It had been the best and worst of times from conception through developmental readiness for preschool, and now Nell and Sam had a screaming child in the carseat of the Volvo as they sat in stagnant traffic on Lincoln. In Brett Ellis’ day people were afraid to merge, but now they were back to the old fear: terrified of being left out.
They parked, partly in the red, in front of a tiny cottage worth north of a million dollars and hurried toward another tiny cottage where young parents were streaming in with either feigned, or worse yet real, social assuredness. Ant met Sam and Nell at the door, warmly greeting with grey hair and an earthy handshake; CSI treatment of her strong yet lovely hand would have revealed traces of Playdough (particularly purple and brown), sand dust and Fig Newton with hints of juice.
“This is Martzy,” Nell said, gesturing their large-eyed vaguely languid when not enraged 2 1/2 year-old. Ant locked eyes on Martzy, as Sam wondered if her brain was like the Terminator, scanning for defects, social disturbance, retardation, ADHD, Autism and anything else that might make a child a “poor fit” for a prestigious institution of elemental learning. Meanwhile Ant dropped in a squat, and offered two fingers for Martzy to grasp, which he did like a natural. Nell was already filled with hope: her boy was gifted and Ant was a wonder-worker with children—The Toddler Whisperer.
Nell caught Sam’s eye with a smile both proud, nervous and promotional: she had already been promoting the mystique of “Little Chairs” as preemptive defense against the likely push-back about driving to Venice every day, or at least three mornings a week, not to mention the cost that, before charity fundraiser, would be in the environs of 10K.
“Martzy?” Ant asked, wisely. Nell nodded along with Martzy, as if willing him toward social niceness with all her mother’s heart, adding for color: “Sam’s best friend who died when he was young’s dad was Marcel, a holocaust survivor, and he was like a father to Sam and when Marcel, who everyone called Martzy, died we thought it would be lovely to name our first born after him.”
Suddenly that all just hung there and sounded psychotic: sure, we named our own kid after a traumatized holocaust survivor because we are completely neurotic and project our weakness and fucked-upness onto our kid so, like Dorian Grey, we can walk around looking fresh and successful while our progeny pulls the sled of our shit. “Please just take him,” thought Nell, picturing kinder transport rather than snack and circle time.
Ant, gracious even with grown-ups, swept them along toward the group, adding “I’m Antonia, but everyone calls me Ant… I’m just a little worker in the big colony of preschool. Please don’t be nervous, there are many wonderful choices out there and things happen for a reason and it’s all about a ‘fit’”
Sam was a shoe-scanner, he knew who was the real deal and who was faking based on shoes; the fraud goes for the top of the line jeans, sunglasses and car… but then cheaps out on the shoes. Ant’s shoes were expensive Parisian flats, he couldn’t be sure, but he thought they looked current and expensive based on his recent times holding Martzy on long sad Sundays trying to kill time until nap and the vague hope for a love-making opportunity; picturing Nell trying on shoes, taking the shoe-trying on pose of one foot toward the shoe mirror and the other back and at a rakish angle; childcare is fattening and shoes are good no matter what’s going on above the ankle. Little did Sam realize that Ant had put on her good shoes because she too knew that the bankers and producers would be evaluating her harder than she was evaluating their children.
The prospective parents all gathered in a circle around the rug. Some sat criss-cross apple sauce, mostly those with older kids already in the system, those who did yoga and wore patchouli and sported just the right amount of ink; some dads, perhaps on round two of the whole child-rearing thing, being balding and grey and married to willowy patchouli chicks, stood at a discerning distance. They would write fat checks if it pleased them and to them visiting schools was like going to a whorehouse where they did the picking. Sure they had to pass muster with Ant as de-facto Madame of the establishment, and that was why they limited their pot consumption to a couple of hits and no more in the Ferrari. Maybe they were a little nervous, maybe that never goes completely away.
The dads more on Sam’s level looked artsy and successful, relaxed guys who inherited good fortune and then towered Stanford or Harvard on top of it, who always fit in and found angles and hung with other cool people. These were society’s winners. They were not sensitive like Sam.
Sam and Nell scoped the other kids: adorable blonde girls smiling and laughing like they were 27 at a cocktail party; adorable mixed race kids; little strappers ready for football; an elegantly tall and aloof boy with glasses who looked like he’d already created something important. Sam hoped that no one else would think that Martzy looked a bit too much like Stewy from “Family Guy.”
Soon the teachers led the children out to the play area where they tried the trikes, or at least stood near them, or the sand or the climbing equipment.
Sam and Nell sat on the little chairs and Ant explained her philosophy of early education, about how kindergarten readiness was not so important as social learning, how sitting in a circle and putting your napkin in the bowl after the snack was teaching kids to be part of a group, to be good citizens and care about others.
Sam tried to catch a glimpse of Martzy through the doors to the garden, he suspected everything was a test and he hoped Martzy was doing alright.
Sam thought about the other preschool they had visited where they’d gotten a lecture on the brain on a smart board and he could no longer remember if Mrs. Fox had actually said that the children no longer do show and tell, but rather they did see and sell, based on readiness to present their ideas, brand themselves and win in a fast-changing world. Was that an exaggerated joke or was there truth in the joke?
Ant seemed more low-key, but it still seemed like getting into Brown instead of Harvard—feigned chill masking killer competition rather than overt killer competition. He couldn’t tell which was worse, as he felt like a fish wriggling on the dock either way.
Sam could not at this moment know that Martzy would indeed be putting his napkin in the big plastic bowl that Ant held for the children, teaching them to care. Sam could not envision, in that moment, that he would come to love Ant and himself begin his redo in this little school. He could not yet imagine Martzy on the climbing structure when he was a full-on preschooler, hanging there like a proud monkey—expressing his gift for large muscle groups more than fine motor coordination.
Sam could not in this moment envision walking to his Honda Civic on bright mornings and crying a little as he said goodbye to his boy who didn’t want him to leave. Sam and Martzy and Nell shared a deep dislike for separation, and they would come to share a deep appreciation for Ant who had handled countless little separations helping humans become circle-sitting, napkin-contributing citizens.
A dim flash did pass through Sam’s mind: himself hanging facing a monkey on the climbing structure. He dismissed it and turned his focus to the little cup he held and the juice that was being poured into it.