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Almost every weekday morning, I awoke from a consuming sleep and lethargically stumbled into the bathroom. After managing to grip my toothbrush and pour my revoltingly minty toothpaste onto the painfully sharp bristles, I cleared my mouth of bacteria. I changed from functional nightwear into a fabulous Gap Kids sweatsuit and Reebok sneakers. Flanked by a parent and a babysitter, I left my midtown high-rise for an uptown brownstone – the Stephen Wise Preschool.
Preschool was the center of my world. It was the only place to which I had an allegiance; the only place that I really cherished. It was a place of assured regularity – a bastion of redeeming consistency. It was a place where I could pursue an independent path while receiving endless swathes of support. It was a place where I could socialize with peers, bond with tamed beasts (including a sea of goldfish and Bernard the Dalmatian), and have a few minutes of tranquility to myself.
More than anything else, preschool entertained me. Using nothing more than legos, I constructed suburban neighborhoods and bustling metropolises. For the weekly round of show-and-tell, I boasted about my newest contraptions, be it a police helicopter with flashing red lights, or a new backpack that could be both wheeled and carried. At lunchtime, I delved into the world of gastronomy, tossing Adam’s tuna salad into Danielle’s tub of raspberry gelatin. I watched Cookie the Turtle lay under under a halved, hollowed-out log, and observed Rufus the Hamster tirelessly shedding calories on his treadmill. Daniel Dolgicer the preschooler led a life of luxury. I was content, and I was cared for. I had no desire to expand my worldly lexicon; I wanted to be a preschooler for eternity. However, I was wise enough to know that my desire to be forever five could not be fulfilled.
June 1993: my morning routine began with a lethargic yawn and ended as I approached the Stephen Wise preschool, as usual. However, on this day, the Stephen Wise building – a large, imposing structure flanked by trees of oak and cedar and mahogany – was adorned with a wall of multicolored balloons. On this day, all my teachers were waiting outside of the school, shaking the hands of students, parents, and babysitters. On this day, a banner was lofted high above the Stephen Wise doorway: “Good Luck in Kindergarten!” Each letter was like a dagger to my five-year-old heart – they signified the conclusion of my career as a preschooler.
That last day of preschool was devoid of fun and flush with nostalgia. I would miss my peers – even the ones that didn’t share their cookies at snack time and pushed and shoved their way to the front of the bathroom line. I would miss my teachers: the petite and pleasant Carly; the morbidly obese Sandy; the supremely knowledgeable Wendy. I would miss Stephen Wise’s rigorous academia, whether it be sculpting silly putty in “science” or engaging in the weekly game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” On that last day of preschool, I was somber. When the clock struck three in the afternoon, I trotted to my impatiently waiting babysitter and began to shed tears. Not only was I overcome with sentiment, but I was also overcome with fear – fear that Kindergarten would present a continuous slew of challenges that would subsume me in a continuous cycle of failure.
The lore of preschoolers romanticizes the entry to kindergarten; it is a step akin to marriage and the ensuing production of babies – a step taken by many, but conquered by few. Kindergarten was a place where children were transformed into genuine students. It was a place where Barney the Dinosaur lunch boxes were strictly taboo; where children sat diligently and masterminded their strategy during rounds of Sesame Street Checkers; where children counted into the triple digits plainly for self-betterment. Kindergartners even confronted potential death with both frequency and flippancy: pupils microwaved alphabet soup without faculty assistance, cut oranges and lemons without acidifying their eyes, zippered their sweatshirts and jackets without blistering their fingers. Such freedom – foreign to the average preschooler – wase especially daunting to me.
The summer of 1993 was the pinnacle of mental moribundity. I would not wish such an experience on any man, no matter his constitution or moral fabric. Throughout the months of June, July, and August, I dreamt of the bygone. My mind – subsumed by good memories – was unhealthy; my body soon followed. I woke up at dawn and went to sleep well past dusk, yet I did nothing. I reclined for hours upon hours on the living room couch. I watched cartoons with pious diligence, developing quite an affinity for the Muppet Babies and Rugrats. Although my appetite had seen better days, I gulped my babysitter’s various soups and porridges. My desire to roam, my desire to learn, my desire to converse – they had been pilfered by time.
As the date of my kindergarten debut drew closer, I was gripped by nervousness. A jittery feeling deactivated my arms and legs. Tight knots in my stomach preyed upon my mood. My confidence was nonexistent – I feared that I would never be able to complete even the most basic requirements. I feared that each day of kindergarten would bring new pain – both mental and physical. Each day of kindergarten would reveal more of my inability. And so I spent the summer months in immobile isolation, fearing that I would make a mockery of the institution of kindergarten and the concept of education. As temperatures moderated with the collapse of August, my apprehension only bloated.
The time was September of 1993. As I trotted from bed to bathroom, I put on a superficial guise of contentness. In actuality, however, my heart thumped faster than that of a cheetah chasing its prey. The bags under my eyes protruded from my face, their deep purple hue unprecedented after a long night of sleep. I was nervous, because today I would navigate through uncharted terrain. Today I would meet new peers, obey new teachers, and engage in activities that I was heretofore unaware of. Today was the first day of Kindergarten.
Suited up, I departed my home with my usual escorts. However, my morning commute was far from ordinary. I boarded buses that I previously was unaware of (the M7), and navigated the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam Avenue – far from the isolated quaintness of the Stephen Wise School. As I approached the imposing 79th street mansion that housed the Rodeph Sholom Day School, I tightened my velcro sneakers and unbuttoned my yellow, suffocatingly puffy jacket (to convey that I was resilient, and I too could weather the winds of September). I triumphed over the last swathe of land between the mansion and me. Each step seemed like an eternity. Each step exponentially increased the intensity of my breaths. Each step drew me closer to Kindergarten.
I scaled the staircase, which led to a gargantuan oak door, polished to perfection. The door opened, and Alejandro – the cheerful security guard with a 6’5 frame and amiable disposition – directed me to the kindergarten classrooms with a crisp point of the finger. He did not know me, he couldn’t have, yet he felt that I was a newcomer. He witnessed the methodical thought to which I afforded each move, and heard the subtle nervousness in my voice when I wished my escort goodbye.
I slowly thumped my way towards room 203B – my new daytime domain. As I glanced inside the classroom for the first time, I was awestruck. Bright orange plastic chairs corralled octagonal tables. The walls were plastered with the writings and drawings of past pupils. The bookshelves, adorned by seemingly countless collections of covers, rose like canyons above the neatly carpeted valleys. There was even a quasi-convention center where students would congregate to discuss community issues. The floors were chaotically covered by a tumult of board games, paints, utensils. And then there it was – the microwave, my achilles heel – comfortably sitting atop the kitchen counter. My inability to read, write, paint, and live as a Kindergartner was suddenly shoveled into the back of my mind. Come lunchtime, I would seek food, yet I would find only incineration.
A teacher greeted me, chirping, “Welcome to Kindergarten!” I remained silent, yet she ushered me into the thick of the classroom. She debuted me to the student body, twenty-two strong. “My name is Daniel,” I said shyly, my cheeks turning the hue of tomato paste. The crowd sloppily dispersed, and I followed a curly-haired youth (whose name lingers in anonymity) to back of the classroom.
I froze. My jaw dropped. My eyes became hazel pools of unabashed nostalgia and excitement. An ocean of legos pervaded the floor, their boxes literally scotch-taped to the wall. I dove into the plastic dunes, suddenly oblivious to the conundrums of Kindergarten. I began to put block atop block, building beside building. Within minutes, a city center had surfaced. I was proud, I was radiant, I was optimistic. Kindergarten was not so foreign to me, after all.
The self-inflicted adversity of the summer months proved to be misguided. My adaptation to kindergarten was seamless: synthetic leather jackets replaced bibs, fancy cutlery replaced plastic spoons and edgeless knives, crisp diction replaced lingering lisps. Although I loathe change, my experience as a kindergartner taught me not to fear it. Time cannot be stalled, and change must be embraced. Although my rhetoric is nearly always pessimistic, I subconsciously know that the road of life is a road of constant self-betterment.
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