Authors: Kim Golden
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
"Children should be well-rounded," was Nan's final point on the matter. And our Lily, who neither attends French-immersion play dates nor dance lessons at the Pennsylvania Ballet's children's school, is apparently woefully behind when compared to the rest of Nan's friends' grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"If you don't like it there, then you can go to school with Corey and Moesha," I say, hoping this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The brochure from the country day school still makes me cringe. The glossy pictures of preternaturally happy and perfect children, all blonde and blue-eyed like some über-youth propaganda, in their expensive-looking clothing in classrooms so pristine they were more like film sets didn't thrill me. When I first opened it I scanned the photographs for a brown face, hoping Lily wouldn't be the token black there. Thankfully, there were two--but they were so perfect I wondered where my Lily who didn't like playing with dolls and who preferred digging in dirt and finding worms would fit in.
Our arrival at the school is fortuitously at the same time when the other preschoolers are outdoors for recess. Familiar nursery songs like "One-Two Buckle My Shoe" and "Miss Mary Mack" drift to us over the swish of passing cars on Germantown Avenue. The off-tune clang of a trolley bell plants this gothic-looking edifice firmly in reality. Like most buildings in Chestnut Hill this school looks slightly out of place. Maybe it's because it pretends to be something it isn't--old and rooted in the city's history. From the cornerstone I see the school has only been in existence ten years, but the building with its mottled stone façade and stained glass windows would have you believe it was brought over brick-by-brick from the Old Country. And the pretense forces me to smile.
John isn't there yet. I didn't think he would be, though I'd hoped his meeting with his agent would end early. He handles these situations much better than me. He grew up with all the trappings of his family's position as a given. For me, it's a burden that I gladly ignore. Neither of us enjoys the times when we have to accompany his grandmother to social functions but we do it because we have to. I beg off when I can. Today there was no way of weaseling out of it.
Lily peers around, her small hand gripping mine so tightly I want to turn tail and run down the street as fast as I can with her in my arms. Maybe she's thinking the same thing because she whispers, "Can't we go back to the street with the ice cream parlor instead?"
"It won't take long, sweetie," I promise. "We'll just look around and meet the head teacher, and then we can meet Nana for lunch."
Lily mutters a barely audible "okay". Her reluctance gladdens me just a teensy bit.
An officious looking woman in her late thirties clips her way toward us. She's wearing a sharp-lapeled dress suit the color of charcoal and black leather pumps, more boardroom than lunchroom. Her wavy brown hair has been cut in an unflattering bob at odds with the sharp angles of her face. She's giving us a thorough once-over, which annoys me. When she is close enough she introduces herself as Ms. Lowenstein and says to Lily, "You must be our new pupil."
"I'm just visiting," Lily states. "Then I'm having lunch with Nana and Daddy and Mama."
Ms. Lowenstein titters and pats Lily's shoulder with the tips of her fingers. "Of course you are." Then she focuses on me and asks, "Are Lily's parents coming later for the tour?"
"I am Lily's mother," I say in an even voice.
"I'm sorry--I didn't mean anything--"
"Her father's coming a bit later," I cut her off before she trips over any more words.
But she glances from me to Lily, and I know what she is thinking. It isn't the first time someone has assumed that I am the nanny though I think my daughter and I are so alike that everyone should never question our relationship. Lily has my dark eyes, my nose and mouth. She even has my wild hair. From John she has inherited his honey skin and the cadre of her voice. Her smile is quick and charming, liker her father's. She breaks into silly dances whenever the mood strikes her and bites the tip of her tongue when she's thinking. She is so much our child that John often muses he cannot remember when she wasn't in our lives. And yet there is always someone who cannot believe she is ours.
"You have a lovely child," Ms. Lowenstein says. She pulls her lips into a tight smile.
I nod. "Thank you."
"Ellie Ballantine speaks highly over her."
How long will this take, I wonder. Lilly shifts from one foot to the other and shimmies. Does she need the toilet? Sometimes she does this when she's bored, is a spontaneous dance coming? Not everyone appreciates her bursts of dancing. Nan always tries to persuade Lily to sit still
"Shall we start the tour then?" Ms. Lowenstein asks now that she's recovered from her momentary lapse of foot-in-mouth. She clears her throat and gestures with her right arm like a game show hostess presenting coveted prizes.
She leads us through the main building, pointing out the various classrooms for the older children as well as the lunchroom (which she calls a 'dining hall') and cloakroom. Everything is pristine, just like in the brochure. It is almost too surreal just how perfect this school is with its shiny floors and paneled corridors. The lemony smell of furniture polish hangs in the air. She chirps on, her raspy voice swelling each time she mentions the Biddles or the Greenfields and their generosity as she informs me of the school's various patrons and how my daughter will fit in. Is she wondering how generous the Cavannaughs will be? Does she assume we'll endow a new set of playground equipment, like the Rowlings, or pay for the renovation of the preschool reading room, which Nan has already mentioned?
Lily lets go of my hand and skips ahead. My thumb rubs the spot where her hand has been, still warm and damp. I dread the day when she'll no longer want to be hugged or called "sweetie" or hold her arms out and ask for a kiss. My daughter stops and, over her shoulder, tells me, "They have rabbits here!"
"That's right, Lily," says Ms. Lowenstein in that soothing voice teachers around the world must use, "and we have guinea pigs and fish too."
For a moment, my daughter looks so much like her father. She tilts her head to one side as if considering the possibility of having rabbits and guinea pigs and fish in one place. The momentary glow of bliss spreads over her face and she bites her lower lip. Has it happened now? Is she so enchanted with this school she's forgotten about Corey and Moesha? Then Lily shrugs and says, "It's lunchtime soon. Can we go to Nana's now?"
"Soon, sweetie, we'll just finish the tour and then we'll be on our way."
Ms. Lowenstein clears her throat again and asks me if Lily has learned to read yet.
"She's making progress," I say. Lily already knows how to read but I don't want to share this information, at least not with this woman. Every night we take turns reading pages from her favorite book,
Ferdinand the Bull
. She thinks Ferdinand is a little like her father, since he also prefers sitting in the shade of trees sleeping and sniffing flowers.
We walk along a path to the building housing the preschool classes. The young teachers and their charges are in the play area. I am introduced to the teachers, all of whom are younger than me, with names like Megan and Poppy and Cassie. They are slender and pretty, all-American girls clad in hip-hugging cropped chinos and pastel sweaters reminiscent of a J.Crew catalog. They gush over Lily but she sticks close to me. She peers at the other children running around the schoolyard. She grimaces then whispers to me, "There's nobody here who looks like Moesha."
By the time John turns up the tour is nearly over. He meets us just as we've arrived at the classroom that will be Lily's if we decide to send her here. Ms. Lowenstein shakes his hand and gives John an appraising look, which he ignores as he comes to my side. We kiss, a quick kiss that promises more later, and then John says, "Where's my sweet Lily?"
Lily abandons the Lego set she's been playing with when she hears her father's voice. She runs over to him and attaches herself to his leg. He picks her up and kisses her nose.
"Do you want to go to school here?" he asks her.
She shakes her head no.
"Then it's settled, let's go to lunch," John says with a grin.
"I can assure you Lily would receive a top-notch education here," Ms. Lowenstein says, training her attention on John. "We believe in a multicultural learning environment."
"I haven't seen much evidence of that," I reply. From the large picture window we can see out to the grounds. In the preschool group, there are no black children, nor are there any Hispanics. There is one Asian child. None of the staff appear to be from another ethnic group or culture. How multicultural can they be?
No matter what Nan or Ms. Lowenstein think, Chestnut Hill Country Day School is not where I want my child. That John feels the same gladdens me. We climb into our Mini and drive to Nan's house. Lily hops up and down in the backseat, singing along with John as he maneuvers the car along Bridle Path Lane.
This is how it should be, I tell myself, and then I join in the song.
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