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The Queen of Preschool

In the hallway of the YMCA, my daughter and I roll out of her classroom just as the rest of the kids in there are getting ready to spread out down on the linoleum, their sleeping bags unrolled out under their tiny tired asses, their young eyes fixed up upon the downpour stains on the ceiling.

Nap time.

No one will sleep.

But still, 20 or 30 minutes of quiet time will do them good, I suppose. And besides that, my guess is that it will basically salvage the three teachers' souls right there at the brink of the drop-off into the crazy ocean. Four hours of two dozen 4-year-olds will push your buttons no matter who you are, no matter what you’re made of. They call it nap time, but it’s Shut-the-Hell-up-for-Just-a-Minute time, and we all know it.

Fair enough; I get a little exhausted just walking in there to pick Violet up every day.

Anyway, I gather her up and grab her purple schoolbag off the rack, and she waves at some kids and gives a couple others a hug and then we close the door gingerly behind us since this is one of those doors that seems cool, but slams into its wedge like a battleship plowing into a continent if you don’t hold on to her.

Now, we’re off.

At the first corner where cinderblocks, sopped thick with paint the color of summer sweet corn, come to a point, my little girl starts looking down the hall for people to say goodbye to. She knows them all by their first names, and let me tell you something: it is a damn spectacle when a kid leads you around a building in town and greets and converses with independent grown-ups who have nothing to do with you at all in this world, and who—half the time—just kind of ignore you altogether.

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It’s humbling, man. These are real people with real jobs and serious responsibilities and private lives and dark secrets and vacation plans and kids in college and kids in jail and mortgage payments and money hidden in jars out in the woods, and they don’t give a donkey’s crap about me or who I am or what I am up to, oh no! But as soon as they each spot my kid it’s all:

“Hey, it’s Ms. Violet!”

“You going home already, Violet!?”

“How was lunch today, Violet? Did you like the pizza puffs?”

Jeez.

By the big outdated 1,000-pound TV that sits on the rolling cart, my daughter peers into the small kitchen on the right.

“'Bye Miss Pam!” she shouts, and I basically can see her voice smashing right through the back wall like the Incredible Hulk crashing nap time. I picture some of those kids shifting toward the sound of that familiar voice, and I know that at least half of them probably wish they were heading out into the world with their daddy now, too.

“See ya, Violet!” replies the Lunch Lady, her eyes barely leaving the giant vat of pears in syrup she is oozing into a Tupperware barrel. “Have a good one!” she adds.

I see Violet’s eyebrows lift a little as that phrase pinballs around inside her brain.

“Have a good one!” my daughter tosses it back.

Near the bulletin board with like 60 arts-and-crafts construction paper raindrops, I feel Violet’s hand rise up into mine, and just like that it’s like I’m being deputized by the sheriff.

My heart flutters behind my cage. I could pop with pride.

The director of the preschool is on her phone with her office door open. She was there when I came in this way by myself, and I can still hear her voice talking away as the two of us are still 15 steps out. I want to tell my kid to let this one slide, not to interrupt a busy lady, but, to be honest, I’m getting my jollies here too. Violet—the baby I held in my arms just a few years ago and who couldn’t say a word but would just lay there and blow spittle bubbles up at me when gazes met—this same kid has become a social butterfly on our meandering walks out of this fortress every day and I’ll be damned if I’m about to give up that sort of thrill, you know?

“Wah-whan-whan-wha-whan-whah-wha,” the lady is talking away but it’s all in like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice to me. I mean, I’m not listening in—I’m just gearing up for the thing.

Violet pulls me to the doorjamb and thrusts her curls into this stall of an office, and suddenly we are there, the Bielankos, uninvited.

Violet does not disappoint.

Violet says goodbye to about eight more people, each of them by name, unless she doesn’t happen to know their name, in which case she calls them "friend."

“Goodbye, Beth! I’m going home with my daddy, and we are going to the play park with my brother Henry after we pick him up from Cindi’s house with a granola bar or maybe some Goldfish!”

I shrink a little and begin to pull her back into the hall as Beth moves her concentrating hand over her brow like a hat brim. But then, just when I think we’ve busted across some line in the preschool sand, she nudges an eye toward my daughter and waves at the kid as she mouths, “Goodbye Violet’ while whoever she is talking to is talking is oblivious to all of this. We head down the stairs, and it’s more of the same.

The maintenance man stands by a vast toolbox opened on the ground, a long ladder propped up beside him. This time, Violet skips the small talk.

“Whatcha' got there, Joe? You got your tools for fixing the walls and the roof and the swimming pool?”

She talks hard and fast and no one has time to really think about what the hell she is even saying. Which is actually a good way to converse if you think about it.

“Hi there, Violet!” the guy lights up. “Yep, me and Jimmy are fixing the air ducts.”

Violet looks at the ladder and Jimmy’s ass-crack hanging out of his faded Carhartts and in that long moment that hangs in the stale hall air I think I know what is coming. Hell, I think we all do.

“What ducks, Joe?” she says, digging into the scene with her eyeballs, trying with all of her afternoon might to spot a bird. “Where are the ducks, Joe? Are they in the air or in the roof!?”

Joe smiles and looks at me and I look at him and we both know he is in a damn pickle now so I help him out a little.

“C’mon kiddo,” I say with a tug. “Let the guys see if there are any ducks up there without us scaring them away, OK? Let’s go get some chocolate milk.”

We make our way down the last hall and Violet says goodbye to about eight more people, each of them by name, unless she doesn’t happen to know their name, in which case she calls them "friend."

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Then, in our final moments in the building, two silver-haired lasses in purple sweatsuits and white Reeboks are holding the door for us as we pass them on their way into the gym. Violet looks up at them, two old ladies smiling down at her and she gives it back to them with everything she’s got. She beams a hole through each of ‘em and takes a quick suck of air, and here we go, I think.

“Hi there, Grandmas!” she says. “Have a nice day in there, sweet Grandmas! There’s ducks!”

The two women keep smiling, but it’s the same smile they would probably smile at a drunken stranger who smells like piss and slurs when he requests 57 cents so he can get the bus back to Williamsport.

Two slow-walkers mystified by the Tasmanian Devil of a 55-pound candy-coated hurricane blowing out of a YMCA building on a bright sunshiney Tuesday afternoon.

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