My oldest daughter begins kindergarten at our town’s public elementary school next week, so last spring I attended the school’s “Parent Information Night.” More than anything else in the past five years, attending a kindergarten information night made me feel like a grown up, like a MOM, …old. It’s one thing to have children and be responsible for their upbringing; it’s another thing to sit on plastic chairs in a stuffy music room and realize that you’re about to become part of an entirely new community: a school community, with its teachers and administrators and volunteer commitments and dates-to-remember.
I may feel the community aspect of school more acutely because we live in a small town with one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. There’s low turnover among town residents. So, although some students from neighboring towns will be added to the mix in middle and high school, my daughter will likely spend the next 13 years of her life with most of her kindergarten classmates.
In a town where it’s still not uncommon for people to marry their high school sweethearts, you can bet I was curious to check out the other parents at information night.
Let me back up a minute and tell you about where I grew up: McLean, Virginia. Located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., McLean is a town of 48,000 people in which the median household income was $156,943 as of the 2010 census. I attended a private elementary school and public middle and high schools in McLean, and in each place I was surrounded by the children of diplomats, politicians, and entrepreneurs. As you might imagine, a “Parent Information Night” in McLean involved lots of competitive alpha parents in professional attire.
At the moment, the plan is for our four children to attend the public schools in Middlebury, Vermont. (For those asking, “Why public school?” the answer is: FOUR children + one assistant professor’s salary = public school. For those asking, “Why not home school?” the answer is: FOUR children + I’m lazy). Middlebury is a town of 6,588 people (not counting the 2,000 students at Middlebury College) with a median household income of $49,081.
So when I walked into the music room for that first “Parent Information Night,” the crowd was different from what you’d see at a school in McLean, Virginia. For starters, there were a lot more tattoos on display. Attire included work clothes still dusty from a day on the farm or construction site. Most surprising to me, since this is a small town, was how few of the other parents I knew, aside from a handful whom I’d met through my husband’s job at the college or my daughters’ preschool.
I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, as I discovered from subsequent conversations with other parents who’d been there. Like me, their comments ranged from surprise at not recognizing more people, to “Rough crowd!”
In short, this was my first real taste of the divisions that exist even within small towns. I’d heard from a friend who grew up in one of Middlebury’s non-college families that in school he’d felt a separation between himself and his classmates whose parents worked for the college. But since my own family has relationships with plenty of non-college families, I was surprised to find that this division exists in my own life: There are apparently many parents in town with children the same age as mine whom I’ve never met.
And since I believe in honesty, I will tell you that my first instinct upon entering that music room was to judge. It was tempting to compare this experience with my own upbringing, to wonder what our family could possibly have in common with these other families.
But thankfully, my second thought was: Everyone in this room chose to SHOW UP. This was not a mandatory event; every parent there had showed up for their kid, proclaiming that they were ready to join the school community. Regardless of body art or occupations, most of us can agree that we love our kids and want what’s best for them. It’s like I’m always telling my own children: it doesn’t matter how other people look on the outside, on the inside we all have beating hearts that crave love and acceptance.
Wouldn’t it be great if we ALL behaved the way we tell our children to behave?
Two days later, a friend lent me a book called The Beloved Community – a collection of essays about Vermont written by Zephine Humphrey and published in 1930. One passage from this book reminded me of what I’d felt in that school music room:
We are a little community, held in the bowl of a Vermont valley and scattered over the surrounding hills. Our environment is very beautiful, and, when we are at our thoughtful best, we acknowledge our innermost purpose to be a human development worthy of our home’s loveliness.
I am excited for our family to be part of this school community, and to meet those parents whom I didn’t recognize at the information night. We do indeed live in a beautiful place, and I hope that our human landscape can match the physical one that surrounds us. The woman sitting next to me at the kindergarten event, her arms covered in tattoos, embodied this kind of beauty; when I, huge at eight months pregnant, dropped a handout, she immediately bent down to retrieve it. Handing it to me, she smiled warmly and said, “I remember what it’s like!”
Let’s all go and do likewise.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.