It was hard to know which of us was most looking forward to Stephen’s first day at kindergarten; himself or me.
“I’m going to kindergarten!” he announced to anyone who telephoned us or visited. As the day drew closer, we went to the shops and picked out a hand-towel, a face-washer, a tooth-brush, soap, and a bag to hold them in.
“I’m going to kindergarten!” he told the shop assistant.
“What are you going to do at kindergarten?”
“Play on swings and slides, make sand castles. And there’s a big, big tree, and I’m going to climb it. And there’s a big tank with fish!”
That afternoon I sewed a nametag on to Stephen’s new hand-towel and face-washer, while he danced around me chattering about what he was planning to do. In his excitement, he began running over the furniture. I lifted him down off the table.
“Kindergarten boys don’t run on tables and chairs,” I admonished him. “Kindergarten boys sit nicely on the chairs. Show me how quietly you will sit on your chair when Mrs Anderson is reading a story.”
He sat down, but the excitement showed in his arching back and wriggling body. He was trying hard to control it, but I could see what an effort it was.
As I finished the stitching and cut the thread, he jumped to his feet, grabbed the hand-towel and stuffed it into the bag.
“Come on!’ Let’s go”.
“No Stephen,” I said, “It’s Saturday. There’s nobody there. The gate is locked.”
He frowned and kicked the sewing box.
“Don’t do that”, I said. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. After that, it’ll be Monday. We’ll go on Monday”.
At nine-twenty on Monday morning we set off to walk the two suburban blocks to the kindergarten. Two-year-old Richard was in the stroller, and Stephen was running along happily at my side. I was thinking of what I would do with my new two and a half hours without Stephen for two days a week. I decided that the first thing I would do would be to shop for some new clothes. It was going to be so much easier with one child than with two.
February is often the hottest month in Melbourne, and already the cicadas in the treetops were announcing a hot day with their shrill drone. We stopped to look at the columns of ants, scurrying along the footpath heading for cooler quarters for the day. Suddenly, overhead, there was a staccato sound. One of the cicadas that had been plucked from its tree by a blackbird was now being transported to a lawn to be devoured. Stephen was horrified and ran to rescue it.
Nature red in tooth and claw, I said to myself as the blackbird began to peck at the soft parts of the insect. Out of its yellow eye, the blackbird saw Stephen coming, and picked up its prize and flew over a fence. Stephen arrived at the spot where the bird had begun its meal. He stopped for a minute, then reached into the leaf litter and retrieved a glistening object. He examined it closely, and then he looked at me, with an expression of wonderment. He closed his other hand over the object, walked towards me and reverently and wordlessly placed it in my hand. His large grey eyes gazed steadily into mine as he slowly opened his hand. I felt something very light drop into my palm. Stephen watched my face as I looked to see what it was. It was indeed a beautiful, tiny, papery thing, composed of a delicate tracery of overlapping silvery arches edged in brilliant green. It was like a miniature Gothic church window. It was a cicada’s wing.
When we arrived at the kindergarten, Stephen presented the cicada’s wing to the teacher, Mrs Anderson. Then he ran to the play gym and began swinging. At this, Richard tried to climb out of his stroller, to join his brother, so I quickly kissed Stephen goodbye, and set off for home.
After a week or two, I thought I noticed a coolness and a reticence about the way the staff greeted us compared with the welcome that other mothers and children received. I mentioned it to Garry, my husband, that night.
“You’re being too sensitive’, he said.
But after a while, I became convinced that I was not imagining it. The staff grew serious when Stephen arrived. One morning, Richard was unwell, and it took us longer than usual to get ready. We arrived at the kindergarten about half an hour late. The next morning, Mrs Anderson met me at the door.
“Yesterday, we had a much better day than usual”, she said. “The staff and I have been talking it over, and we think it is a good idea for you to bring Stephen at ten o’clock instead of nine-thirty from now on. It gives us an opportunity to greet the other children in a calm atmosphere and get them settled to an activity before Stephen arrives. It’s better for him too, to come in to a settled atmosphere and have our attention on himself. It’s less stressful on everyone.
I hadn’t realised how that Stephen’s presence caused so much stress. Anxiously I pressed Mrs Anderson for more details. She was guarded in her remarks, but it appeared that our son was disruptive. He wouldn’t settle to an activity. He wouldn’t stay still and listen during story-time but ran around the room pulling things off shelves. He didn’t abide by the rules of the sandpit. He couldn’t be trusted around paint, or water. “Why did he behave so differently from the other children?” I wondered. I fervently hoped it was a phase that would soon pass.
One day I joined the crowd of other mothers at the end of the session, I noticed that they seemed uncomfortable. Some didn’t acknowledge my presence but sidled away, pretending that they hadn’t seen me. Then one of the mothers named Amanda, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Your son cut a hole in Jonathon’s jumper with a pair of scissors.”
My heart sank. “Oh!” I said, feeling quite upset. “When did this happen?”
“About an hour ago. The teacher phoned me to tell me about it”.
I wondered why I had not received a phone call. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Buy Jonathon a new jumper and I’ll pay you for it”.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I can probably sew up the hole,” she said.
But I could see that it mattered. It had surely been the topic of conversation before my arrival and the other mothers were watching me closely. I could feel my heart racing Somehow, as the mother of ‘the bad child’, I was on trial.
What made this episode hard to understand was that I knew that Stephen liked Jonathon. As soon as the children came out, he asked me if he could play with Jonathon after kindergarten. I said no, quickly making the excuse that we had to go to the pet shop, as I thought that this activity would distract him. I picked up Richard in one arm, took Stephen by the hand and set off towards the gate. Suddenly, Stephen slipped his hand out of mine and ran back to the group of mothers.
“Can I come to your house and play with Jonathon?” he asked Amanda.
The other mothers paused in their conversation and looked down at Stephen. I tensed for what I felt sure was to be a rejection. For a few seconds, Amanda looked at Stephen. The other mothers fell silent and watched. Stephen gazed at Amanda waiting for her reply. With his small face ringed with blonde curls, and innocent air of expectation, she was finding it hard to refuse him, but neither did she want to encourage a friendship between her son and mine, particularly after the event an hour or so earlier. Finally she said
‘Not today, Stephen. Jonathon has a music lesson this afternoon. You can come in the holidays’.
The holidays were two months away.
We had a parents’ working bee at the kindergarten one Saturday shortly after this. Garry and I were helping to load some obsolete kindergarten equipment on to the back of a truck to be taken to the tip. Mrs Anderson came to me, and seemed friendlier than usual.
“Geraldine, we’ve received a new book for the parent library. Would you like to see it?”
I followed her inside to see the new book. It was The Secret of Happy Children by Steve Biddulph. I had seen it in the bookshops and it had received quite favourable publicity.
“I’m just putting a plastic cover on it and then its available for loan. You can be the first to borrow it if you like,” enthused Mrs Anderson.
I had read many books on parenting, and before that I had studied educational psychology. People frequently gave me books by such authorities as Benjamin Spock, Hugh Jolly, Penelope Leach and others. I was getting fed up with such well-meant offers. I sensed that my son’s behaviour was the reason that I was chosen to be the first parent to read the book, and I felt insulted. However, I didn’t want to give the impression that I thought there was no room for improvement in my mothering skills.
“Thank you. I’ll read it,” I said with as much grace as I could muster.
A couple of weeks later, a day came that is forever etched in my memory. I arrived at the kindergarten and knocked at the door. Instantly, Mrs Anderson opened the door and stepped outside, closing the door behind her.
“Oh, Geraldine, I don’t think that you should bring Stephen to kindergarten any more. The staff here all feel that he is not settling down. He probably needs to be a bit older before he will be ready for this.”
I felt desperate. What was I to do now? Mrs Anderson suggested that I try him again in six months’ time at another kindergarten, and recommended one that operated some distance from our home. She said something else that sent a chill through my body.
“We all think you should take him to a psychiatrist. There’s something wrong with him. He has some sort of problem.”
With a heavy heart, I took him by the hand and left the kindergarten.
When I got home, I phoned Garry at work and tearfully told him what had happened. I was in a state of despair and turmoil.
“Stephen’s been expelled from kindergarten!” I said in a broken voice.
“They told me not to bring him back.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know whether or not he did anything. The teacher just says that he’s not settling in. She thinks we should take him to see a psychiatrist. She believes that there’s something wrong with him.”
“We’ll talk about it tonight,” said Garry. “Take him out to the park or somewhere that he’ll enjoy. Don’t let him see that you’re upset. He’s a good kid and I’m sure that this is not anything too serious.”
That night when Garry arrived home, I was still in an emotional state. I still couldn’t believe it. Who had ever heard of a child being excluded from kindergarten? Garry calmed me down, and we talked over the options. We decided to tell Stephen that it was holiday time and let him stay home for a few months.
After a few months of respite at home, I enrolled Stephen at the kindergarten that the teacher had recommended. But the change of scene and the few months of growing up time made little difference. Stephen continued to have difficulties with following instructions and interacting with the other children.
I decided to discuss the problem with Sister Flint, the maternal and child health care nurse. She had known Stephen and me for four years now, and I had always found her easy to talk to, and her advice was always practical. We sent Stephen to play in the enclosed play area outside so that we could speak freely.
While she was talking to me, Stephen came running in holding a large slug.
“Look Mum, look” he said. The slug was so large that it covered Stephen’s small hand.
“It’s a slug”, I said, “Slugs belong outside, so take it back please.”
“But look at it, Mum!” he said.
“Yes, it’s interesting,” I said, knowing that he would not understand that I found slugs revolting. “Put it back where you found it”.
“But look at its beautiful colours,” he said thrusting it towards my face. Its head slowly turned and its stalked eyes revolved only inches from mine.
Stephen was clearly frustrated that I was not taking sufficient interest in what he found fascinating.
I gave in. “Yes, it’s really beautiful,” I said, and for the first time, I noticed that it had unusual coloured markings. “Show Sister”.
Sister winked at me.
‘It’s a beauty! But I think it’s a bit tired. Can you take it back to its home Stephen?”
At last he did so.
“He’s a bright child”, she said. “You can see that from the things he is interested in. He’s under-stimulated at kinder. His problem is that he is bored. You’ll see a big difference once he gets to school. The discipline and demands of school will be exactly what he needs. He doesn’t need to see a psychiatrist. He’s fine”
Her words gave me my first glimmer of hope since the day Stephen had been expelled, and I clung to the belief that this was all that the problem was.
It was true that Stephen was bright. Since turning four he had made complicated models using play-dough of things he was interested in such as birds, tortoises and snakes, and arranged them to create complex and intricate scenes. He was fascinated with scuba diving, and he used Lego to make a model boat and a diving platform in our bathroom hand-basin, and arranged a toy diver and toy fish in the scene.
But the problems at the new kindergarten did not abate. The day came when the senior teacher, Mrs Broderick, called me in to have a chat about Stephen. Other mothers were also being called in during that week, and I assumed that it was to talk about the transition to school after the holidays.
She greeted me, offered me a seat and discreetly closed the door.
“I’m glad we could have this chat”, she began. “What arrangements have you made for Stephen for next year?”
“We’re planning to send him to the local state school,” I replied.
“You know, that’s not such a good idea,” she said gently. “He’s not ready for school. His social skills are below the level of the others. His fine motor skills are okay, and his gross motor skills are improving, but he is not ready for school in our view. The staff here feel that he needs another year of kindergarten to mature so that he will be able to cope with the demands of school”.
I couldn’t believe it. Another year of kindergarten! I felt shattered. I didn’t want to hear this. I thought back on my discussion with the Maternal and Child Health Sister, and reported what she had said to Mrs Broderick. She looked thoughtful.
“Well then,” she said, “the best person to advise on school readiness is the senior kindergarten consultant in the Department of Health. Would like me to arrange for the consultant to visit the kindergarten, and observe Stephen and give advice?”
With a heavy heart, I agreed. After all, I wanted the best for my child, whatever it might turn out to be
The day the consultant came, it was agreed that I would be on duty giving out the milk and fruit sections at the break. That way I would be able to observe for part of the time what was going on, and later I would be present to discuss things with the consultant at the conclusion of the session.
When I arrived, shortly before the break, Stephen saw this as the signal that it was time to go home. He ran to me saying
“Let’s go home!”
“No,” I said. “It’s milk and fruit time. I’m just helping like the other mums do. You go back to your jigsaw. We’ll go home later when everyone else does”.
Stephen was very unsettled. I cut up the apples and peeled the oranges, while watching Stephen out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t seem to belong to any of the groups, but roamed from one to another. I noticed that he knocked down a tower some other children were building. It wasn’t clear whether it was done purposely or whether he had accidentally knocked it with his foot as he walked past. Either way, the children believed that he had done it on purpose and complained volubly. The consultant summoned Stephen to help the children re-build the tower, but with little success, and the children seemed to be relieved when she abandoned the attempt. Seeing my look of concern, she got up from her knees, and came over and whispered to me.
“Don’t worry. He doesn’t yet have the concentration to build with blocks, but it will come.”
I was grateful that she showed some compassion for my feelings, but I was now even more confused. I had seen Stephen build quite complicated structures at home with blocks and Lego. I knew that he could concentrate. So why couldn’t he do it at kindergarten? I wondered if it was that the busy atmosphere of the kindergarten over-stimulated him to the point that he could not focus on tasks that were no problem at home.
At the conclusion of the session, Stephen was invited to play in the sandpit while I spoke with the consultant.
“I think the staff are right. He needs another year of kindergarten”. As if to underline the point, a small girl came running inside.
“Stephen threw sand at Melinda, and now she’s crying!”
A few minutes later, another child appeared.
“Stephen threw the spade over the fence!”
Mrs Broderick found another spade, and tactfully took it out personally, closing the door behind her.
“This means that Stephen will be a year older than most of the others when he starts school.” I objected.
“It does,” she said, “but that means he will be one of the bigger boys in his class rather than one of the smaller boys. It will be good for him. He’ll be better able to cope and he will feel better about himself.”
She suggested that he should go to a kindergarten associated with a local private school, St Andrew’s. The funding arrangements at the current kindergarten did not allow them to keep a child for a second year except in very special circumstances. These did not apply in Stephen’s case.
“Anyway,” she added, “if you should be in a position to send him to St Andrew’s the following year, this would be good, as he would go with the same group of children who had spent a year getting to know him.”
The fact that the new kindergarten was attached to a private school solved one problem for us. Stephen expected to go to school as the others in his year were doing. To him, school was a place where you wore a uniform. Fortunately, the new kindergarten at St Andrews required the children to wear the school uniform. We told Stephen that he was going to “pre-school,” and to him that sounded close enough. A few months later when he realised that he was still at kindergarten, we were able to promise that school was starting after the holidays.
The day that Stephen started school, was one that we all eagerly awaited. I took a photo of him with Richard before he left for school and he was clearly delighted that at last the day had come. I took him to school and waved him goodbye. I watched the other mothers tearfully parting from their children.
“It’s so sad, isn’t it,” said one mother as she wiped her eyes with a tissue. “Their babyhood is all over so quickly!”
I nodded a lie. The only tears that I choked back were tears of relief! It had taken so long to get here, but finally the day had come. I walked home as if on air. At last he was at school. With a bit of luck, Sister Flint would be proved right.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem