The hallway is empty now–bare bulletin boards that, just last week, were covered with colorful projects and pictures and sign-up sheets for the end-of-the-year party. The emptiness speaks of the fullness that’s been here the past nine months. This hallway is usually Main Street in the morning, a steady stream of in and out–parents leading the way and little ones following behind, dragging their tote bags, stopping in front of bulletin boards to find their hand print, their leaf project, their construction paper kite with the yellow yarn string. There it is! The pink one! You made that? It’s beautiful! Classroom drop-offs and hugs and Have-a-Great-Day!’s. Moms in yoga pants shuffling away to workouts and e-mail boxes, stopping outside the door to catch up–let’s do breakfast, let’s have a play date, let’s remember these preschool mornings forever.
Today it’s different. Classrooms have been cleaned out, projects sent home and the name tags that have personalized desks and job lists and cubbies have been removed to transition this sacred room for next year’s lucky students. The only last bits of this year reside at the table in the center of the room, covered in a summer table cloth, scattered with party treats. There are games, crafts, pizza and cookies; and I volley between Nella and Dash’s classrooms for events–a class photo picture frame craft and a montage slideshow to that ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that always makes me cry. Today is no different.
I realize how much I truly love this place–for its smallness and coziness but mostly its greatness: behind each classroom door is a world leader. A preschool teacher who holds the key to an individual’s entire world of education with the power of a first impression. There will be many teachers that follow–classrooms, policies, tests, memories of projects and field trips, routines, and over the years a cumulative folder that grows fatter with reports. But there’s something about that very first classroom, that very first person who believed in you and knew you not by a student number–but by your first name. Your favorite book. The way you hold your pencil. How you learn. What grabs your attention. How it takes you a little more time but, man, how you shine when you’ve got it.
I learned about the power of a first impression working in health care. In college, I had a number of jobs at the hospital where my dad worked–a hospital well-known for its incredible patient satisfaction reviews. Every employee, from valet parking assistants to cardiac surgeons, went through extensive training to provide exceptional patient and visitor service–to recognize that walking into a hospital automatically presented vulnerability and to recognize and respond to that vulnerability with utmost attention for every single hospital guest. I see you. I know that you might be anxious or scared and that you don’t really want to be here. I’m here to make it better. Assure you, support you, offer you a warm blanket, listen to you, connect you to the right place that can help. As a patient transporter, I was paid a lot less than, say, a doctor. but I was often one of the first people patients encountered as I picked them up from waiting lounges and patient rooms to take them to their procedures. I remember being told–and believing–that I might be the most important person that patient interacted with; that my presence, words and care could be the ones that changed that person’s entire hospital experience into a comforting and calm one. I had the power of a first impression. We learned that patients, without even thinking about it, expect that doctors are licensed, nurses are trained and that machines that keep your heart beating are working properly, but what they judge you on–what their entire health care experience is truly about–comes down to being seen. Feeling valued, listened to, loved.
Education is a lot like health care in that sense. I assume and hope I can certainly expect that my children’s schools are up to code–that teachers are properly trained and text books are up to date. But what their entire educational experience is truly about comes down to being seen. Feeling valued, listened to, loved. I was reminded of that recently by another teacher and a parent of a child with Down syndrome when I had IEP Tunnel Vision: the document. Make sure it covers everything. Focus on the plan. The wording. The accommodations. The legal rights.
“Remember,” she wrote me, “an IEP is a fluid document that can be changed at any time. What’s better than a great IEP is a great team of teachers behind your student.”
Like health care, I know that I can’t control everything and that little minds are a lot like little bodies. But as we prepare for Nella to go to kindergarten and enter a much bigger world of friends, teachers and experiences that will continue to shape her entire world of learning, I’m comforted by the foundation that’s been laid by a lasting first impression–this little school and a teacher who has taught my child that she is incredibly capable of very big things, and that she is valued, listened to and loved.
I hug her teacher one last time yesterday, unable to let go. “Thank you, thank you,” I whisper. “You’ve given me a gift. I’m not anxious anymore.”
We’re now in the bridge between two sides–the ground that launched Nella into the public school system and the side that will receive her next year. And this week, we venture into another first impression as the principal of the school she’ll attend next year takes her hand and leads her to the kindergarten classrooms so she can explore and get comfortable. “We cannot wait to have her here next year,” the principal assures me. “We’re ready for her, Kelle. She’s going to do great here. We love her already.” With tears, I hug her before we leave. “Thank you, thank you,” I whisper. “You’ve given me a gift. I’m not anxious anymore.”
I know there is much to be done across the country in the world of education, especially when it comes to special needs. I’m prepared for setbacks and frustrations in coming years and understand the power of advocacy and the importance of growth and change. It gets harder every year, I know, and as the gap between learning pace becomes more prevalent and she’s more aware of her differences, I’m expecting it won’t be easy. But right now I have two powerful first impressions that drive our next step and cushion our new beginning.
I wipe my tears after our last goodbye yesterday and take Nella and Dash’s hand as we make our last walk of the year down the empty hallway of the preschool. But wait–I forgot to take a picture. We turn around and pop back into the classroom one more time. “Can I get one last picture of you two together?” I ask her teacher.
“Of course,” she answers as she kneels down and hugs Nella. And just before I hit the button, Nella shifts her eyes to her teacher and I see it–the all powerful look. Her worth, reflected by the one who’s revealed it to her this year.
Teachers, you hold the keys to our everything. How you see them is how they see themselves.
Later at home, I read the letter Nella’s teacher wrote to next year’s teacher and rifle through projects and reports from the last few weeks. “She is wise enough to know that she’s at a different level than her friends, but smart enough to know that she can fit in,” her teacher writes. “She has a wonderful stubborn streak that reminds you that she knows herself well and won’t settle for less. She is most comfortable being treated as equal and being given the same responsibilities as her friends.” Oh, to have your children seen for who they truly are.
For this little one, I’m so thankful that her launch has her sails full spread, pushed by the wind, guided by those who love her.