I'll admit it. Before this week, I had a preconceived notion of preschools that wasn't entirely fair.
The picture in my mind was of a pack of screaming children, running amok and causing each of the adults in the room to pull out their hair in clumps.
With no kids of my own, the only experiences I ever have with children of that age come at places such as Wal-Mart, where it seems as though I'm always in line behind a screaming one. Children are everywhere in our society - restaurants, grocery stores, concerts, everywhere. And it seems to me that they're always doing something that causes me to bubble with rage.
With those feelings deeply ingrained, I was somewhat apprehensive when I booked my January edition of Dave Does.
Cathy Byrne, First Covenant Church Preschool director, was gracious in accepting my call and offering me a role in a day in the life of the preschool's staff. Had she known my prejudice coming in, however, she may not have been so accepting.
I later learned that Cathy was a bit taken aback when I took her aside during a break between classes Monday and expressed my shock that 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds could be so well-behaved, so patient and so conscientious of one another. What I discovered during my day at the preschool on Spring Street was a group of little ones who were among the most delightful people I have ever met.
The major project students at First Covenant Church Preschool participated in during my visit was painting. Despite my concerns, all the paint stayed on the paper and off my clothing. What resulted was a delightful display of artwork of which the little ones were proud, and from which they learned an important lesson about colors as well.
P-J?photos by Aimee Frederick
No one talked back. There was rarely a raised voice, and when there was, it was cute. Children played with toys together in perfect harmony, with no fights over who had what first. And most interesting to me, they paid close attention to everything the staff members said and treated them with respect.
It was enlightening, heartwarming and opinion-changing. I couldn't help but leave there after my four-hour stint with a wholly different viewpoint on what children are capable of. I also learned, however, that it takes a great deal of preparation, an understanding of the mindset of a child, and a dedicated staff to make a day at a preschool go off without a hitch.
GOOD DAY, CHILDREN
I arrived at First Covenant Church early Monday morning with wide eyes and a willingness to tackle whatever task was handed to me. I found Cathy in the classroom, monitoring a dozen 4- and 5-year-olds along with aide Amy Shafer.
When I entered the class, children were enjoying some free time in every corner of the spacious room. A few little boys and girls were playing make-believe in a playhouse set up on one side of the room, others were fully immersed in a large stack of plastic blocks spread out on a rug in another corner, and others still were seated at tables playing games with brightly colored wooden blocks representing different shapes and numbers.
Cathy called out to the little ones that it was time to put away their toys. I quickly discovered that this experience was going to be nothing like I expected, as the children immediately and without protest put their toys down and headed over to the corner of the room where their teacher was sitting, placing themselves onto a rug and looking up at her in preparation for the beginning of the day's instruction.
After the ''Good Day Song,'' in which the children were engaged in moving about and greeting one another to start the morning, Cathy asked them to greet their guest for the day, Mr. Emke. Twelve little hands waved toward me, accompanied by a chorus of ''Hi, Mr. Emke!'' I waved back in my normal sheepish way.
Every portion of the day at First Covenant Church Preschool is maximized to ensure students are learning, I observed right away. Even a simple task such as attendance was a learning experience, as each student's name is printed upon a flashcard and they are encouraged to take note of which letters make up their names. After attendance was completed, children counted up the number of students present and the number absent, and were asked to find those numbers from a stack.
The class then flowed seamlessly into its next stage, as I helped Cathy set half the students up with their project for the day - painting - and Ms. Shafer took the other students elsewhere in the room for structured playtime. When I asked her about the smooth transitions later, Cathy told me it is the help of her dedicated staff members that truly makes everything work as well as it does.
''What makes it so cohesive and flow so well is that I have a wonderful staff,'' she said. ''I don't have to micromanage, I don't have to multitask as much as I might (otherwise) have to.''
I was a member of the staff for those few hours Monday, and Cathy was a very encouraging boss. She had me right in there right away, helping to fill up rinse cups and dole out paintbrushes for the project. One of the first students I helped looked up at me and said, ''Thank you, Mr. Empty.''
I don't know what amazed me more - the impeccable manners of this 4-year-old, or the fact that she already remembered my name ... sort of. Either way, I couldn't help but melt just a little bit as I chuckled and began helping her push her paintbrush into the colors.
When Cathy first told me on the phone that the students would be working with paint during my visit, I was both excited and nervous. And the reason for both feelings was the same.
Given my predisposed opinion of what I was going to be encountering, I expected that paint was going to be flying all over the place as children flailed about and we attempted to keep them on task. Therefore, I was excited for what that would bring to this article - speaking both in terms of content and in terms of potential videos for the website. I was also nervous, though, because it meant my clothes would probably be ruined and my wife would kill me.
Once again, however, I had underestimated the behavior of the children immensely.
Six at a time at the painting station they sat, sharing paint with classmates and focusing intently on their little masterpieces.
My job here was to make sure their blocks of paint didn't get too sullied, to keep their rinse water fresh, and basically to root the young artists on as they created their work.
As students were only given primary colors - red, blue and yellow - with which to work, along with white, interesting things happened when colors such as orange, green and purple started appearing in their artwork. Cathy simply asked, ''Where did that color come from?''
Sharp as tacks, the little ones were quick to realize that mixing two primary colors creates a new color. Sharp as a tack myself, I was quick to realize that I could copy Cathy's technique to use as an icebreaker for some neat conversations with the children.
Whenever I noticed a child commenting on a color - be it on the page or even in the rinse water - I would engage him or her in that very conversation. I was impressed by how quickly the students took to me, and perhaps even more so by how quickly I took to them.
They told me about what they were painting, who they were going to give their paintings to, which color was their favorite - everything that came into their minds came out of their mouths. And all the while, they were swiping their brushes across their papers, each with a different style, making paintings that looked like little Jackson Pollocks.
Absolutely adorable, every last one of them. And seeing them learn, watching them experiment with the paint and discover different techniques, was a sight to behold.
Just before I left that afternoon, Cathy told me that in more than 20 years on the job, she couldn't think of a single day she woke up wishing she didn't have to come to work. I could definitely see why she would feel that way.
GETTING COMFORTABLE IN MY ROLE
After I had assisted with the painting project for a while, Ms. Shafer and I took a group of students over to the preschool's playroom, where I was quickly roped into a game of basketball with a young boy named Jaden.
Jaden's grasp of the rules of scoring wasn't complete. My baskets only counted for one, while his seemed to count for as many as 60. I'm pretty sure he also was guilty of charging more than once, but the non-existent ref didn't call it.
While Jaden and I hooped it up, the girls in the room balanced on beams, rode the teeter-totter and tossed balls among themselves. The play period only lasted a few minutes, but it was enough to recharge our batteries and get us ready for more learning and mind-development ahead as the morning progressed.
Upon our return to the classroom, Cathy instructed me to prepare the tables for snack time. I carefully prepped the eating area before setting out handfuls of Teddy Grahams and cups of apple juice. While I was doing so, Cathy was teaching the students about opposites through a fun game involving hula hoops.
As the little ones enjoyed their mid-morning snack, Cathy instructed me to enjoy the mid-morning break - it represented the only few minutes we'd get to take a breather, she said.
It didn't take long until one by one, piles of Teddy Grahams disappeared and cups of apple juice had been emptied. Students cleaned up after themselves - nearly all without needing to be reminded - and began to grab books off a shelf in the corner to enjoy a brief independent reading time.
Some were content to sit on the floor and flip through books themselves, enjoying the pictures and commenting to one another upon what they saw. Others wanted to be read to, as I soon discovered when a young boy approached me with a title called ''Mouse Goes To School.''
I read a few pages, pointing at pictures and listening to his comments about the story and its title character's antics. I looked up and saw Ms. Shafer doing the same with another book and a few other interested students, and I knew I was doing right in my temporary role as classroom helper.
The true treat for kids came a few minutes later, however, when another class joined us along with its teacher, Maureen Beresford. She enthralled the entire group with a reading of the book ''Little Blue and Little Yellow,'' a story of how two little spots of color discover through their friendship that they can make a new color, green.
I was intrigued with how the book played in so well with what we had been talking about during the painting project, and when I asked Cathy about it later, she told me that she and Maureen plan their lessons together to ensure that students in both classes can work together and get the most out of every potential learning experience.
''I can call or text her, even on a weekend or night, and say, 'I just had an idea - what do you think?''' Cathy said. ''I have books, she has books that support (our projects) ... and sometimes it's kind of spooky, because we'll be in the same place even when we haven't talked about it.''
It just seems to come naturally to them, I gathered. But I was nonetheless impressed. These students are in good hands.
Given all the adults present in the room that morning - the two teachers; Ms. Shafer and two other aides, Anne Findlay and Iza Nowak; me; and Aimee, my editor/photographer - we split into groups and had a rousing rendition of ''Old McDonald Had A Farm'' with the students, each encouraging them to sing and make the animal noises. My group of little boys were the cows, and did an excellent job mooing when our turn came around.
After Maureen's class left, we shared another story and a little more play before the time came to say goodbye. Just as we'd sang the ''Good Day Song'' at the beginning of the day, we sang ''Goodbye Friends'' to close our time together. Just before parents arrived to pick their little ones up and take them away, though, I had a chance to hear a couple tell Cathy just how much preschool means to them.
One young boy told her that he prays for her sometimes. Another chimed in to say that he says that he gives thanks for his teacher.
It was the kind of unscripted moment that should be written in a Hallmark card for teachers, or patched onto some piece of quiltwork for them. When I asked Cathy about it later, she said that the true connection between the preschool and its children is part of what makes it so rewarding to her.
''When the children go home, I don't think preschool's done or that they don't think about it or talk about it until it's time to come again,'' she said. ''We deliberately develop a relationship with the families, not just because it helps us teach the children better, but because we truly care about those families.''
Aimee and I stuck around for a portion of the afternoon class as well - doing a little more painting, a little more playing, and having the chance to sit in on a visit from the Rev. Adam Rohler of the church, who sang a fun song for the children and read them a story.
Just as the children aren't done with preschool when they go home, we haven't stopped talking about it since. For an entire week at work, we've found ourselves suddenly talking about something cute one of the children said, or referencing a lyric from one of the songs we sang during our visit, or contemplating the deeper meaning behind some of those abstract paintings we saw created that day.
The children at First Covenant Church Preschool learn a lot every day they visit, that's clear. But I learned a lot in my one day there as well. My preconceived notion of what goes on in such environments was shattered, and it only took 29 years for me to learn that simple truth. I can't imagine how much else in life I'm completely wrong about.
These 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, under such careful guidance, will be surpassing me in no time.