My daughter will turn five in July, but she’s still got those chubby little cheeks and arms and toes, that cute little protruding belly that one associates with toddlerhood. I still tend to view her as my baby, needing protection from the world.
I mean, until she started Conversational Spanish last week.
Her big brother saw a friend there—social animal that he is—impulsively asked to attend the camp. I didn’t mind as the group was small and I figured he could ease Buttercup smoothly into an unfamiliar situation. (The teachers had been coming to her preschool all spring, but the class set-up and location were new.) Both of my children would become fluent in Spanish and I would get the mornings to myself.
“Let’s ask Buttercup,” I said, for the sake of politeness.
“I want to go by myself,” she replied.
We stared at her in shock: Buttercup loves spending time with Felix. He makes virtually every activity at least double the fun. When we pick her up at preschool, she begs him to chase her and the other kids around on the playground. “There he is!” she screams in delight “It’s the Freezer! Run!”
On the other hand, he’d just gotten to attend an all-day horse camp the day before, and maybe she wanted emulate his savoir faire.
So we let her go and she had a great time. Alone.
Several days later when we showed up for Spanish, she was the only student; the others had taken ill.
“Um…I’m not sure if….” I hemmed and hawed, feeling that the focused attention of three exuberant Spanish teachers (two with doctorate degrees) might be hard for my little girl to handle. Although she is loud boisterous confident opinionated demanding at home, she can be intensely shy in public, wilting if a stranger speaks to her in the supermarket. For years she attended birthday parties under the cover of one of our shirts. (I don’t blame her; I’d often like do the same!)
Buttercup had already grasped the situation and tugging at my hand. I bent down and she whispered a word in my ear: “Sí.”
I relayed it to las maestras.
“Sí!” they cried jubilantly. “Bravo!”
Later when I looked in on her, all three teachers were gathered around her like acolytes as she read from a handmade Spanish book. She’d even adopted their Castilian lisp.
I texted her father: Apparently she likes the 3:1 ratio.
I was afraid of that, he texted back.
This sudden spurt of maturity might have been less remarkable if it hadn’t occurred in conjunction with another major event: Buttercup’s First Dance Recital.
For the previous nine months, she’d been attending a beginning class offered by a large non-profit agency in our neighborhood. While the “Dance Institute” sometimes seemed a bit uptight (strict dress code and attendance policies), they offered very affordable classes in a beautifully remodeled old theater with brightly-lit studios. We loved Buttercup’s teacher, who was exceptionally encouraging and kind.
Still, when I heard that rehearsals (tech and dress) for this performance were going to bite six hours out of our week, I balked. Is this really necessary? I wondered. Is this karmic payback for boycotting Miss Peggy’s dance showcase when I was twelve?
“She can do it next year,” I blithely decided. But my daughter insisted that she wanted to participate, and her father thought we should support her. I finally came around when he offered to divvy up the rehearsal shifts.
The day of the tech rehearsal I armed myself with a notebook and reading material and a bag of emergency snacks, prepared to make camp with the other stage moms in the hallway. When we arrived the place was more frenetic than usual–an ant pile under siege–with two hundred students (ages two to six ) scrambling to find newly-assigned studios. Buttercup was in a larger one with about sixty kids I’d never seen before. They all looked bigger, taller, older. I checked and re-checked the assignment. I asked where her teacher was. No one seemed to know.
About that time, the big, officious program director began whirling down the hallway like a motorized street-cleaner, trying to sweep parents out the door.
“This is a drop-off rehearsal, parents,” she broadcast loudly. “You’ll need to leave now!”
Huh? Nowhere in the intricate, six-page leaflet of instructions we’d received (rehearsal times, ticket purchasing, “How to Make a Perfect Bun”) had it mentioned that we were required to leave our children at rehearsals. I’d never left her before, and I wasn’t going to now. Especially when the place was in such chaos, and the only security measures in sight were a few sign-out sheets.
I raised my hand, trying to flag the woman’s attention. “May I ask a question?”
“At the front,” she barked. “There’s a long line ahead of you.”
“I’m not leaving her alone!” I declared in her wake.
Another mom caught my eye and nodded in solidarity. She said that she heard that their teacher was on the way. Her daughter was in the same class. The four of us went into the studio and sat down. It felt transgressive, like a sit-in.
Two young women were grouping the kids into different taped-off sections according to dances, but no one was doing any crowd control. The noise level was deafening. Little girls and boys laughing and screeching, dragging each other around. Someone was going to get hurt!
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked Buttercup for the fourth time.
She nodded solemnly. I could tell she wasn’t sure; she was attempting to be brave.
“It’s a three-hour rehearsal,” I explained. “That’s as long as preschool, you know, and they don’t want the parents to stay…”
“You can go, Mom,” she said, pushing me a little.
I shook my head and smiled. Maybe she was brave. But I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for this departure. (I mean, damn it, Kindergarten’s not until fall!) Besides, she had no idea what was in store for her: This was an Institute, after all, not a hand-selected preschool or a camp where we knew everyone by name. Here she was just a single tiny body in a mass of writhing black and pink leotards that had to be pressed into cohesive shapes on stage. I was loathe to abandon her—even for a second—in that pool of indifference.
“What if”—I didn’t want to scare her, just alert her to the possibilities—“you get nervous or bored or lonely?”
She shrugged. “I’ll get over it.”
I grinned. What pluckiness! What determination! What courage! I couldn’t help but to admire her. Then I had a radical thought: Maybe she’s not going to be like me at all. Maybe she’s inherited more of her father’s Eastern European Zen. Maybe I don’t have to worry about her so much. Relief washed over me like a tide.
“Okay,” I said, giving her a squeeze. “In a minute. I’ll go.”
I waited until the rest of her class had trickled in and the other mother had prevailed upon one of the assistants to sit down with our children. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote Buttercup a note with a big heart and a lot of little kisses, zipped it into the snack bag, and handed it over to her.
“Daddy will come and check on you,” I whispered. And then I hugged her goodbye.