Monday, July 30, 2012

Day Care Center

Just recently, I came across some photos. Black and white, 8 by 10, they were taken years ago by an art student who had spent his day working on a project at the college day-care center my daughter attended when I was a student.

One of the photos shows my then-toddler digging in the dirt beneath the monkey bars on a playground. It’s one of those first warm days in February, when the children are let out to play after a long winter of cabin fever. She’s wearing an unzipped hooded coat, its white acrylic fur trim noticeably grey. She is bent over her task; her coat is dragging on the ground.


In another photo, she is one of a group of toddlers, assembled in a circle for a story hour.

I didn’t think much about the photos back then. “That’s what kids do in day care centers,” I figured.“Playing in the dirt, listening to stories.” “Hmmm…” I thought then. “I can see how that white trim on her coat gets so grey.”

But looking at the photos now, I am struck by her singular absorption. I look more closely. She’s etching a design with a twig in the now-flattened sand that is often put down in playgrounds to break a child’s fall. It occurs to me that she must have noticed the ground was newly thawed. No longer frozen solid, it was just right for digging. Oblivious to the camera, she has taken some time out to examine her new find.

In the blurred background of the other photo, I recognize one of the toddlers and Hank, the teacher in charge, who is reading the story. The camera focuses in on my daughter, seeming to highlight the thoughtful far-away look on her face. Her attention is rapt; she is lost in the story.

It was in the mid-70s that my daughter and I came to that day care center. I was 22 at the time. She was 2. It was a very idealistic era in our nation’s history, a time of boundless optimism and many new social initiatives. I had learned there were day-care programs for children whose parents were students, a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s“Great Society Programs” that extended federal subsidies to the middle class. But the slots were all full everywhere I inquired, and the term was about to begin. Then the director of one program, sensing my urgency, agreed to take in an extra child. I was amazed at how simple it was. I  was asked to document my student status, my income and my child’s birth date. Fees were on a sliding scale. I was a work-study student and had several scholarships.
I don’t remember much about the college I attended back then. For me, it was an impersonal place, with much the grey, graffiti-covered look of public institutions. I didn’t get to know the faculty or take many courses in my major, my time being taken up with transfer-student paperwork, and meeting the graduation requirements of yet another school. A lot of my classes were in huge lecture halls, where there was little interaction between teacher and student. Since the student body consisted of commuters, I rarely saw my classmates outside of school. When I had a few hours free I worked.
But I remember just about everything about that day care center. For me, that day care center was an oasis, an island of colorful crayon crafts and ear-splitting joy, smack in the middle of the college campus. It was nothing like those indifferent places that were mere parking spaces for children. Rather, it was a miniature Sesame Street. The pupils and teachers came from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Here, a spirit of multiculturalism, camaraderie and learning reigned. The child-teacher ratio was remarkable, about 3 to 1. In addition to the salaried teachers who were there all day, early childhood majors would drop by. The parents, mostly students like me or college staff, also got involved. The friendships I established here extended well beyond the program.
Every morning, the lively young teachers greeted my toddler by name. Throughout the day, they were there, ready to pick up a child who had fallen down, offer a colorful band-aid, or to coax a smile. At the end of the day, one always took a few moments to chat with me. I still remember some of the teachers’ names: Sally, Anna, Hank, Jim. Several were parents themselves whose children attended the center.
On those cold mornings when my daughter was groggy with sleep and I was rushing to class, I knew she could eat there. In the midmorning, the aromas of spaghetti sauce and brownies would waft across my path as I passed by on my way to class or work. On birthdays, which were celebrated with a clockwork precision, the kitchen prepared a special cake, and I could hear the entire school of about 60 pupils chime in in an exuberant off-key chorus honoring the child of the day.
There were no lectures here, but lessons were taught. They were about sharing, mutual respect, responsibility. The kids took turns dishing out the meals, setting tables, handing out coloring or craft supplies. There were rules too, rules that were the same for everyone: The pupils were expected to wait their turn, and to pick up after themselves. They were taught how to settle differences: No fighting was allowed. And no biting. In this small microcosm, an ordered world prevailed.
Here, kids learned that their efforts were worthwhile. Their work was proudly displayed on the center’s walls. “I made this,” my daughter would say at the end of the say, pointing out a crooked oval shape she had drawn or perhaps a backwards “N” and a few unwieldy letters.
That’s “Natalia,” she’d say, echoing her name.
But I wasn’t always aware of the learning taking place there. Those days, I was always running with a toddler in tow – running to meet the bus, running to the center, running to work, running to class. I didn’t have much time to think about what she did there. At the end of the day, I still had studying to do, a task that often ended up hastily done or unfinished when balanced with the more urgent matters of getting through the day. Those days I never had time, and much that demanded my attention went unattended.

I will always remember one rainy afternoon, though. Carrying an umbrella, a rain-soaked bag of groceries, and a backpack full of books, I was intent on getting home. My daughter, in an over sized slicker and floppy galoshes, was lagging a few steps behind, criss-crossing the sidewalk, making sure to splash in each puddle.

“Mommy! Wait! Wait!” she suddenly called out. “Look! Look! Circles!”

We stood in the downpour together and watched as the heavy rain droplets created circular concentric ripples as they hit the puddles. She had learned about shapes in school that day.

Those are the images I am left with from those day-care center years, images of me running, of her lagging behind, of me walking straight ahead, of her looking at everything -- thinking, discovering, learning, dreaming....

Interestingly, when I was in school, I thought it was I who benefited from that day care program. Without it, I could not have received my degree. Also, the centered countered the isolation I felt, being alone with a child in the city. But only much later did I begin to realize what that experience meant for my child. All through those harried years, there was a place where there was always time for her. Here she had time to relax, to be herself, to be someone special.

My daughter spent two years in that day care program. Then I was off to grad school and she was old enough for nursery school. We were lucky. By that time, daycare for students like me was no longer a mandate. I’ve often wondered since then about parents and children just like me and my daughter who weren’t as lucky. Unlike me and my daughter, they have had no place to go and no one to count on.

Particularly now, as our nation grows increasingly stratified financially, and so many resources are available for those children who are privileged and so few for the rest, it seems to me that programs like this one from years ago need to be reconsidered to level the playing field. Perhaps we also need to have a look at the progressive European model, such as the one in France, that offers quality government-subsidized programs. regardless of income, to help out all mothers.

I still have an unlikely reminder from those days in those school text books that I tried to so hard to keep out of my daughter's reach. As I now look at the crooked oval shapes and unwieldy letters in my books, I realize these were not mere scribbles. She had been mimicking my taking notes in the margins of my books -- by practicing drawing a face and writing her name, something she had learned at the center. 


  1. Those were lovely pictures, Olya! And what a very good way to walk down the memory lane! I’m sure your daughter also fondly remembers her time in that daycare center. All those times she was with other kids, learning, playing around and having fun, surely brought back some good memories. Maybe, both of you should take those pictures in your old daycare center to serve as a remembrance.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Neil. Unfortunately the place no longer exists. We no longer have such day care programs, but they are the norm in Europe. And thank you for commenting on the photos. I thought they were something a mom would cherish. I love that girl. As for her, she became a scholarship student in every school she attended and in this nation's most prestigious ballet school and a professional ballet dancer. As for me, as you must have figured out, I became a writer. I much appreciate your interest. I have written more about parenting and Perhpas you may be interested. Do give me your email or website so we can stay in touch.