word with E in it? Ben. Pen. Hen. Yes, eh, that sounds right. "Sure," I said, only a little troubled by the words need, bee, recede that were just then popping into my mind. "You got it. Now, a word that starts with E?"


Eh-gg. "Very good! Next letter," I said, holding up the O flashcard.

"O," she said confidently, her index finger quickly rounding the letterís circumference.

"And the sound of O?" Now, my hands shook a little as I reeled through the possibilities. Pod, rod, fog. Food, Pooh, moot. Mode, lode, rode. What was the official sound of O? Did people know this? Did other mothers know? I have degrees in English, should I know this? This is kindergarten, for Godís sake. Iíve always dreaded the day that Iíd have to help Elizabeth with her 6th grade Math homework, but this is English. My language! The one thing I feel like I do know for sure.

She dropped her head into her hands.


She looked up. Her wispy blond bangs were pushed back now, revealing her forehead, small and bare, as if she had ridded herself of the hair in an effort to think more clearly.

"Ooo," she said, the sound of O in food.

"Give me a sec, okay Suzanne? Wait here, okay?" In the classroom, Ms. Jenkins was reading Amelia, Bedelia to the class. I waited at the door, hoping she was almost done. Elizabeth saw me and ran over although I had gestured that she should remain in her seat.

"Yes, Ms. Nestor?" Ms. Jenkins asked.

"I just had a question. It can wait."

"Do you want to ask it? We've stopped now anyway." The class, rows of oval faces, was turned now, looking at me.

"The sound of O?" Elizabeth looked at me like she wanted to sweep me into a hole.


"What is the sound of O?" I repeated, and I swore a couple children giggled.

"Ah is the sound of O."

"Wouldn't ah be the sound of A?" I didn't want to take up anymore of the class' time but now I was thoroughly confused.

"Nope," she said, smiling sweetly, as if I were one of the class' slower students. "Aa is the sound of A, as in aapple, pan. Ah, nod, frog. Ah is the sound of O."

Back in the hall, Suzanne had laid her head of the little desk, and looking at her, I remembered doing the same thing as a child. I could feel the coolness of the desk on my cheek and still smell the pencil shavings and eraser rubbings, and I remembered how long and tiring the days at school seemed when I was a child. How I had longed to go home!

"Are you tired, dear?" I asked Suzanne.

"I'm okay," she said, straightening herself up in the seat. It made me sad to realize that she had already learned to play the game.

"Okay, Suzanne, about the sound of O, it's ah."

"It's ah? You asked?"

"I did." I said, smiling, trying to deflect the growing sense we shared that I had no idea what I was doing. "Now," I said, taking a breath, holding up the I card, "What's this one?"

An hour later, I got to Elizabeth whose last name places her nicely near the end of the alphabet, a position of safety I'd coveted as a child. By that time I had mastered all the sounds: Aa, eh, ih, ah and uh. I held up the cards with ease, swiftly announcing if she had made the correct sound for the each letter. She got most of them right. She's a smart girl, a girl who picks up sports and friendships easily, who says hey when someone cuts ahead of her in line. A girl who runs with glee at the sound of the recess bell, her braids flying behind her.
Recent short fiction and essays of Theo Nestor's can be found in Brain, Child, Phoebe, and Alligator Juniper. She is currently at work on an essay collection about her experience as a mother, which she hopes to finish while the children she writes about are still children.