It's not too late to learn from kindergarten


It's our bedtime ritual. My 5-year-old daughter and I read the latest Little House chapter and talk about the coming day. Tonight's topic: kindergarten.

"What's going to happen tomorrow?" Catie asks.

I tell her how her father will take her to school for the first time, how she'll go to class, how she'll eat pizza in the cafeteria. As I speak, she inches farther and farther under her blanket, until I ask, "Cate, what are you doing?"

Her eyes peek out and twinkle. "I'm going on an adventure!"

Indeed she is. I think back to my first day of kindergarten, with my mother walking me the three blocks to Glen Oak School. Along the way, she pointed to the "helping hand" houses.

"See the hands?" my mother asked, pointing at paper hands in the windows of some homes. "If you are walking to school and you need anything, stop at one of the 'helping hand' houses and they will help you."

Yes, I was an adventurer. From then on, I would be walking alone to the school, which seemed so far away from my home.

When we arrived at school, Mrs. Wilkinson was there to greet us. I'd met her before, at Haddad's grocery store. She'd taught both of my older brothers, and they loved her. I knew I would love her, too.

I have no memory of my mother leaving me that day, just the glorious memories of Mrs. Wilkinson reading stories to an attentive -- if squirmy -- audience. I remember the cloakroom with its little hooks, and the sink where we'd wash our hands with Ivory soap.

Will Cate soon make memories like these? Will she be OK in kindergarten?

I find myself wishing that I could somehow reach back and get just one more lesson from Mrs. Wilkinson. But it's been 36 years since I sat cross-legged in an orange-and-brown dress listening to her read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

I scour the Internet for a phone number for Glen Oak, and when I call, a woman named Barb answers. She's been at the school for 17 years and has no memory of a Mrs. Wilkinson, but she offers to ask a substitute teacher, who is a retiree. Barb doesn't offer much hope when I give her my toll-free number.

Less than three hours later, my office phone rings. I notice the area code and think it's the school calling back. My hopes surge as I answer the phone, but it's not the school.

"This is Mrs. Wilkinson."

Elated, I tell her what I've been up to since I was 6 years old. I tell her about Catie, and I ask her what advice she would give to her.

"This is a chance to have lots of new friends," she says, "and in order to have friends, it's good for you to be a good friend. Sharing is one of the big things."

She also says it is crucial to get along with others and to trust people.

"Trust your teacher, trust your friends and be a trustworthy person," she says.

Mrs. Wilkinson says that during the 35 years she taught kindergarten, the year was a social time, in which children learned to get along. In those days, most children didn't go to day care or nursery school. For many, this was a first foray into daily peer interaction.

"Some people would say, 'Oh, it's time now for them to put sounds together' and things like that, but you have to have a child who's ready to do things like that," she says. "In kindergarten [these days], they are reading and they give tests. I'm just so opposed to that pressure, pressure, pressure."

Learning in Mrs. Wilkinson's class came on walks to the Glen Oak Zoo five blocks away, or from making doughnuts in a deep fryer.

I remember that the walls of the classroom were always covered with student artwork.

"It was important to me that every child had something they could look at that was theirs in the room," she says.

Did she (gulp!) remember me?

"You had brown eyes and brown curly hair and a smile," she says. "You were little. Dainty. Very feminine."

Then I have two confessions for her.

"I have no idea what your first name is," I tell her. She laughs and tells me it is Phyllis.

The other confession?

"I'm 42 years old, and I can't ever smell Ivory soap without thinking of you and your classroom."

"I still use Ivory soap!" she says.

And then, as a good teacher should, she slips in an extra lesson for me.

Allow Cate to be herself. Resist the urge to compare children.

"They are just their own little selves."

I thank her and promise to let her know how things go, and now I know how they will go.

Catie will be fine. She will make friends and learn to trust. And she will shine in her own way. This is her adventure, and I'm just along for the ride.

To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to / reallife.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad