The Little Red House Nursery School was up the street, about two blocks from my house in a small New Jersey town. There were sidewalks the entire distance along a lightly-trafficked road and one slightly squirrelly street crossing between my house and my school, so with the exception of the first day when my mother accompanied me, I made the trek on my own. Inconceivable now, I know. I was not even five years old and my mother sent me out onto the street to make my way to nursery school. But that’s how things were in the 1960s. Danger did not lurk around every corner.
What was dangerous, I have to admit, was me in a school setting. I was the youngest of six children, born late to parents who most likely felt like they had done their time and now looked forward to a bit more freedom, a few more Manhattans before dinner, a few more meals away from home. So I had something of a feral streak—allowed to stay up as late as I wanted as long as I didn’t bother them, permitted to subsist on a diet of Spaghetti-o’s and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, free to roam my neighborhood and further as long as I made an appearance at something approximating dinner time.
In short, I was not a domesticated child and thus was headed for disaster from my first day at The Little Red House Nursery School (which lived up to its name—a small red house, probably built a century earlier, with low ceilings and drafty windows). They must have tried, the teachers charged with my care, but I was unfamiliar with parameters set around any kind of activity that involved learning. My parents were comfortable, I suppose, with setting me loose on my own because I was a curious and eager learner who could entertain myself for hours at a piano or immersed in books. I spent entire afternoons poring over the various Time-Life series of science and geography books on the shelves in the den, or working my way through the letters of the Encyclopedia Britannica that most parents of that generation believed were necessary accessories for an educated family. Neither of my parents had finished high school, but both were whip-smart in their own practical ways, so having a ready-made resource library nearby was a good way to stay one step ahead of their more-formally educated children.
So I suppose that at the age of four, when they sent me up the street to begin that formal education, they didn’t concern themselves too much with the details. I could read, write and play simple tunes by ear. I had decent table manners, knew enough to say “please” and “thank you.” What could go wrong?
I lasted about a month before my first suspension (I’m not even sure there was such a term then, at least in a nursery school). I was sent home for some transgression I can’t recall, but no doubt had to do with my impatience with authority, with a system of learning that didn’t promote individuality or initiative. It was a nursery school in the 1960s, for God’s sake, an early front in the counterculture skirmishes that were springing up across the land. They were not going to yield to any young radical, no matter how much she knew about the origins of humans or the solar system (thank you, Time-Life).
I returned after some agreed-upon stretch at home with an admonition from my mother to please try and get along with the teachers (it was always the teachers, rarely the other students). And I would try, with some success, for a few weeks, until another call was made from the Little Red House to the medium-sized blue house down the street, and my mother would walk up to meet me following another banishment.
I suppose over time my stretches of “going along and getting along,” as my mother would suggest, lasted longer, and I eventually completed the school year and began kindergarten a little further up the road at the local Catholic school (and no, that didn’t really work out much better as evidenced by my premature departure in the 6th grade when I found myself abruptly enrolled at the local public school—a revelation! An amazing place where creativity was valued! But I digress).
I suppose there are other professions I could have ended up in that would have been as steeped in irony as the one I’m in now—student affairs. Law enforcement comes to mind. But here I am, having spent almost a quarter of a century in educational settings despite a start that clearly indicated my disdain for them. I write this by way of introduction as I begin an occasional series of blog posts for the Student Affairs Collective’s SA Blog. I hope to make use of the opportunity to reconcile the interactions I have every day as a dean of students at a small college with the nursery school rebel I once was. How have I become the authority? How do I remind myself to value those who push back against that authority? How do I value the critique of my work (and those who offer it) that is part of my everyday professional existence? And how do we, as a profession, make sure to keep a place for those who did not color inside the lines? Because those are often the colleagues that help us work with the students who most challenge our sensibilities.
The Little Red House Nursery school is still standing, though it’s now a private home and is painted mustard yellow, as this picture shows. Numerous families have occupied my former home down the street; we moved out before I started high school. Somewhere on that short stretch of sidewalk on Westville Avenue in Caldwell, NJ, the seeds of a career in education were sown. And then probably blown away by a strong headwind to take root somewhere else where they were not meant to grow, but did.