If you were to peek into my house on any weekday morning between the years of 2008 and 2013, you’d see an elderly woman, sitting on her walker, leaning over a much-stained kitchen table, maybe talking with a toddler while gently rocking a baby carrier. Always cold, she’d have at least two or three layers on, and she’d jack the heat up to 75 degrees the minute I walked out the door, most of the time remembering to put it back down to my thrifty 68 degrees before 3:00 when I’d return. The toddler is using pretzel letters to spell her and her baby brother’s name. When this grows old, the toddler gets watercolors from a bookshelf of supplies. There is paint, play dough, glitter, rolls of paper, beads, pipe cleaners, glue sticks and yarn. The chatter is constant. Christine, my mother-in-law, taught both my children until they went to school, providing what we called “Nana Pre-School.”
If you were to ask my kiddos what Nana Pre-School was like, they both have very specific memories. My daughter remembers the crafts, learning to knit and the many, many books they read together. She remembers a game they played called “Let’s take a trip.” They’d sit side by side, and they’d take turns describing the scenery they made up as they drove along their imaginary roads. My son remembers dictating Star Wars stories to Nana so she could print them out for him to illustrate. He also remembers learning to play Solitaire on the computer. Nana also helped him build supports for his train tracks out of empty paper towel rolls, allowing him to create structures that were taller than him and spanned my living room, eventually ending up on the kitchen table.
Both of my children remember very clearly the last few months leading up to kindergarten. Nana explained to them the importance of our country’s flag and the symbolism of the stars and stripes, and then they practiced the Pledge of Allegiance every day until they could recite it themselves. After lunch each day, they were supposed to take a nap. This didn’t actually happen most of the time, but Nana made them practice lying very still on a mat to get ready for kindergarten. They didn’t sleep, but instead listened to her “stories” (aka The Young and the Restless) for an hour. After the shows were over, Nana Pre-School reconvened with cleanup because “Mumma” was coming home. With her New England accent, she’d convince them to put everything back in their spots and to set out all the things they had to show me on the kitchen table.
It is no wonder that my daughter, Zoey, describes the table in a recent poem this way:
My kitchen table is an icon of my childhood.
I had the same table for 13 years and hopefully going forward too.
A stunning piece of artwork, made by the finest craftsmen.
You’d ask, where’d you buy it?
Who made it?
As long as I can remember, I spent mornings mounding my feelings into
Play-Doh, painting pictures of my dreams and throwing glitter like confetti.
And it all landed on the kitchen table.
You can still see it, and I can usually tell you which paint mark is from
which picture, from which grade.
My kitchen table is a mess.
A grand mess of memories.
And it’s because of those memories that I don’t mind that much.
Because every table has a story.
You can buy a pre-written, predictable fairytale.
But we . . .
We wrote its story for ourselves.
Christine Chandler, the sole proprietor of Nana Pre-School, passed away last week, just as my husband was finishing his college degree (you can read his story here, but be forewarned, I can’t read it without ugly crying). As we’ve grieved over the last few days, we keep coming back to the fact that our children’s earliest ideas about the world were formed sitting at the kitchen table with a master teacher, one who listened to them like the amazing little people they were, imagined with them their futures, and engaged them with learning based on their interests and passions. She was all in, and that is the kind of teacher we should aspire to be.