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The Papa Preschool Blues

Kavya’s been going to the Christian day care down the street from us since she was 7 months old. There, she went from wobbling around unsteadily to crawling to walking to running. From drinking milk in bottles to asking for sippy cups, and eating solid food with chopsticks and regular old cutlery. It’s where she first started belting out songs like, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” and where she formed her first friendships.

In the mornings at the day care her favorite teacher, Miss Ruth, would often take Kavya in her arms, and be utterly engaged in her incoherent burblings, which eventually formed into eloquent observations in the three years she’s been there. All of the teachers from other grades knew Kavya. At the end of the day, when we’d pick her up, sometimes the after-care teacher would take the time to comb her hair into neat little braids again. When Kavya and I would walk the one block back home, she’d tell me all about her day, with details.

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Earlier this year, when Kavya became eligible to attend public school (they only take kids 3 or older), it seemed like an easy enough decision. We’d save more than $8,000 a year—a considerable sum of money. The public school is dual-language, and it wasn’t very much farther to walk. As the date started getting closer, and we’d watch her day care teachers hug her a little tighter and tell her they were going to miss her, we’d have a momentary change of heart. But with a second child on the way, we have to remind ourselves we don’t rob banks for a living and don’t have an extra $16,000 income lying around to keep them both in private school.

On the last day of her day care, the walk was really long, because me and Sona kept pausing and feeling sad for Kavya. We even attempted to make her feel sad by reminding her it was her last day. “I know,” she’d said, and just like a usual walk, she pointed at the leaves, or at the house across the street with a red door, which she claims she owns. In the afternoon, Sona and I went into her class with freshly baked cookies. Her teacher, Miss Ruth, had made a surprise art project book thing for Kavya, with photos of the kids glued inside, and drawings other students made. It was really moving. For us, not Kavya. She had a mini meltdown that had something to do with shoes, and refused to pose properly for class pictures. So, her last day has her looking like a big grump.

It’s been nearly a full semester since she switched to the much bigger public school. It’s been a difficult adjustment. Again, not for Kavya. She’s perfectly fine. I’m still having trouble, though. So is my wife, Sona.

For an infuriating week, we didn’t have a clue how she was doing, or even whether she was eating the school lunches properly.

The first day when I went to pick Kavya up and walked toward her classroom, I was stopped by security. Parents aren’t allowed in the classrooms when they pick the kids up. At Kavya’s day care, you had to be buzzed into the building, but there wasn’t any official security desk. We could walk right up to her classroom without having to sign in because everyone knew who we were.

We walked through the double doors of a large beige building with a narrow staircase, cream-colored cement walls, and expressionless security guards, who gruffly pointed at the sheet we had to sign. We walked down a winding corridor to drop her in the classroom. There were two teachers, whom we were barely able to say a few words to in the chaos of the first day of school.

For an infuriating week, we didn’t have a clue how she was doing, or even whether she was eating the school lunches properly. The teachers didn’t have the luxury of sitting down and writing out little emoticons with personalized notes for Kavya, the way those at her private day care did. Kavya would be so tired at the end of the school day that she’d answer my questions about her day using syllables like a teenager: “Nothing.” “Fine.” “OK.”

A week after she started at the new school, her Sofia the First lunchbox went missing, and since we weren’t allowed to go back to the classroom to look for it, it was just gone. A few weeks later, one of the after-care teachers handed me some dinky, faux fur jacket, with Kavya sulkily walking alongside her as I waited. “She keeps saying it’s not her jacket,” the teacher said as she handed it to me. I looked at the teacher and said, “That’s because it’s not her jacket.”

She tried convincing me that the jacket in her hands was indeed Kavya’s jacket. It took a few days of me badgering the school, but they finally hunted down Kavya’s actual jacket in some random coat closet. Drawn in fat, black marker on the inside collar was the word, “Kavya.”

I still miss the sheets of paper her day care teachers would send in her lunchbox, with emoticons and short Twitter-like updates to let us know how Kavya’s day went, as well as the unfolding of the drama we weren’t there to see:

“In the morning, Kavya didn’t eat her cereal. But she ate all of her butter and toast.”

“During nap time, Suzanne pushed Kavya, then Kavya told her she wasn’t nice, then Suzanne got upset, which made Kavya upset. They both cried. Then they played ‘baby’ and had fun.”

When we went to the new school for orientation (a full week after it started), we had to point Kavya out to both teachers. I was alarmed by everything. Her anonymity, a sign with information on what to do in case of a school shooting (nothing), the dearth of books and educational toys in the room. There were two really old picture books, a couple of jigsaw puzzles, and a mish-mash of board games and action figures, cars and dolls. I asked if there was a curriculum they followed, and one of the teachers told me that there isn’t any actual learning objective for the pre-K students, but if the students express an interest in things like writing or reading or drawing, the teachers will theoretically encourage the individual students to pursue it. It seemed pretty shady, like a pyramid scheme.

When we got home, Sona and I started to panic that we’d made the wrong decision, that Kavya wasn’t being challenged and would forget everything she learned at day care. Numbers, letters, words. Because I’m the papa, I came up with a plan to fix everything. I attempted to integrate some educational activities at home, culminating in an iPad fiasco. (Turns out the Dora app is not the devil; the Strawberry Shortcake app is.) Kavya doesn’t like talking about the alphabet or school work when she comes home, which is understandable. Her day is long.

Right before the holidays, we were invited to her class for what turned out to be a little showcase. The kids sang “Feliz Navidad” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” followed by a group painting exercise. Kavya was excited to show us her artwork, in which I am set on fire, new family members are added, and mama is always beautiful.

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Just as we were leaving the classroom, a photo flashed up on the computer screen. It’s Kavya, sitting on top of a horse. A real horse! She’s wearing a helmet and frowning into the camera. Sona and I were gobsmacked. We asked Kavya why she didn’t mention her first time on a horse to us. She shrugged her shoulders and said: “I went on a horse.” All she told us about her field trip to a pumpkin farm back in October was that she saw pumpkins.

The other day Kavya made me a birthday card. Sona dictated all of the letters so Kavya could write: “Happy Birthday, Papa!” She managed them all, upper case and lower case. Sort of. She even took my suggestion I gave her when it seemed like she wasn’t listening, that the B and P look like they’ve got eyes, and the R looks like a little monster. Kavya’s adjusted perfectly fine to the new school. Maybe it’s time we did as well.

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