Lessons learned from preschoolers

By Katie McKenna

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Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT

Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT

While most people remember their earlier school days with fondness and youthful admiration, I like to think I’m being honest with myself when I remember those days as ones filled with social struggles, a painfully structured schedule and endless frustration for not knowing how to complete the simplest tasks on my own. I craved freedom, and yet it escaped me. Of course, I also craved Cheetos, and yet those seemed to escape me as well. But I digress.

Perhaps because I had some twisted need to revisit my uncomfortable and somewhat regrettable past, a few summers ago I decided to do just that and work as an aide in a pre-K classroom. I really only got the job the way I’ve gotten most things in my life: through my brilliant and always reliable older sister, Siobhan. She was an education student at Boston College, studying to do what she had always said she would do: become a teacher.

My sister, a natural-born leader and role model, mentored me growing up and always made meals and took care of our younger brother. In home videos, Siobhan is featured as a star of the stage, shining bright and confident. But I am always standing behind her, perhaps not quite as charming and confident as one of my only recorded childhood moments illustrates. In the video, I am approaching my dad with a Christmas candy bar repeating, “Open it, open it, open it,” as my father looks at me dearly, responding, “What do you say?” looking for his sweet young lady to use her manners. I then replied, “Now.”

I didn’t quite get it as a kid, but my sister did, and I wasn’t – and still am not – done learning from her footsteps. Somehow, my boss offered this shy little lady a job, and I started working with the little ones.

If “good cop, bad cop” were ever appropriate, it would be so in my own teaching experiences, as being sentimental and a romantic made me always bend the rules for the kids I was “responsible” for, responsible being a generous term. And it showed.

“I only want to leave the classroom if I’m leaving with you.”

“I want Miss Katie to sit at my table.”

Six planned play dates and several marriage proposals later (to which I all said “yes,” to, by the way, continuing my aim to please) I realized that I meant something to these kids, but the reason for that was only because they meant something to me. It was that simple. I gave love, and I received it in return. That was the first of many simple lessons these kids taught me. All of these things were right in front of our eyes, so easy to discern; it’s as if kids were the only ones with the right prescription to see them.

They taught me that I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, and that sometimes things come out better when you don’t get them exactly right. Charlotte held her orange popsicle stick horizontally and said with a sticky grin, “Look! Look! I’m eating cob on the corn! Look!”

When Dylan looked at my sister and me, he looked back and forth a few times, over to Siobhan, back to me, back over to Siobhan, and finally over to me, announcing, “You guys have the same head.” A preschooler’s version of “you guys look like sisters.”

Another version of that same sentiment had Addie asking constantly, “Where are those two Katies going?”

They taught me to always pay attention and ask questions, even if they were asking me, “Is that your Dad?” while referring to a camp counselor two years younger than myself. Hey, making mistakes can be a good thing!

When I asked Oliver what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said he didn’t know, Jack asked him, “What about working with computers?” and Oliver replied, “Yeah, but what if it buzzes at me?” This taught me to address my fears, to acknowledge them and think about how to move past them.

And of course, the most important lesson: to love, fully and honestly. I once had a kid tell me that he “did not like my shorts” but “loved my face.” Another, Fabio, asked a girl in my class at the end of every day if she wanted to hold hands tomorrow. Aging does teach us how to be more independent and think for ourselves, and we do acquire much more of the freedom we once craved, but I’ve also come to understand that time can unintentionally make us forget how to love as well as we can. We forget the simple importance in the busyness of aging, and if we’re not aware, we can become bitter in the process.

James Joyce told us that it’s “Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade away and wither dismally with age.” Something tells me the kids would agree.

Katie McKenna is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]