My Own Toy Story 3: Pulling Away from Special Beginnings

I picked up pizza and salad for dinner tonight at the neighborhood pizza joint a block away. My daughter’s lifelong BFF is spending the night and Pizza Man always seems good fare on such evenings. Pizza Man serves Chicago style pizza, a delicacy here in the BBQ capital of the world, and we came to savor its exquisite flavor when our children attended the daycare next door and we were privy to the “Special Beginnings” discount. 

The aptly named Special Beginnings Early Learning Center was just that: a tiny but extraordinary center offering care for infants through school age kids and serving as host to a wonderful community of families.  The center boasted low teacher turnover and ongoing professional development for staff and provided age-appropriate learning experiences for budding minds.   Our son was in one of the first graduating classes of kindergarteners and is now Facebook friends with some of the kids he built Lego creatures with with back in the day. 

My daughter met her overnight guest in the baby swings in the infant room there when they were each but a few months old.  Fifteen years and countless sleepovers later, they have learner’s permits to drive and aspire to work at the center together next summer when labor laws permit their employment. 

As a working parent, I can’t begin to tell you what it means to have your children cared for by people who love them and nurture them.  Here is an excerpt of a heartfelt letter I wrote to the director ten years ago when our daughter was exiting the center:

Special Beginnings is essentially a second home to our children, a safe haven, an oasis of stability in the chaos that occasionally ensues in the lives of families with two working parents.  The kind of relationship a working parent has with a daycare is much different than one that exists between parents and a preschool or even an elementary school.  This relationship is truly an extension of the family since providing care is the central focus, and it is therefore marked by an intense and mutual trust that the best interests of the children will always take precedence over any other considerations.

A good daycare is much more than a place for children to socialize with other children and learn academic information.  It is a network of caring relationships between teachers and children and families and staff.  It is a community.  We are privileged to have been a part of this community for most of our children’s lives.   

This is why I have always described SB to coworkers and friends as truly a home away from home for our children…This is how I could go to work every day without fear, without concern, without apprehension, and with the knowledge that my children were loved and cared for.  This is also why our children looked forward to going to SB every weekday morning.

I distinctly remember that moment when our tenure at Special Beginnings drew to a close after seven years because it occurred in the very same parking lot I’m now driving out of.  I had loaded my daughter into our van as I prepared to pull away for the last time.  I started weeping and the original owner of Pizza Man, Bob, came over to see if my daughter and I were alright before he got into his car.  I explained my sobbing and he smiled and offered comfort by telling me it would be OK and that I would forever be eligible for the Special Beginnings discount.

From her special beginnings my daughter went on to flourish at a public elementary school I have often referred to as “school heaven,” a unique place populated by master teachers who creatively implemented a well-designed curriculum and thoughtfully nurtured young hearts and minds.  Oh, and her school BFF?  A friend she had met in the preschool room at Special Beginnings and with whom she will now share a high school locker.  There simply are no friends like old friends.

Six months before we found Special Beginnings and I began working full-time, I was a lecturer at the university where I had pursued my graduate studies.  There I’d had an amazing intellectual journey, finding an area of study that would fascinate me for the next twenty years and ultimately discovering my true calling as a teacher of adults.

Initially, the mother of a friend from graduate school lovingly cared for my son along with another little boy on the days I commuted to the university.  However, by the time my son was 18 months old, it was necessary for me to seek full-time employment that provided health-care benefits. 

I felt discouraged before I even started the job hunt as I knew it was highly unlikely that there would be any local positions in my specific area of interest and I assumed I’d have to take a job I didn’t particularly want.  Until I opened the newspaper to scan the want ads for the very first time and spotted my dream job listed therein.  My mentor counseled me on my application materials and helped me prep for the interview.  Another dear friend and colleague offered abundant moral support and helped me pick out appropriate interview attire.

I was convinced I had bombed the interview since the eight-member faculty committee sat stone-faced, appearing to have no response to a single answer I gave to their series of questions.  My mentor consoled me and then congratulated me a month later when I was surprised to learn that, indeed, I was the candidate selected for the job of my dreams.

But in all my excitement at the prospect of employment in my field and the careful handing over of the reins of my classes to another teacher mid-semester, I hadn’t counted on the utter despair I would feel at leaving the place that had been my intellectual and emotional home base for the past five years.  After packing up my office and loading the trunk of my Corolla with books and papers, I drove away from campus with the image of the university in my rearview mirror, crying so hard I could barely see the road as flashes of friends, colleagues, teachers, and students flooded my mind’s eye.

Fast forward through 19 years of sheer career bliss in an unusually supportive environment with tremendously talented colleagues and endless professional opportunities to this moment now at hand.  After two stellar years of academic study and working as a writing tutor at the local community college, my son has chosen to complete his degree unexpectedly at the flagship research university where I attended graduate school.  When we first visited campus last fall, it felt at once serendipitous and strange to be accompanied by him as an adult since the last time we’d been there together he was in a stroller.  I admit it felt even stranger to have my mentor and my dear friend both speak with my son about prospective majors and offer counsel on how to thrive as a student in a much larger academic universe.

By this time, he’s blossomed into a considerate and responsible adult with some strong opinions about life, the universe, and everything, including politics, a topic he raises at least daily.  He and I share some interests—anthropology, writing, literature—and a few political tendencies, so the conversations have become increasingly frequent and intense over the past couple of years; in fact, he’s pretty good company these days.

All summer, I’ve tried various strategies to prepare myself for his departure which comes next week.  I kept myself sufficiently distracted during the entire month of June by sponsoring a national conference at the college where I work.  The July calendar was packed with doctor and dentist appointments and the completion of reams of paperwork associated with my daughter’s high school and his college entry.  During the past two weeks, I’ve been buried under myriad shopping treks to help my son accrue the requisite objects he needs for the new domicile he will share with seven other guys.

His imminent leaving inexplicably hits me at odd moments—checking out at the grocery store, picking up books at the library, enjoying a family dinner on a random week night.  I have a passing thought about what life will be life without him at home and I suppress the tears welling up and move on to the next task and corresponding deadline. 

But I fully realize even as I postpone the inevitable that it will catch up with me, no doubt just as he and his father are pulling away from the house for the last time, trailer in tow loaded with his bed and shelf and desk chair, and I am waving goodbye from the porch with tears free-flowing as visions of Legos and Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter and pow-wows and Pokemon and Calvin & Hobbes and Boy Scout camp and CYO basketball and monthly campouts and Latin Club and Eagle projects and weekends at Westlake Hardware store and the Writing Center and Native American Studies and Biology and Physical Anthropology swirl in my head. 

I suspect I will be only mildly comforted by my hard-won albeit bittersweet knowledge that all endings harbor the prospect of future serendipity and, most importantly, the promise of special beginnings.

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