By Tiffany Duncan
“Why is Hillside School so important?”
My son, Andrew, had just turned four and was in his first year at Hillside when he asked me this question. I knew exactly what he was getting at. Classroom Q was a joyless and humorless environment and I cringed each day when dropping him off. We were driving to school when he asked the question and I had the sudden urge to reply, “You know what? It ain’t,” and make a U-turn right there and then. But then again, as parents we need to be in control of our impulses. (We also have work to do.) So I offered him some parental inanity about it being a good school, that he would like it in time, that his brother and sister went there, etc.
But the truth of the matter is that the poor four year-old had hit the nail right on the head. The air of self-importance and the utter lack of spontaneity were out of place for a preschool and kindergarten. The kids had assigned seating where they were supposed to take their “work” and sit, for what I’m sure seemed to them an eternity, pouring beans from one container to another or putting rubber bands around pegs on a board. There was of course time to run outside and play, but to even introduce the idea of “work” to the three to five year old crowd is really overkill. (It reminded me of a cartoon I saw a few years ago, a little boy dressed in a three piece suit with a brief case knocking at a door: “Can Johnny come out to work?”)
The first few weeks the various Montessori learning equipment interested Andrew. He checked out each one and figured things out about them. Then it was over. The other kids, the play structure, and pretend games beckoned. He avoided his “work.” The teachers were dismayed. “It’s boring, Mama,” he said. “It is not instereyting [interesting].” I was ready with another inanity: “Try to find something interesting about them. That’s how you learn things.” (Somebody should have slapped me.)
“I felt like a supplicant”
This was my husband’s comment after our first parent-teacher conference. We encountered a “professional” tone and bearing that was particularly ridiculous sitting on little kiddy chairs around a short table. After we were talked at for a while about our son’s progress in various Montessori tasks, we only had time to beg yet again that he be excused from napping in the afternoons. Being four in a class of mostly three-year olds, he did not need the nap and it kept him from falling asleep at a reasonable hour at night. That was driving the whole family crazy. For months we had begged the teachers to allow him to join the non-napping four year-old group while the three year-olds napped but it had been categorically refused. “Children of x years need x number of hours of sleep,” we were informed. Finally, midyear, sitting as supplicants on tiny chairs, our request was granted.