August 07, 2011

Little Stars, Bears, Rainbows and Me

[Written Friday, August 5, 2011]

When I started this blog, it was about self-expression  Writing was what I really wanted to do with my time, my next career.  But increasingly I ask myself: who am I writing for?  I have come to realize that I am writing this blog for my kids, so that one day they'll know a side of me I can't express to them directly. 

Today I want to document the place and the people that took care of Archie and Layla the past five years, the families we've met, and where Daddy has been so many nights the past three years.  You see, today is Layla's Graduation Day from the Park Slope Child Care Collective, and it marks the end of a five year relationship with PSCCC.  It hasn't always been pretty, but it has been beautiful.

In Park Slope we love collectives and coops the way Memphis loves barbecue.  PSCCC was formed almost 40 years ago as yet another post-hippie institution in what we now call Brownstone Brooklyn, the yuppies glomming on to what the yippies built, urban bohmeia replaced by Brooklyn Industries.  PSCCC defied gentrification and remained true to core values: Diversity. Socialization. Expressing feelings. Working families.  Volunteering families. Teacher loyalty.  Love.

Platitudes, made real.  Parents who sent their kids to PSCCC raved about it, were a family, looked out for each other, had only fond memories. 

For a very long time the school's impresario, its director, was a woman named Renee.  She was a true throwback: no teeth, no bra, no inhibitions.  She was Woodstock and Hair and Free to Be You and Me embodied in one person, a guide to children and parents alike.  When you visited PSCCC she would talk about the love, the feelings, personal growth, emotional development over ABC's and 1-2-3's. 

And the school delivered as promised, classrooms that were diverse in many senses of the word, with high teacher ratios, teachers who had been there for ten years or more, many of them a product of minority educational initiatives that gave Brooklyn women who had fallen through the cracks a second chance at having a career.  PSCCC was a tireless advocate for these women, and in turn they were "going to love your children all up," the first thing any PSCCC teacher ever said to me, a moment that will stay with me. 

To be a parent of a not-yet 2 year-old, nervous about letting go, trusting a new place, new faces - us, not Archie; at his first school visit, just 16 months old, he offered Renee his bagel and ate a green marker instead, thus guaranteeing his admission.  To walk into a place you instantly knew you could trust was not just a godsend, it was unique.

Archie started school in the fall 2006, then a few weeks later Layla was born, and a few weeks after that, as we sat in our apartment at 5 AM, everyone having been awake for quite some time (as was the norm back then; Archie has the early bird gene), we heard sirens, then more sirens, coming closer to our apartment building and then thankfully, or so we thought, trail away.  Soon enough, we learned those fire engines were headed for the church where PSCCC was located.  A hot water heater had somehow started a fire and the venerable, largely wooden building was quickly aflame, a four-alarm fire that drew the attention of the local news, a fire that could have begun to rage in the middle of the day, during nap time, or yoga, or free play.  But it didn't. Nobody was hurt. 

Still, many families were traumatized and the school was displaced for the rest of the school year.  We used parents' living rooms, then the Old First Church, then a space at Power Play, and finally an abandoned Catholic School in Carroll Gardens that overlooked the BQE.  Through it all, PSCCC didn't miss a day.  Renee, teachers and parents worked tirelessly to keep things together.

A year later, the school was back at the original church space but things were still chaotic.  The parents met and eventually decided to re-form the school board which, as a non-profit entity, the school was required to have.  My “big break”: I was chosen to be board president, a position I ended up holding for three and a half years until stepping down last month.

During that time PSCCC has faced countless challenges.  In 2009 we discovered that Renee and her husband had embezzled a lot of money, had put us in tremendous financial peril, that we faced legal liability with the IRS, the State of New York, and others.  As a result, PSCCC has had to dig itself out of a hole a mile deep.  The first step was convincing the parents not to abandon ship.  A few weeks after the 2009-10 school year began I stood in front of the parents and told them what we knew.  I told them not to lose faith, that we needed their loyalty.  That the teachers needed their loyalty.  In the end, not a single family left PSCCC that year. (At graduation I will wear the same shirt I wore when I faced the parents two years ago)

There were many obstacles to regaining stability the past two years, but the dark clouds have passed.  PSCCC has largely resolved its tax problems and legal obligations.  We are at full enrollment.  Over 100 families visited the school for 15 open spots during our winter open house.  A few teachers have come and gone but most have stuck it out, and no paychecks were missed.  Parent volunteerism is at an all-time high.  The school has a computer, a website, and a new director.  PSCCC has persevered.

A pre-school's existence is tenuous, however.  There are regulations, narrow profit margins, staffing issues, parent demands, lease problems.  PSCCC will have to be vigilant in order to thrive, but no more or less than any other Brooklyn pre-school.

And after five years, PSCCC will go on without us.  Layla has made such good friends there - Clara and Oviya and Julius and Julian and Soha and Sophia, from Aalioune to Zoe - and she has grown into a smart, fun, funny and caring person, just like her brother.  Not for a minute did I ever have to worry that she wasn't being taken care of and looked out for.  That is a gift for any family.  I trust there will be more great schools and great teachers in Archie and Layla's future. But never again will we, as a family, feel the intimacy that PSCCC gave us.

It is also possible that someday Archie and Layla will be betrayed by someone they cared about, much like Renee betrayed all of us.  Hopefully I won't be the culprit.  Even better, maybe I can be there to give this advice: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

And to all parents, a reminder: You will never love your children as much as they love you.  PSCCC showed us love and support that was truly humbling.

Last month twelve PSCCC families went camping together.  When it rained torrentially the first night, we went to a diner and made the best of it (“you get what you get and you don’t get upset”).  When we barbecued for dinner, every family made food for everyone else (“sharing is caring”).  Plans were made for next year’s retreat.  A neighborhood is great; a community, even better.

A few weeks ago the teacher surprised me with a thank you party.  Cupcakes, gifts, sparkling cider (it was during school hours) and cards.  It was an overwhelming gesture, thoughtful and generous as one would expect from this group of women.  Parents often talk about the love these teachers show our kids, but sometimes it borders on patronizing.  These women are also smart, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful.  The teachers made toasts.  I bit my lip, hard. 

Near the end one teacher, a woman whose self-esteem is far lower than her talents and compassion deserve, spoke up.  She is now the first-ever teacher representative on the school board.  She thanked me for giving the teachers a voice they never had.    In that moment, I was reminded that I had gotten something I never had as well.


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