Friday, June 8, 2012

An Open Letter to the Cooperative Preschool, or How I Killed the Chick

Greetings, all. The following is a long winded explanation of my recent failure with the preschool chick. 

I’ve spent the better part of four years now juggling the happiness of my small children. There are so many little joys along the way; those moments that light a child’s face and also light a fire in your own heart. These pieces of magic, this fire, these sparkling eyes; even these are not enough to keep a person happy and settled. There is a delicate balance of self, a personal division between the child and caregiver. It is a juggling act I have not mastered, only watched in amazement.

For this reason, my hat is off to the preschool moms that I watch every day, balancing the emotional lives of their children with rigors of everyday life. I think most of them even take showers before coming in. I have made this comment many times – I find working with other parents in our co-op setting very humbling, because they seem to remain such effective and focused people.  

I never consider what our life might be like without the Co-op Preschool. Not that I take it for granted, but it was a gut decision. The boy was six months old, and I thought to myself, “Maybe we should find someplace for him to GO and DO and BE around other kids?” I had tried the Parks and Rec, the Library groups, the Stay-at-home-Dad meetups, but I felt that my child needed something with more genuine interaction. And so, one February we went to the Co-op open house. Jude was six months old, and started when he turned one. I always say that we found Co-op, but the Co-op really found us.

But back to the reality at hand. We have had a lot of change in the Cornett household this year. We moved houses, the children are growing and changing, and our parenting is changing too. I’ve got to keep ahead of these guys. Last week at the Library a woman observed my children for awhile and then remarked to me in a stern voice, “Your children are really very smart. You’re going to need to challenge them.” It was a warning, not a compliment.

This is something else to love about our co-op preschool community. No one would ever say this to me. There is no measurement, or ridiculous pressure about kindergarten preparation. It is also true that no one would point out when one of my children is at one end of the bell curve for his tantrums, his rough play, or his reluctance to wash his hands. As one parent said to me, “It’s just not very Co-op.” I think it is in this setting that I have finally understood the word community. It means accepting everyone at exactly where they’re at. It’s like understanding that the world is a varied and diverse place.

My children do have a unique set of needs for their development. Linden and I study, and consider, and try new things to build confidence and growth for our little ones. Last winter we ran across an idea in a Positive Parenting book about building “an increased sense of significance.” I can’t tell you what changes this phrase has brought about. It turns out that much of Jude’s misbehavior can be circumvented by giving him opportunities to DO and BE things by himself. Put on his own clothes. Make his own breakfast. Plant his own seeds. And then the next and logical step is that he is interested in doing things for OTHERS. The kid is honestly very helpful. He sets the table, carries the laundry, chops the carrots. He is increasingly assisting in the care of his sister. When Ada’s two-year-old stubbornness begins to arise, I can always count on Jude to explain to her why she has to wear a jacket today.  

We don’t have any pets in our house, but this spring has begun the year of the chicken. Grandma has a nice place in Vancouver, Washington, and she has been considering chickens for some time now. Several forces have been converging to make this happen. And then the preschool got their eggs in the incubator. Marcia said they needed a home, and I thought they might be added to the yet-to-be-started  Grandma flock. Only three chicks hatched. We offered to take them.

Last month I began building a coop in Grandma’s backyard. I did some research, cleared some space, bought some materials, and got after it. I’m really not much of a carpenter, but I do like a good project. Construction gives me a sense of accomplishment, and so I began to build a first-rate chicken house. Grandma got her own small flock of 8 chicks, which were far too stinky to be kept in the living room so they were soon relegated to the garage with some lamps on them. Jude was in charge of counting them, several times a day. With Grandma’s eight and Co-op’s three, the total would be ELEVEN. “Dad, what’s eight plus three?” ELEVEN.  

I thought this would be one of the things that gave Jude and Ada a sense of importance. The chicks were coming HOME with us. We were going to bring them to Grandma’s house and watch them grow and feel that connection to our co-op community, the backyard chicken coop and the eggs on the table. My kids were excited. But then Riley’s family is moving to a house with an actual chicken coop, not one that I am building on Fridays. [ I worried about this, but only in the sense that my children would be disappointed. I should have been worried about the weak ones here. I should have been worried about the chicks.]  At any rate, I came up with a compromise; we would take ONE chick up to Grandma’s house. Riley could take the remaining TWO chicks home to his own house. Jude had only one requirement. He wanted THE ONE WITH THE SHARPEST CLAWS. Eight plus one is NINE.

Last Thursday was the Day of the Chick. It was also the day I came down with a raging 24-hour stomach flu that kept me up all night and calling for shift coverage in the morning. I dragged myself and the kids to school for Bike Day, and then crawled back home to sleep off the morning. I made sure to wake up in time to do a few small tasks of CHICK PREPARATION before returning to school for the kids. I found a box. I filled the bottom with newspaper and yard debris dirt. Then I went to the garage and pulled down my shop lights with aluminum reflectors. I fitted them with 100 watt bulbs to keep our little chick friend nice and warm. And then I went off to school. I might have had a mild fever. Chicken fever.

I felt a pang of guilt on the day that we removed this little chick from her sisters. I couldn’t get a hold of her, and one of the shift Dads had to do it for me. She CHEEPED loudly and nestled in to the little box for warmth. We got a little cup of chick food and put it in the box. She tried to flap up and out, but we covered her with Jude’s warm coat and loaded her into the car. Jude wanted to play on the grass, but I warned him that we had a RESPONSIBILITY to get the chick home, set up in the house where she would be WARM. He agreed, and we raced home, making chick sounds in the car, all four of us, and giggling.

Home to our new house, we found a spot for little chick in the living room. Let me say here that the plan was to keep our little chick for ONE NIGHT, and then deliver the chick to Grandma’s house first thing on Friday. Jude and Ada helped me prepare the spot. We found an extension cord and plugged in our lights, but the chick kept CHEEPING and JUMPING so we covered the box with various materials to keep her from running around the living room. I was concerned that she would be too cold, without the body heat from her chicken sisters. Eventually, we settled on covering the box, and lights, with a blanket. This was not my finest hour. Jude sat down in front of a show, and I packed Ada off to her room for a nap. I returned fifteen minutes later to check on the chick. There was no more CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP coming from the box.   

It was this moment that I realized something about parenting. It is not for cowards. When you start bringing home baby chicks, it means we’ve moved up from the minor leagues and into the big game. We’re talking about life and death now, with winners and losers, joys of victory and real tragedy. We’re talking about dreams lost and rebuilt, the buoyancy of life, and the thrill of the game. This is suddenly a very different level of play.

Jude was in the room, and wanted to see, so we both examined what remained of the chick. She was dead, and there was nothing to do but give her a short funeral in the backyard. Jude came out for this warily, but I dug the hole and we said nice things about her and how sorry that it didn’t work out and next time we’ll be more careful with little animals. We also made sure to point out that it was an accident, and all Dad’s fault, and that it was okay to be sad, and that we’d have to tell Grandma that we weren’t bringing her a chick after all. Eight plus zero equals eight. “Now can I go back to watching Wild Kratts, Dad?”

There is no question that I am having a hard time with this. There was something about the sudden and surprising death of this little creature that brings to mind the fragile and innocent lives of my own children. Every day I am charged with the health, hygiene, activity, and upbringing of the Jude Chicken and the Ada Chicken. Some days I feel woefully unprepared for this task.

It is with my deepest regrets that I report this story to you, my co-op community and friends. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic, or self-centered, or just silly. I know that you all respect and support me, and will probably not call me “Chicken-Killer”, at least to my face. The accidental death of one of the pre-school chicks [THE ONE WITH THE SHARPEST CLAWS] does not reflect on my parenting, or my commitment to our children, or our community. Writing this letter to all of you has given me some chance to deal with my own chicken guilt. Needless to say, I am very, very sorry about what happened. Please accept this ridiculously long letter as my sincere apology.

Let me just conclude with this. To those of you families with outgoing pre-schoolers – it has been an absolute pleasure to be parents with you in our cooperative setting. To our teachers, thank you thank you thank you for inspiring my children to learn new things about the world and themselves. And to the rest of you, it looks like you’re stuck with me for the next few years of cooperative parenting, child rearing, and animal husbandry. 

- Daddy Ben