Winner of a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book Award
The Good-Bye Window; A Year in the Life of a Day-Care Centerby Harriet Brown
Have you ever wondered what really goes on at your child’s day-care center after you say good-bye? Harriet Brown did. To satisfy her curiosity, she spent an entire year observing Red Caboose, a center in Madison, Wisconsin. This engaging and thought-provoking book is the story of that year.
In her beautifully written personal account,
Have you ever wondered what really goes on at your child’s day-care center after you say good-bye? Harriet Brown did. To satisfy her curiosity, she spent an entire year observing Red Caboose, a center in Madison, Wisconsin. This engaging and thought-provoking book is the story of that year.
In her beautifully written personal account, journalist and mother Brown takes us behind the scenes at a day-care center that works. At Red Caboose, one of the oldest independent centers in the country, we meet teachers who have worked with young children for more than twenty years. We watch the child-care union and parents struggle to negotiate a contract without ripping apart the fabric of trust and love that holds the Red Caboose community together.
We look at the center’s finances, to see what keeps Red Caboose going at a time when other good centers are disappearing. Best of all, we get to know the children, families, and teachers of Red Caboosetheir struggles, their sorrows, their triumphs.
Started twenty-five years ago by a group of idealistic parents, the center has not only survived but thrived through some pretty tough times. In the world of day care, Red Caboose is a special place, a model for what child care in this country could and should be: not just babysitting, not just a service to working parents, but a benefit for children, families, teachers, and the community at large.
Brown sets her rich and engaging stories in the greater political and social context of our time. Why is so much child care bad? Why should working Americans worry about the link between welfare reform and child care? What can we learn from the history of child care?
This book is a must-read for parents, educators, and anyone who enjoys first-rate writing and dead-on insight into the lives of our youngest children and those who care for them.
“[Brown’s] writing is beautiful and her scholarship sound. Students considering day-care careers, day-care professionals, and concerned parents will gain insight by reading this provocative book, as will anyone who cares about the future of young children in this country.”Choice
“I admire enormously the ambition of this bookits eagle-eyed witness and engrossing detail, plus the social importance of the project. I wish there were in the world more books like it.”Lorrie Moore, author of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
“The Good-bye Window is a fascinating peek into the secret world of children. With the poignancy of Anne LaMott, and the reportorial grace of Tracy Kidder, Harriet Brown has written a terrific and worthwhile book.”Meg Wolitzer, author of This Is Your Life
“Harriet Brown’s well-told story of the Red Caboose child-care center should be read by teachers and parents, but also by every legislator and politician in the land. Only a writer as good as Ms. Brown could display the dramatic complexities of a school community in which the youngest members enter crawling and emerge a few years later as articulate, empathetic, and well-socialized individuals, ready for the ‘real world.’”Vivian Gussin Paley, author of The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter
- University of Wisconsin Press
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Bumblebee Room
On a warm morning in early fall, the Bumblebees are sitting on the golden line, the metal strip where the sturdy brown carpeting meets the linoleum. Well, a few of them are sitting on the line; the rest are bouncing, rolling, pouncing, and jumping on the line. Most of these Bees are pretty new to the room, either because they've recently moved up from the two-year-old room or because they're newly enrolled at Red Caboose. While there is no official school year here, the center's rhythms tend to follow those of the public schools. Each year in late August a big group of five-year-olds goes off to kindergarten, making room for a group of four-year-olds to move up, and so on down the line.
So these three-year-olds are still learning the ropes in the Bumblebee Room. It shows in their restlessness and unwillingness to listen to teachers' directions. None of this is a surprise to the teachers, of course; they go through it every year, a kind of reverse honeymoon period, and they have ways of dealing with it--especially Clark Anderson, the lead teacher. A tall, lean man with shoulder-length hair and a drooping mustache, he works the room like the pro he is, using his voice and his physical presence to quench dissent in several different places at once. Now, for instance, he squats on the linoleum and begins his version of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," a favorite preschool song. In Clark's rendition, most of the words are replaced by a variety of grunts, hums, and sounds, and the kids are entranced. Shaunte, one of the mostrambunctious of this year's Bees, stops wiggling and grins at the funny sounds. Another reason why these Bees are a little harder to control is that they're at the younger end of the age range for the room, most of them closer to three than to four. A year makes an enormous difference in a child's ability to control herself and her behavior.
This morning the kids are even antsier than usual because there's a treat in store: a trip to the public library--on a real live city bus!--for its weekly preschool video hour. While Clark entertains everyone, Carolyn Shields, the other Bumblebee morning teacher, finishes the breakfast cleanup. She carries the last of the spoons and plastic cups to a wheeled cart, stacks the used silverware in a dirty cup, and rolls the cart down the hall to the kitchen. She reappears a moment later to spray disinfectant on the two low tables, wipe them down with damp paper towels, push the red child-size chairs underneath. Then she checks the Bumblebees' traveling bag: a couple spare diapers, extra clothes, bandages, a list of emergency contacts for everyone. Finally she's ready to go.
The Bumblebees are more than ready. Coats on--it is fall in Wisconsin, after all--they're lined up at the door that leads to the hallway, chattering excitedly. Skye, an impish three-year-old with brown pigtails, lifts her voice to be heard. "Our sheep are getting winter coats," she announces to no one in particular. Her parents own a farm in Stoughton, on the outskirts of town.
"Coats?" asks Clark, lifting one eyebrow, not catching it at first.
"Like these," says Skye, fingering the vividly colored jacket on the girl in front of her. Carolyn smiles, imagining a herd of woolly pink and purple ovines.
Just as a case of terminal restlessness threatens to overtake the line, Carolyn, who's been keeping watch through a window, calls, "The bus is coming!" The Bees pour out of the building two by two and clamber onto a white and blue city bus. There are 12 kids and 4 adults this morning, counting the 2 teenagers who are here as part of an alternative high school program. Every adult has three kids to keep track of--not a bad ratio at all.
The bus lumbers down Williamson Street, known as Willy Street, and climbs the short hill leading to the capitol, rounding the square, passing a row of shuttered stores. Like many small cities Madison struggles to keep its downtown alive, and mostly it's succeeding. State Street, which runs from the capitol to the University of Wisconsin campus, is alive with upscale coffeehouses and head shops, with stores selling everything from used books to Lands' End irregulars to incense and futon covers. L'Etoile, Madison's best restaurant, looks out onto the great white statehouse dome from the second story of a building smack on the square. But most of the bigger businesses that once drew crowds to the square are boarded up, their customers lured to the west and east by the city's two malls and by scores of Wal-Marts and other discount stores.
On Saturday mornings from April to October the Farmer's Market takes over the square. By 10 o'clock the sidewalks are jammed with slow-moving, good-natured mobs drinking coffee, wearing babies in backpacks, buying bunches of carrots and bright showy flowers. But this Wednesday morning the square is all but deserted, its empty benches warming in the sun. As the bus turns down State Street, Clark and Carolyn get the children ready to go, prompting them about when to stand up and where to hold on. Carolyn gets off first and holds the back doors open for the Bees, counting them like pearls on a string as they carefully make their way to the sidewalk. Clark brings up the rear.
It's not just the Bees who are excited this morning; the teachers, too, are almost manic on this brilliant fall day. Everyone knows there aren't many nice days left before the cold comes. Luckily the library is only a block away. Some child-care centers use a rope to help keep the kids together on a busy street, each child holding on, the whole group moving together slowly down the sidewalk. The Bumblebees hold hands instead; they're old enough to listen, and the teachers are happy to spare them the indignity of the rope, at least for today.
Two by two, the children step through the automatic doors of the library. They file up the steps to the second floor and settle themselves on benches outside the auditorium, waiting to go in. Transitions are always rife with potential difficulties, and those that involve waiting are the worst. If there's one thing little kids don't do well, it's wait; left to themselves, they squabble, fuss, and fall apart. Part of what makes Clark such a good teacher is the way he handles transitions. Now he starts a song to distract them. "Let's do `Open and Shut,' James Brown style," he announces. The kids look blank--they don't yet know Clark well enough to get his sense of humor, or maybe they're still too young--but they gamely sing along. "Open, shut them, open, shut them," sings Clark, holding his palms toward the children, winking them open and closed along with the song. "Give a little clap"--he claps, and then gives a loud, bluesy UNH! One or two giggles from the Bees. "Creep them, creep them to your chin"--suitable creeping of fingers up the body to the chin, where they pause dramatically--"but do not let them in, noooo"--the fingers scurry around to the back--"do not let them in, UNH!"
By now kids from other preschools are milling around in the hallway, plus a few moms with their children. Clark's unorthodox song attracts stragglers from other groups, who stare, openmouthed, at his long hair and mustache. A few teachers stop to say hi. At 9:25 the doors to the auditorium open. The Bees find a spot on the floor of the big room and sit down. Kenny, a handsome dark-skinned boy, snuggles in Carolyn's lap. A young librarian in a purple sweater welcomes everyone, and then the lights go out and the first video comes on. There must be a hundred kids sitting on the floor in the dark watching The Lorax. Judging from their reactions, most of them have seen it before. The Bees certainly have, since it's a favorite at Red Caboose's Friday afternoon movies. But here the picture is bigger, the sound is louder, and the room is darker, all of which help keep the Bees' attention riveted to the screen. The Super Ax Whacker decimates the truffula forest and the animals slouch away. The evil Onceler and the noble Lorax face off, and even the three-year-olds can see who the winner will be. "I speak for the trees," intones the Lorax, and somewhere toward the back of the room a child chants mournfully, "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy."
At movie's end the children clap enthusiastically. The next movie is The Zax, another fable from Dr. Seuss, this one about two Zaxes who come face to face on the prairie of Prax. Neither will budge an inch to let the other pass, so they stand nose to nose for 50 years while a whole city springs up around them. The adults in the audience laugh appreciatively and the kids follow suit, though the message is over most of their heads. Going to the movies is such a treat, they'd clap for anything bright and loud up on the screen.
When the lights come back on, the Bees stay on the floor until most of the other groups have gone. Clark counts and recounts noses--literally, asking the kids to lift their noses into the air--and the Bees head out. The bus ride back to the center is thankfully uneventful, and by 10:30 the Bees are upstairs in the Moonshine Room, one of the center's two indoor play areas. Normally they'd be outside at this time of the morning, but the playground is under construction, so they're up here instead.
Everyone loves the Moonshine Room, a big loftlike space dominated by a wooden play structure, the top of which is so close to the ceiling that grown-ups have to stoop. There are so many secret spots and ways to play here: a pair of steep slides, one carpeted, one metal; a built-in ladder; a cavelike tunnel; a long, railed wooden ramp; cutout windows to peek through. One wall of the Moonshine Room is painted deep blue, with swirls of planets and stars and rocket ships. Shelves house toys that move: airplanes, trucks, fire engines, big wooden blocks for constructing.
Along one side of the play structure, some of the Bees are setting up gymnastics equipment. There's a mini-trampoline and a pair of metal climbing ladders with a wide wooden plank that straddles them, a kind of combination jungle gym and balance beam with a thick rubber mat underneath. A group of Bees are already lined up, waiting their turns to climb a metal ladder and walk across the plank. Lydia stands watching in a black leotard with a sparkling black tutu, her black patent leather shoes buckled onto the wrong feet. "I want to visit my sister," she tells Carolyn; her two-year-old sister, Claire, is downstairs in the Elephant Room. Teachers encourage visits between brothers and sisters whenever it's practical. Now Carolyn tells Lydia she'll check with the Elephant Room teachers to see if Lydia can come down.
Clark helps Bruce clamber up one ladder, across the plank, and down the other side. At the bottom, Bruce races across the floor and, unseen by either teacher, whacks Kenny in the head for no apparent reason. Kenny bursts into extremely loud tears. "There's Kenny again," says Carolyn, and Clark lopes over to attend to him. This is one of Kenny's first weeks at Red Caboose. He's also adjusting to a new foster home. That's a lot of big changes for a kid who's three and a half, especially one who's been through what Kenny has.
Kenny was taken away from his parents when he was two. When his first foster mother gave him a toy, he didn't know how to play with it; he had never seen a toy before. He had very few words. He never questioned people or things, he wasn't oppositional, he didn't get wild and bounce around--all the behaviors you might expect from a healthy two-year-old. One day he was playing a game with another foster child, an older girl. She told him to put his arms up over his head and stay that way until she said he could move. Then she left the room and forgot about him. When she wandered back in 15 minutes later Kenny was still in the same spot, arms rigidly extended over his head.
Kenny was in that first foster placement for almost a year. His foster mother loved him, but she and her husband already had several other foster kids, and at some point the chaos and the dealings with various social service agencies got to be too much for them. So Kenny was placed with Jill and Dave, a couple in their early 30s with one other foster child. The transition, like all transitions for him, has been rough. Jill thinks that Kenny wasn't allowed to cry for his first two years, and so crying has become his reaction to stress. In some ways it's a good sign, because it means he feels safe enough to show his feelings. But in social situations like Red Caboose, Kenny's loud, near-constant crying can provoke aggression from the other kids and irritation from the teachers--even when, as in this case, it's triggered by something that's not his fault.
Now Clark sits with Kenny, whose face is distorted by tears, and talks to him in a low, soothing voice. Eventually Kenny gets up, wiping tears with the back of one hand, and slowly wanders across the room toward the shelves of trucks and planes. Shaunte whizzes past him, running hell-for-leather down the wooden ramp and across the room, an old brown purse looped over one arm. A few minutes later, Kenny comes tearing down the ramp behind Bruce, his eyes bright, his mouth curved in an infectious grin.
As the morning wears on, the Bees wear out--which is part of the idea behind large-motor areas like the Moonshine and Sunshine rooms. Kids need to exercise their muscles as much as their minds; they need to push themselves, to learn what it's like to feel tired, to get used to the rhythms of the human day. At 10:45, Clark announces cleanup time. By next spring the Bees will be pros at cleaning up, but now, early in the year, they require a good deal of encouragement. The teachers need to readjust, too. "I've been doing this 15 years," says Clark, "and I still can't understand every year--how come these kids are so much dumber?" His laugh defuses the meanness of his words. There's a big difference between a three-year-old and a four-year-old in terms of the ability to listen, self-control, and cognitive skills, and every year Clark and Carolyn and Crystal Betterley, the third Bumblebee teacher, reexperience that gap.
Eventually the Bees head downstairs to their room to get ready for lunch. The Bumblebee Room is divided into two halves by a lightweight, sliding, accordion-fold door, which serves as a boundary even when open. Kenny immediately hides behind the door and bawls. Carolyn tries to get him to tell her what's wrong, but he just keeps crying. The other kids wash their hands in the bathroom off the main room, two or three at a time at the two little sinks.
Because the Bees divide into two smaller groups for breakfast, lunch, and snack, there are tables and chairs on each side of the room. This early in the year, the groups are still evolving, the teachers still sorting out which kids do well together and which need to be separated, which kids do best with which teachers. The process is complicated by the fact that there are so many part-timers, so each day brings a different complement of children. Today's Rainbows, the group led by Carolyn, are Cathleen, Lydia, Skye, Kenny, Bruce, and Julie. As they get settled, Kenny finally stops crying and comes out from behind the door. "What's wrong, Kenny?" Carolyn asks again, but he still won't tell her, and eventually he sits down with the other children at her table.
Immediately Lydia announces to Carolyn in a singsong voice, "Kenny's kicking Julie." "I think Julie can tell us if that's true," replies Carolyn, and Julie is silent--not because she isn't being kicked, which she is, but because she doesn't like to stir up trouble. Earlier, in the Moonshine Room, Shaunte got hold of a hank of Julie's blond hair and pulled, hard, and Julie didn't say a thing. Carolyn happened to notice her big blue eyes filling with tears and brought the two girls together to work things out. She considered it a successful interaction because after much prompting, Julie actually said to Shaunte, "Don't do that!"
The Bumblebee teachers spend more time encouraging the three-year-olds to verbalize their feelings--"use your words"--than they spend doing just about anything else. Three-year-olds are beginning to make the long transition from acting to thinking, a transformation that will continue through adulthood. Some of the feelings they're used to acting out--anger, frustration, disappointment--they now must learn to sublimate, to put into words, to intellectualize. If they don't, they run the risk of being labeled troublemakers later on, and that's a label that can stick for a long, long time. Three-year-olds are still willing to give other kids a chance to back down and change directions, but five-year-olds are not so forgiving.
The lunch cart is rolled into the Bumblebee Room by one of the high school students, and Carolyn immediately begins handing out paper plates, silverware, and food. Today's spaghetti with meat sauce is one of the kids' favorites, especially the toasted garlic bread that comes with it. Carolyn serves each child noodles in sauce, bread, and salad. "Keep your bread to yourself, Bruce," she warns, and he freezes, one arm in the air, garlic bread poised to attack Kenny. After that the children eat in a more or less orderly way, sopping up tomato sauce with hunks of bread, sucking pale orange dressing off the salad, gulping milk with much smacking of lips. Carolyn keeps a conversation going while the children eat, drawing them out one at a time, talking about what they've done thus far in the day. And because these are three-year-olds, after all, lunch doesn't last very long--maybe 15 minutes from start to finish, and then they're off again.
After lunch it's choice time, and the Bees gravitate toward their favorite spots and activities. An amazing amount of stuff is packed into the room in plastic crates and tubs. There's a kitchen area with wooden cabinets, a play stove, a table and chairs, all child-size. Brightly colored plastic plates are stacked where kids can reach them, their shelf in the cabinet marked by a cutout drawing of a plate so the kids know where to put them away. There's a dress-up area with a bin full of fancy clothes, mostly donated over the years or scavenged by the teachers, including lots of hats. There's an art area with a couple of freestanding easels and containers of paint, and a loft area by the Bumblebee Room door, where kids can climb up a flight of wooden steps to use a train set. One of the parents last year donated a special train table, so now the trains have their own permanent landscape, with hills and tunnels, trees and houses.
Next to the loft is the good-bye window, where the three-year-olds say good-bye to their parents. When the weather is warm, the storm window is pushed to one side, leaving only the screen with its one strategically placed hole. The children stand on the wide windowsill and stick a finger through the hole to touch the tip of a parent's finger, one last brush of skin against skin, one last tactile reminder of family. Then they turn back toward Clark or Carolyn or whoever is helping them say good-bye, jump down from the windowsill and back into the life of the room. And even though there's a shelf of books nearby and a wide sill to sit on, very few kids come back to this spot to play.
Today, sun streams into the Bumblebee Room through the big windows that face Willy Street. Shaunte and Annie run around the room together, lost in their own game, a study in contrasts. Annie is pale, with curly blond hair, and Shaunte's skin is the color of rich toffee, her thick dark hair springing from her head in four or five neatly contained braids. Carlos heads straight for his beloved dress-ups and immediately pulls out his favorite item of apparel--a silky blue negligee, which he wears as often as possible. His parents are not happy with his choice of activewear, but they haven't gone so far as to make it off limits. There have been parents in the past who have issued difficult directives, like the father who insisted that his son not be allowed to play with dolls. Things like that put teachers in the awkward position of having to go against their instincts and knowledge. None of the Bumblebee teachers even blink at Carlos's negligee; nor do they think it portends anything about his sexuality. His choice is just that--his choice, his chance to explore the world, in this case through clothing.
Next comes story time, when the kids begin to wind down before nap. Carolyn sits on the woolly brown-and-white plaid couch with a pile of books at her feet, and the Bees arrange themselves on the floor in front of her in a ragged semicircle. She leans over and picks up the first book, called But No Elephants--a fitting choice for this group, many of whom have recently moved up from the Elephant Room. Most of the kids listen attentively while Carolyn reads, but Shaunte just can't seem to keep still. Carolyn interrupts her reading several times to ask the girl to sit down, and finally she puts the book down and says to her, "Shaunte, I saw what you did to Annie. Please go sit on the golden line. You have to leave now." Shaunte goes without a protest, as if she's been itching to be caught, and Carolyn picks up the book again and starts reading.
While she reads, Clark buzzes around the room, putting away stray toys, wiping down tables, sweeping up lunch detritus, setting up low purple cots for naptime. At the far end of the room, near the easels, Kenny crouches alone in tears. Clark spends a few minutes stroking his back, speaking softly to him, and then goes back to his duties. Carolyn puts down the last book, a story about trains. "Do you think that's why it's called Red Caboose?" she says to the kids. "Because we hear trains here all the time?" Her question is something of a non sequitur, but no one in this group is going to point that out. Lydia yawns and rubs her eyes, starting a rash of yawning. Carolyn smoothes her blond hair back behind one ear and gathers up the books, and the kids begin getting ready for nap. Many of these three-year-olds no longer take naps at home. But here at the center, they tend to nap more willingly and for longer than they do at home. Peer pressure has a lot to do with it, and so does lying in a dark room with soft music playing.
Upstairs in the office, Wendy Rakower, the director of the center, sits at her desk with a worried look. For weeks now she's been scheduling substitutes every day to cover Belindah Anderson's afternoon spot in the Elephant Room. Belindah has worked at Red Caboose for years. Clark says she's one of the best teachers he's ever seen. Of course, since he's married to her, he's not exactly unbiased. But Belindah's out on medical leave, and Wendy's been advertising for a long-term sub, known as an LTE, someone to do Belindah's job for a while for an hourly wage and few benefits. So far, no bites, not even a nibble. So Wendy's been scrambling to fill the slot with subs, which runs counter to the center's policy, but what can she do? She doesn't mind stepping in from time to time herself, but she can't sub for Belindah every afternoon--she'd never get her own work done.
Like so much here, it all comes down to money. Subs at Red Caboose make $6.00 an hour, and LTEs earn $6.80--less than some starting wages at McDonald's. You don't sign up for this work unless you really like taking care of kids. And you don't stick with it unless you love it, because child care is hard, hard work. It's physically demanding, with lots of lifting, carrying, changing diapers, and running around the playground. But in some ways that's the easy part. Each day also brings a continual series of emotional and intellectual challenges, figuring out how to care for and guide 4 or 6 or 12 kids, how to draw this one out and calm that one down, what to do in the face of temper tantrums, genuine distress, and high levels of mischievous, perfectly normal energy. You've got to think fast, be ready to scrap the sit-down activity planned and go with the flow, to pull the group together when you have to and let it out when you can. It's not the kind of work you can do on automatic pilot, at least not well, because this job requires a constant use of judgment. Kids know when you're not paying attention, and they're awfully good at forcing the issue.
All this for six bucks an hour. No wonder Wendy has a tough time hiring subs. The saving grace is the university, which over the years has provided a steady stream of young, mostly female students who love children. The two-year degree in child care at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) is a good source of temporary labor, too. But students come and go, and every fall brings a new crop of subs to Red Caboose. It takes a while to work out everyone's schedule--who has morning classes and who has afternoons, who's available Tuesdays and Thursdays but not the rest of the week--so Wendy has a lot to juggle.
Wendy's got other worries as well on this September afternoon--enrollment, for example, which is lower than she'd like. Right now the center has 53 slots, known as FTEs (full-time equivalents), which means that on any given day there should be 53 children spread among the four child-care rooms. About a quarter of the kids are part-timers, so all in all about 70 children spend some part of their weekdays at Red Caboose. It's very difficult to hit the magic number 53 on the nose, especially with all the part-timers, some of whose schedules change with their parents' class schedules. Over the year, enrollment tends to even out; the Turtle Room's down half a slot for three weeks, the Grasshopper Room's up a slot for a few days, and it all works out in the end. Which is good, because the margin for error is slim. Each FTE represents about $6,600 to the center, and every penny of that money is carefully budgeted by Wendy and Louise, the center's financial manager. It may not sound like a big deal to be down one slot, but if that money isn't made up over the course of the year, Red Caboose winds up with a $6,600 deficit.
Enrollment is the responsibility of the director and the lead teachers, and they take it very seriously. Now Wendy fiddles anxiously with her straight black hair, taking out her purple barrette, smoothing the hair, sliding the barrette back in. Her hair is waist-length, reminiscent of Cher's hair in her pre-Moonstruck days. In the 1970s Wendy was a hippie living on a farm in southern Wisconsin. Her looks are still hippielike--the long hair, the plain clothes, the clogs--but her attitudes are up-to-date: a thorough understanding of budgets and finances filtered through the social conscience of a left-wing New York Jew.
Wendy grew up in New Rochelle, New York, with her two younger sisters, one of whom lives in Madison, the other in New York City. Her mother, a sculptor, and her father, a retired oral surgeon, brought their daughters to peace marches in the 1960s. From an early age Wendy learned to take the concepts of social justice and equality more or less for granted, which partly explains why she's stayed at Red Caboose for 22 years. Wendy likes to joke that she's never had a job interview. She graduated from UW in 1973 with a degree in early childhood development, eager to work with young kids. Most jobs back then with preschoolers were at part-day nursery schools, where almost all the kids were from the white middle and upper class. But Wendy wanted to work with a more diverse group of children and families. She came to Red Caboose for a visit, and that was that. "I walked in the door and said, `This is it, this is the place for me,'" she remembers with a smile. "I was offered the job almost on the spot. I didn't even have an interview."
Her first job was co-lead teacher in the Bumblebee Room. Fresh out of college, bursting with enthusiasm and all the latest educational theories, she asked to see the planning book, to check out what kinds of lessons had been planned for the Bumblebees for the coming week. "I was told, and this is a direct quote, `We groove with the kids,'" she says with a droll smile. "I ran out and bought a lesson-planning book and said, `We plan for the kids now!'"
Wendy taught in the Bumblebee Room for a couple of years, and then, in 1975, began teaching in the center's new kindergarten program. Throughout the late 1970s and early '80s there was no real director at the center. Certain pieces of the director's job were split among the lead teachers, and some were done by Alan Everhart, who was hired in 1975 as the center's financial director. While some people--notably Clark--felt that this division of labor worked well, many parents felt that things at the center were too chaotic.
So in 1983, Wendy was offered the job as director. She took it on a trial basis and she's still doing it. In an industry where centers often go through three directors in a year, Wendy's broken all the records for stick-to-itiveness. "The thing that's kept me here is that I feel like my work is effective," she explains. "Not that it will do everything I want it to do, and it's not going to change the world like I really wish I could. But I can say I did my best. And that's important to me." Some staff members have been known to grumble about Wendy's penchant for worrying, but no one denies that she's an excellent director. And it could be argued that worrying--and addressing those worries--is part of the director's job, along with troubleshooting, dealing with state licensing, sitting on half a dozen committees, subbing for sick teachers, doing the budget, redoing the budget, and a million other tasks.
For instance, low enrollment. At this time of year the center should be full. The mass exodus of five-year-olds over the summer means that kids all over the center can move up. The lead teachers are meticulous about keeping up their waiting lists, juggling full-timers, part-timers, and schedule changes to keep their rooms as close to full enrollment as possible. The fewer kids in a room, the less flexibility teachers have in making the numbers come out right. The Bumblebees have 16 slots, which gives them a fair amount of flexibility. Clark can ask one part-time family to switch a day, if necessary, to accommodate another family's needs. Often lead teachers work together to solve enrollment problems, moving one child up to make room for someone else.
Some months, everyone expects the numbers to be down--for example, in December or over the summer. Fall should be full up, but this year there have been some unexpected withdrawals. The waiting list is gone; everyone on it has either enrolled or made other arrangements. Wendy wants to have a sign made for the Bumblebee Room window, listing openings for kids of various ages. It's a good idea from an advertising standpoint, since anyone who walks or drives down Willy Street would see it. Lots of people in the community just assume that Red Caboose is always full, so a sign might actually help. Wendy will bring it up at the next board of directors meeting in a few weeks.
For now, everyone has to cope. Low enrollment is bad for the center, but it can be a relief for teachers and kids. Fewer children in a room means that each child gets more individual attention--which is especially helpful during the daily transitions. Wake-up time, for example, can be quite chaotic. In good weather kids who wake up early can go out to the playground and let off some steam. On this mid-September day, though, it's raining, and the playground's still under construction anyway, so the early risers are in the Sunshine Room, the center's other large-motor, indoor play area.
The Sunshine Room is indeed large, much of its space taken up by the same kind of wooden play structure as in the Moonshine Room. This one is designed on a smaller scale, with a canvas slide, little hidey-holes, and steps more suited to a toddler than a five-year-old. The play structure is no sleek modular wonder in brightly colored plastic but a funky and idiosyncratic wooden fantasy, painted with primary colors that were once bright and now could use a touch-up. Large red cube-shaped structures line one wall, with circles cut from their wooden sides so kids can climb in and over and through them. The near half of the room is fairly open, with toy shelves along some walls and a thick red mat in the center, where kids like to jump and turn somersaults and roll around.
Compare the Sunshine Room with a play area in one of the more corporate centers--Preschool for the Arts, for instance, out on the city's more suburban west side--and it looks untidy, even dingy. Some parents who visit here are clearly turned off by the center's shabby, less than perfect look. For other parents it's a plus, signaling hominess and warmth. To them Red Caboose looks like a place where children can shout and giggle and roll on the floor, let down their hair. And some parents put up with it. Maybe they'd rather have their children at a center with gleaming white walls, but they're not willing to give up what their kids get at Red Caboose for a spic and span unknown.
The kids who are in the Sunshine Room this afternoon are a mix of ages. Many of the older kids don't nap at all, but state licensing mandates a one-hour rest period for preschoolers, so they have to stay on their cots. By 2:00 there's a teacher on duty in the Sunshine Room to watch over the nonsleepers and early risers. By 2:45 there are two teachers in the room, Carolyn and Crystal today, supervising a mixed bunch of about 10 kids, two- and three-year-olds. Crystal sits on a set of three red wooden steps near the door, helping a Bumblebee in green sweatpants put on her shoe. The mood in the room is quiet, the kids still waking up. Kenny hangs by his hands from a wooden bar suspended over a mat, swinging his feet, testing his own weight. Bruce pushes a truck along the floor, pausing to bang it on the floor and holler with frustration. "What's the problem, Bruce?" asks Carolyn. Of all the teachers at the center she's the most glamorous-looking, with her neat blond hair, her polished fingernails, her slim elegance.
"It's too big!" yells Bruce.
Carolyn crosses the room to see what's going on. It turns out that Bruce is trying to drive the toy truck in through the door of a plastic dollhouse. "Shall we build a garage for your truck?" she asks, smiling at him. She could remind him that the truck is too big for the dollhouse, and ask him to look for a smaller vehicle. But he already knows that; his problem is that he's feeling frustrated. So Carolyn chooses to distract Bruce rather than to lecture him.
The distraction works. Bruce, taking the initiative, piles several plastic cubes together to make a garage. He walks away for a minute, and one of the Elephants picks up the truck. "Hey, mine!" shouts Bruce with a wail, rushing over. "Bruce, once you leave a toy it's not yours anymore," Carolyn reminds him.
For a while a group of children take turns doing tricks on the red mat. Kenny is having trouble waiting his turn and following the rules, despite the fact that he's one of the oldest kids in the group. He tries to "budge"--push in front of someone--and when that doesn't work, he starts to cry loudly. "Kenny, you're being very uncooperative today," says Carolyn calmly. A few minutes later, when he manages to wait in line and then take his turn without incident, Carolyn rewards him with a one-on-one conversation. "Do you see the big UPS truck outside?" she asks, pointing out the window.
[Chapter One Continues ...]
Meet the Author
Harriet Brown is assistant professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, NY. Her most recent book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia, will be published by William Morrow in September 2010. Brown writes for the New York Times science section, magazine, and op-ed page, as well as for publications like Health, O, the Chicago Tribune, Parenting, and many others. She lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for 15 years, where she worked on both American Girl and Wisconsin Trails magazines. Other books include Feed Me!, Mr. Wrong, and The Promised Land, a collection of poems from the University of Wisconsin-Library System.
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