by Cathy Reilly
Mischa, speaking only Russian, clung to his mom for dear life. Erin wanted Laura’s shiny shoes. Joey went right to the toy cars as if he had been at school for years and Mary started a water color picture. Story time lasted five minutes with the notion of being in a group still so new.
Every September, 12 of these two and a-half to three year olds enter our classroom. They bravely say good-bye to their parents and it begins.
I get to know these little people, what excites them, troubles them and comforts them. Each one, over the 20-plus years I have been at the school, has taught me something new. Through their eyes, I see a world of hope and possibility.
St. Paul’s is a small school, with two classrooms and a staff or four. It is a community of respect and care where imaginations flourish. In this safe environment there is room for lots of physical, emotional and intellectual risk.
They can build a castle with a moat, or an ocean with sailboats using the sand and water on the playground. In the classroom, little firemen can build an elaborate fire station.
They cook, mix colors, watch plants grow, paint and draw and most importantly, play with one another, navigating the give-and-take of living and working.
They come to know one another, and really, themselves. One child might knock down the building another just constructed. Toys are grabbed, feelings hurt, and toes stepped on. The sincere “I am sorry” and the “Please may I play with…” or “Let’s take turns” become victories. The absolute pleasure on the faces of children playing dress up, dancing, hugging and laughing together can be pure bliss.
By the time May rolls around, Erin quietly says to Laura, “I love your shoes” and she replies with a big smile, “Thank you.” We all learn some Russian customs and vocabulary and Mischa learns English and some of our customs. Over the years we have had children from our country as well as many others including France, Japan, Slovakia, Norway, Sweden, Germany, India, Brazil, China and Peru.
Story time, by the spring, can sometimes be 20 minutes. Joan asks why the billy goats just don’t circle around or go to another bridge as we tell the Three Billy Goats Gruff story. Juan loves to sing “Baby Beluga” and Jeremy’s favorite is still “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They all love the feeling that they now have another family, their school family.
We are the first school experience for many. It is a responsibility and an opportunity. We shape their sense of what is possible as they come together to learn more about their world. In their second year, they will move on to more complicated projects and the wonderful world of being four years old. Seeing them grow up, perform in school plays, go on to elementary, middle, high school and even college is the benefit of the great stability of this school and this neighborhood.
The school has given a start to generations of Forest Hills children for 45 years. It is located across the street from Murch Elementary in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 3600 Ellicott Street NW.
For 22 years, Cathy Reilly has been a teacher at St. Paul’s Nursery School, a morning program for children ages two and a-half to four years old. In the afternoons, she is the Executive Director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.).