Here’s how I did not pick a preschool for my oldest son. I did not study educational philosophies. I did not put his name on waiting lists. I did not consider preschools that cost more than my family could afford.
My needing to pick a preschool coincided with moving from the United States to Mexico for work. I asked around and found a school within walking distance from our new home. My husband and I visited. Then we signed up our son.
No matter that this preschool’s instruction was primarily in Spanish, a language my son didn’t know. No matter that the school’s not particularly ambitious academic program involved learning one new letter each month. Yes, just one.
This preschool had spots available. The price was right. It was safe and the teachers pleasant. My husband and I had a lot of other things on our plates and didn’t particularly want to consider more options.
Before having kids, this preschool might have worried me. Back then, I was sure I would be the sort of parent who prioritized my children’s educations above all else.
I assumed I’d be just like those I knew who, after long days of work, buried their heads in potty training books. If their toddlers didn’t get out of diapers soon, they couldn’t attend the prestigious preschools whose two-year waiting lists they’d finally summited.
I figured I’d be willing to intentionally double an already difficult commute just to get to the one preschool in town with the educational approach I thought would best allow my child to thrive.
I suspected I might be like many new parents I knew who made fine salaries yet couldn’t afford occasional date nights. Their disposable incomes were wiped out by fancy, faraway preschools — preschools that also sometimes required them to use vacation days volunteering in class. (But no matter. There was no money for vacations anyway.)
However, a lot of my expectations about parenting transformed when I found myself with a baby who wouldn’t be put down and a toddler who needed 17 books before each catnap.
At some point, probably one day around book 16, I chose to be kinder to myself. Maybe watching a movie instead of reading 17 books was fine sometimes. Maybe my kids didn’t need to eat organic, home-cooked everything. Maybe they didn’t need that fancy, perfect preschool either. Maybe my sanity mattered too.
When the time came, my husband and I picked the preschool that let life be a little easier on us, even if that meant it might be a little harder on our son. We needed this non-fancy neighborhood preschool. What we didn’t know initially was that our son actually needed it too.
At first, I admit, he struggled. He came home sad that the other kids couldn’t understand him and didn’t let him play. He couldn’t understand his teachers either. His transition to an English-speaking preschool would have gone more smoothly, I am sure. And to an English-speaking school with an educational philosophy that catered to his needs and personality, likely even better.
However, over time, my son picked up more and more Spanish. After a few months, he began telling stories about the funny thing Juan Pedro said on the playground. A month after that, he started bringing home birthday party invitations from Sebastian and Paola Fernanda.
Before long, my son was getting mostly red stars on his weekly progress reports. His only smiley faces, a notch below those coveted red stars, were for misusing Spanish’s subjunctive tense (which I messed up a fair amount too) or failing to complete his homework of tracing that month’s letter an ungodly number of times (really more a failing of my husband and me).
By the end of the year, my son was begging to go to school earlier and leave later. He loved his school, and so when the time came, my husband and I signed him up for another year.
“Guess what!” my son told me halfway through that second preschool year. “My teacher gave me a special job!”
“That’s great!” I replied. “What?”
“There’s a new girl in my class from Australia. She only knows English, so I sit by her and help her understand.”
I realized then just how far he had come.
Eventually I met the mother of that new classmate. It turned out she was actually from Nigeria, not Australia. So clearly my son’s geography instruction was less than top-notch. He didn’t read or do math by the time he finished preschool either, as the pre-kids version of myself was sure my kids would. Still, I had no complaints.
I had no complaints because the preschool that was not perfect for my son had forced him to persevere. It made him find commonalities with classmates who at first seemed too different. He learned to adapt. He got to practice finding his way in a sometimes frightening, tough setting. He made himself heard. In the end, he saw that with kindness and hard work, he could do just fine anywhere.
I won’t pretend to have planned it all along, but I came to realize that those were the skills I actually wanted most for him. The world for which I was eventually preparing him would not welcome him with open arms, ready to play to his unique strengths and develop his individual weaknesses. No. The world that I knew, while wonderful and exciting, was also harsh. Those I’d seen make the most of it and fare the best, they went where they were not always comfortable, welcomed challenges, persisted, and grew.
Because it sowed these sorts of skills, my son’s imperfect preschool actually turned out to be quite perfect. Even if I did need to get him a globe.
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