“What happened?” I asked as she ran into my arms, her small body melting into my own.
Her teacher took me aside. “Kids were talking about kindergarten today. She got upset she is going to pre-k instead next year.”
I nodded, blindsided by her emotions. Then, I held my daughter close the whole walk home.
Since we’d been given a November due date, we’d budgeted for my youngest to attend pre-k. I’m a fall birthday myself, and I started school at age four. According to family legend, I’d begged my parents to go. In elementary school, all went well. And throughout my school career, academics were never a problem.
Yet I can still remember walking the halls of middle school, a successful student with a tentative stride, not yet confident enough to fill my then-embarrassingly large size nine shoes. The other girls liked boys. I liked my puppy. The other girls spent hours on the phone. I spent hours reading.
For much of middle school, I felt alone, isolated by unaligned interests and a distinct feeling that I didn’t belong. Overnight, I became shy, clinging to a small number of friends who, interestingly enough, also had late birthdays.
And while by high school, I’d found my way, that feeling of loneliness would resurface every time my peers hit another milestone. I was the last to get my driver’s license. The last to listen to bands at the local 18+ music nights. The last to turn 21. It was a fate I didn’t want for my daughter.
I hadn’t expected that my four-year-old would feel left out by not going to school. Her emotions sent me into a tailspin. Was pre-k the right decision? Or had I let my own life experiences get in the way of what was right for her?
All summer, I tried to untangle feelings from the facts. My daughter is a free spirit. She is funny and silly with a big imagination. She cannot yet sit still for long. She also shares my sensitivity. She won’t eat chicken because she loves birds. And while she is confident around friends in bigger crowds, she is reserved.
I tried to picture her in full-day kindergarten, sitting still, a book laid out on a little desk. I pictured her on the carpet in her pre-k room, a doll and bottle in hand. I could see both pictures. But the doll felt better.
I told my husband I was writing the tuition check. But then a dental emergency led to a visit from the tooth fairy, who left behind a stuffed animal.
That morning, she bounded into our room. “Look! The tooth fairy gave me a dog! It’s named Colin,” she said, showing me its tag.
Sure enough, the tag said Colin. She’d read it on her own. Dumbfounded, I handed back the dog. My husband laughed. “Is it too late to cancel that tuition check?”
My anxiety grew. Once again, the only clear thing was the situation’s ambiguity. Sure, there was research suggesting older kindergarteners have a lasting academic advantage. And my own experiences suggested that age could help socially. The new Connecticut state law changes the kindergarten cutoff date to September 1 next year. But this year, the decision was ours. And none of the data looked at my daughter personally. There was no way to predict her future.
After a few weeks of indecision, I decided to stop trying. Instead, I turned to a favorite saying my father used to say when I was a kid. Don’t worry about making the right decision; worry about making your decision right.
This quote, attributed to many over the years, rang true now more than ever. My gut told me pre-k was best. Sure, there was the possibility – perhaps even a high probability – that my third-born would thrive as a young student. But that didn’t matter because we’d chosen pre-k. And now, it was my job to make that decision right for us both.
For much of August, that is what I did. Whenever she mentioned friends going to kindergarten, I mentioned friends going to pre-k. When she expressed sadness at missing playdates with friends now in school, I provided reassurance that we’d still see them in the afternoons. And when her teachers emailed that they needed another room parent, I jumped on it.
“See, this year is going to be great!” I told her. “Hurray for pre-k!”
By the time late August rolled around, my daughter was excited. This year is pre-k. Next year is kindergarten, she’d say. Yet the day before the big kids returned to school, I found her eyes wet again.
“It’s not fair. I want to go with them tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll never have my big sister walk me into school.”
This time, I cried too. My oldest was starting fifth grade. By holding our youngest, my three kids would never have a year together in the same school.
As I struggled for words, my oldest disappeared. And later that day, the two girls emerged, each wearing a smile. My oldest turned to me, then held up her little sister’s wrist, now adorned with a jangling bracelet.
“I gave her two charms from my charm bracelet,” she said. “Now, even though I can’t walk her into pre-k, she’ll have a piece of me when she gets sad. It’s like the locket you got me when I started school.”
I nodded, my throat too dry for words, as I held both girls close. When we dropped the big kids off the next morning, my youngest waved to her friends in the kindergarten line, that bracelet dangling from her wrist.