Handprints

Virginia’s spring break began yesterday, so instead of scrambling to find a camp or a friend to take her for the day, I took her with me to my community college campus. When she was little—preschool little—she’d accompany me to school every day. Our campus is fortunate to have an excellent (and affordable) early learning program. It isn’t a daycare, but an actual preschool. She loved preschool and pre-K so much, she never wanted to leave, and when I would arrive to pick her up, she’d give me a quick hug and then return to finish her necklace made of noodles, or put the finishing touches on her sand castle, or continue work on her masterpiece made entirely of colored masking tape.

When I told her Wednesday that she’d be joining me the following day at Bucks, Virginia rolled her eyes. “Really, Mom? I get to spend my first day of spring break at school?” She had a point. I took her anyway.

She patiently put up with me taking her around the Language and Literature department and letting the faculty and staff ooh and aah at how tall she’s getting and grown-up she’s looking. She responded with lots of “Thank you,” and “Yes, it’s my first day of spring break,” and “Uh-huh,” followed by a smile. I dragged her to two classes and a meeting, with promises she could use her Kindle and iPod as much as she wanted and I’d buy her lunch at the cafeteria. In my literature class, when invited by one of the students, she even sat in with a small group, tasked with discussing questions about a short film on Southern writers, William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston.

Overall, she took the day like a champ, and I was proud of her. But she was ready to go by the end of it, ready to return to her world and escape mine. I know she doesn’t look at what I do and think, “Wow, I want to be a community college professor when I grow up!” Which is OK. That’s never been my intention. Actually, I had no ulterior motive in bringing her with me other than getting out of spending $95 for a day of camp at the Handwork Studio*. And I think these infrequent visits to college must demystify the experience for her. I hope so. I hope she sees college students as mostly engaged and curious, professors and staff as mostly friendly and knowledgeable.

So at the end of the day on our way to the car, we approached the Early Learning Center. “Isn’t that my old preschool?” Virginia asked. “Yep,” I answered. We paused just outside the front door. “Want to say hello?” She nodded, and as soon as we stepped foot inside the door, Miss Mary, Virginia’s pre-K teacher saw us and made a beeline. It was hard for Virginia to be too cool in the Early Learning Center and soaked in the room that had brought so many hours of happiness and learning into her world six years prior.

She melted when she saw Miss Mary and didn’t bother to tamp down her smile. The room looked the same. Miss Mary doesn’t seem to age. We marveled at her little 4-year-old handprints on the class of 2009 ceiling tile—a project where each student of the out-going pre-K class dips their hands in paint and presses their palms onto a tile that’s later affixed to the classroom ceiling. And I watched Virginia wrestle with feelings of both cozy nostalgia and being too big for the space. It was no longer hers in the way it was when we both drove up and down I-95 every day during the years she attended the ELC while I taught in the building next door. And I wonder, if I bring her back in another couple of years, will her handprints still be there? As long as they are, 4-year-old Virginia will always be in the Early Learning Center.

*The Handwork Studio, by the way, is FABULOUS—we’re huge fans. It’s the one place where the projects that VA makes, we actually keep and use, rather than keep for a little while and then surreptitiously toss while she’s at school.

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