Bella started preschool this week. It’s the culmination of an entire year of worrying, doubting, second thoughts, hesitant optimism, and countless late-night discussions. A year ago, neither of us were completely certain we would be sending her at all, and both of us were absolutely convinced that it wouldn’t be pretty if we did. Today, we both know it’s the best thing we could have done for her.
Last fall was a pretty rough time for Miss Bellatrix. Phaedra had just started her last year of preschool, and we began getting anxious about the countdown to school for Bella. She was going through a manic phase: staying up all night, melting down hard several times a day, and generally making everyone’s life difficult. She’s always been spirited, but this was beyond any kind of fluffy-huggy phrases we wanted to use to describe her. For much of the fall and winter, we wondered how the hell we were going to send this kid to school — a kid who went apeshit any time you asked her to stop doing something, who couldn’t handle saying goodbye when being dropped off at Grandma’s house. How would complete strangers handle her? How would she handle them?
The basic structure of how preschool works seemed like a nightmare for someone like her: spend up to fifteen minutes sitting in a specific, pre-assigned spot listening to someone talk; choose and then stay at an activity; transition to a new activity whether or not you are ready; leave a bunch of cool toys behind without being able to take them home. While Bella does appreciate structure, it has to be on her own terms. She needs to be able to move, to obey the constant demands of her ever-whirring thoughts. Her attention is so intense when she is focused on an activity that it can be hard for her to just stop and move on to something new. People tend to misunderstand her; our greatest fear was seeing her written off by teachers as simply a wild, unruly brat that didn’t “listen”.
We discussed options. We considered sending her and crossing our fingers, being prepared to pull her out if she couldn’t handle it or we didn’t like the way they treated her. We were also prepared for the possibility that they may ask us to pull her out, or not accept her in the first place. We also considered keeping her home and sending her the following fall. While she would only have one year of preschool, maybe she needed the extra year at home to mature and learn how to control the intense emotions that sometimes overcome her.
We finally came to the conclusion that we would send her, and let her sink or swim on her own. Bella would loudly and clearly let us know whether or not she was ready for preschool. We said (doubtfully, but hopefully) that a year is a long time for a child in terms of growth and the amount of change they are capable of accomplishing. Bella might just surprise us in how much she matures between Fall 2011 and Fall 2012, we said, or she may be the same screaming, demanding, non-sleeping, cranky monster we were dealing with at the moment. We felt like we needed to at least give her a chance to succeed or fail, instead of deciding for her.
Living with a spirited child is like living with a ticking bomb: you learn pretty fucking fast how to avoid setting it off, and how to quickly diffuse it. There’s none of that “Which wire do I cut?” bullshit. You know exactly which phrases to avoid saying, what places to avoid visiting, what kinds of games, sounds, situations, and activities are going to cause a meltdown, what times of day you shouldn’t even bother making plans because they’ll just blow up in your face. So,after spending years of figuring out exactly how to handle this bomb, the idea of just tossing it to a group of strangers and walking away for two hours is terrifying. Easier to just stay home and deal with the tantrums without strangers watching and judging you. Easier still to avoid all the triggers in the world and just isolate them from the things that set them off. No tantrums, total control. Everyone’s happy.
But that’s not the real world. That’s not life. We’re supposed to raise our kids to become good, functioning adults. Like it or not, Bella is Bella, and that’s never going to change. She’s always going to be intense in every single way. The sooner she learns how to deal with that aspect of herself and figure out how to deal with a world filled with triggers and problems and disappointments, the quicker she’ll learn how to handle herself in a more socially acceptable way. I’m not saying she needs to conform or change who she is; I’m saying, for example, that she needs to learn that it’s not cool to endlessly scream at the top of her lungs when someone tells her she can’t play with something she really wants to play with. As Phaedra so eloquently puts it, “Bella needs to learn how to control her temperature.”
As it turns out, a year really is a long time in the world of a child. Bella has changed tremendously. She is so much more vocal, social, and interactive. Her sleep schedule has become more normal and predictable, and we’ve learned that Bella needs a) sleep, b) food, and c) structure (in that order) to help her be at her best. She’s still intense, but it’s like she’s learning how to work with it, and how to control it when she needs to. However, as we say in our house, she’s still Bella. We were more sure of our decision, but still nervous.
The preschool open house meeting went insanely well last spring, with only the smallest of meltdowns on the way out the door. Last week, we went to our first official class, a “meet and greet” session where the preschoolers and parents jump from table to table every five minutes while being interviewed by the high school voc-tech students that work in the classroom. So, constant disruption and strange people, which, you know, AWESOME.
Amazingly enough, it went well. Those high school kids just fell in love with her. “She’s so funny! She’s so silly! Wow, she’s her own little person, isn’t she?” Although I’m pretty sure I scared the shit out of the unfortunate kid who asked me, “How does she react when she’s angry?” when I looked her dead in the eye and said, “She screams. Loud.” Even the kooky parapro that always says slightly inappropriate things about the kids in the class said, “She’s just going to blossom this year.”
I took Bella to her first real class session the following week: no parents, just teachers. I watched that tiny enormous girl walk through the classroom door. Watched her freeze as she got to the circle of cushions on the floor, taking in all the kids sitting and staring at her. Watched her find her cushion, line her butt up perfectly with the orange triangle on the cushion, and plop down. Watched her nervously through the one-way glass of the parent observation room while she nonchalantly continued to eat the smooshed waffle I neglected to take from her before she went into the classroom. Watched her happily put her cushion away, eat at the snack table, and play with trucks like a normal kid.
Then she took off her pants in the middle of class when she couldn’t find the potty, and as I sprinted to the door of the classroom, I let out a little sigh of relief and thought, “Now there’s my girl.”