schooled

lessons learned from toddler teachers

“Mama! Mama! MAMA!” screams the two-year-old girl circling my legs, arms outstretched and face screwed up in the effort of crying. My hands are trembling slightly as I pull on purple gloves. I want to burst into tears like her and scream, “I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER!” But what little sanity I have left tells me that this would be unreasonable. So instead I squat down and say, desperately, to the wailing toddler, “Wait, okay? I can’t hold you right now. I have to change diapers. Your mom is going to be back, okay?”

I stand back up. The two-year-old boy on the diaper-changing stand before me is content to play with his toy. For him, diaper-changing is more familiar and routine than handwashing. For me, it’s an unfamiliar and daunting challenge—made worse by the unstoppable crier at my feet.

It’s only my second day of work at the daycare, one of my two part-time summer jobs. Of all the teachers here, I’m the only one who is unmarried and childless—the only one who has no idea what to do when faced with nine two-year-olds. Everything, down to the incessant wailer, would be fine if only my usual co-teacher were here. But one of her own kids has gotten sick. The substitute in her place is a girl my age and just as clueless. She, too, has never changed diapers. The unpleasant task has fallen to me.

My heart is racing: is this the front of the diaper? Surely it isn’t this complicated. I can’t focus, not with the crying toddler resolutely stuck to my side. I’ve spent all morning holding her, getting tears and spittle on my arm. She’s the biggest child in the class, and the next day, my arms are sore.

I envy my peers researching bacteria in quiet, sterile labs. No diapers. No crying toddlers. No goldfish crumbs. It’s what I dream of as I wait for the toddlers to arrive in the 8:30 a.m. stillness before the storm—knowing that the chaos of the daycare day will soon begin.

But as I watch the kids stringing pop beads together and crowing with laughter, I can’t help but smile. They drag the colorful rope of beads behind them on the carpet and race around the little table, pretending they’ve got a pet snake. I watch as they transform the mundane into the marvelous right before my eyes. A printout of a big yellow smiley face, taped to the floor for one of our activities, is nothing special to me, but it’s an occasion for excitement and interest for my daycare charges. A little girl with wispy white-blond hair leans forward with the breathtaking flexibility of a two-year-old and plants her hands right over the smiley face. Then, she looks up and beams at me. “Smiley face!” she announces.

Then there are the moments when I’m struck by their healthy amount of indifference to what others might think. They scribble their grass red and their houses purple. They ignore the lines. They look through whichever book catches their eye without concern for whether it’s a “boys’ book” with trucks or a “girls’ book” with fairies. They babble on, even though most of it is unintelligible to me—and to everyone else. And yes, maybe it is because they don’t “know better” yet. But I can’t help but think how fearless, how free, they seem, mispronouncing words without embarrassment, putting things in their mouths, dancing without a thought for what anyone might say.

I begin to think the daycare is worth it. That suffering the searing south Georgia heat on the playground is worth it. That wiping countless noses and mouths throughout the day is worth it. I’m acquiring the skill of changing diapers and steadily cultivating the virtue of patience (or trying to, anyway), but it’s interacting with the kids—learning from them—that is the true highlight of my short daycare stint.

Here I am, a so-called teacher looking up to these toddlers who only come up to my knees. But it’s true. They remind me to be awake and alive. I want to be as free from self-consciousness as the toddlers are instead of hesitating every time I think I have something to say in section. I want to introduce myself with confidence to new people. And I want to emulate the toddlers’ starry-eyed outlook instead of walking from dorm to Ratty to library like a zombie lurching along. I want to be bowled over breathless by the New England foliage and by the springtime tulips on Congdon Street. (I’d also like to be super enthusiastic and excited about all my courses and assignments, but that seems like a bit of a stretch.)

My daycare charges love to dance. They’ll dance to any upbeat song that plays, stopping whatever they’re doing in favor of dancing. Mostly, this dancing involves wiggling around or executing a funny sequence of hops and skips and sways. I haven’t danced in ages—actually, I have no clue how to dance, and I move with the grace of a broken robot. But I cast my awkwardness to the wind, just like they do, and take my cues from their moves.

So there I am in the middle of a bunch of toddlers, as silly and unskilled as they are, as silly and unskilled as I am. It’s the greatest dance party of all time.