Mr. Daddy

Add being Fiona’s preschool teacher to the many hats I wear. It’s a hard job, but well worth it.

I’ve grown accustomed to wearing a lot of hats. I’m an independent consultant (or a freelancer, depending upon the mood I’m in). I’m a jobseeker. I’m a custodian who cleans our house, a dishwasher who spends on average an hour a day huddled over the sink while listening to WNYC (thank heavens for public radio), a laundry service, and an errand runner who brings almost all of our groceries home with my own bare hands. Clerk in our branch. Father and stay-at-home dad. Husband.

Now I’m also Mr. Daddy. At least, that’s what Fiona has taken to calling me on occasion, now that I have started teaching her in a homeschool version of preschool. And it’s one of the most challenging things I have ever done.

The story begins a little over a year ago, when Fiona started preschool. Susan found a great little preschool not too far from where we live. It was just what we were looking for: convenient, small, and cozy, with an owner and teacher who were very focused on planning a great curriculum. See, we didn’t need it as a daycare—we just wanted a place where Fiona could socialize and enhance her learning. The preschool was a great place for her to do that, and it was affordable.

Then they fired the teacher. Two weeks into the school year, the day before they had an open house with all the parents and children. That was awkward. After a little mingling, they asked the parents to gather around in a circle while they talked about the coming year. Everyone was a little uneasy—some concern, unresolved, hanging in the air over everyone’s heads. Then a parent finally spoke up about it: “Can we talk about the teacher?” The can of worms was opened, and I don’t think it ever got closed again, for the rest of the year.

Then there were the field trips. Oh, they were great trips, alright: a bread tour of Brooklyn; a visit to the Queens County Farm Museum; a puppet show. We decided Fiona should go on all of them, and I could come along as a chaperone. We had to pay for each of us to come, and we did, right at the beginning of the year. Then, as each trip approached, the owner asked me whether Fiona and I would be coming. I began to doubt her recordkeeping and business acumen.

But Fiona still had an enjoyable time. She really liked the teacher. She made some great friends. I cherished the brief time we got to spend on the bus each Tuesday and Thursday as I took Fiona to school. And it gave me two days a week to focus on my consulting work, my job search, and other projects.

So we were ready for her to attend again this year, and maybe for three or even five days a week. But they upped the price. After some serious, thoughtful contemplation, we decided we could use that money better ourselves if we kept Fiona home and I homeschooled her. That, and I was tired of feeling like I was banging my head against the wall with a fruitless job search. All that time I had spent in the previous year on Tuesdays and Thursdays, networking, finding job openings, writing cover letters, submitting applications—and I still had basically nothing to show for it. It was time to start doing something meaningful.

We went to a teacher-supply store in Downtown Brooklyn and bought a few workbooks, and we began assembling ideas for our curriculum. Susan wrote a curriculum for our first unit, on bodies of water. (Being married to a teacher has its perks.) We developed a weekly schedule. We bought a classroom calendar—the type made of canvas with clear pockets that you can change for each month. We even bought trays so Fiona could have a bit of the experience of going to the cafeteria at school. This was going to be Fiona’s school, and we were serious about it.

It hasn’t worked out exactly as I had hoped. Following a routine, especially when it’s just me and Fiona, is tough. I had planned on getting some cool frozen-food items for our once-a-week “cafeteria” lunches, but as it turns out, frozen-food items, no matter what they are, and no matter what store they come from, are basically universally bad. Projects, and chores, and other things have gotten in the way. Fiona is surprisingly difficult to keep on a schedule, and she is often contrary or disagreeable. And that 9.00 start time on the schedule? Yeah, I don’t think that’s happened once—Fiona likes to sleep in, just like her Mama.

But then there was the field trip to Paterson, New Jersey, with one of Fiona’s friends from church and his dad. We went there to see a waterfall—you know, part of our bodies of water unit. There was the time we went down to Coney Island and got some ocean water. We brought it home and let it evaporate so we could see the salt the seawater left behind. One time, not too long ago, we were walking down the street and Fiona stopped and said, “Twenty-eight.” It took me a moment, but then I found it: a 28 indicating a house number on the street we were walking down—reviewing the numbers on that calendar had sunk in. There’s reciting the alphabet or the days of the week or the months of the year as we’re walking around or riding the bus or the subway. There was a walk we took through Prospect Park where Fiona and I had a great conversation. The experience was delightful—Fiona was a delightful conversationalist.

On a recent bus ride home, Fiona said a word that Susan couldn’t quite understand because she had never heard Fiona say it before. Susan asked her to explain. She cupped her hand over her eye with her fingers bowing out and said, “It curves like this,” then added, “not like this,” moving her hand in a motion curving in.

The word was convex.

She learned it on a recent trip to the New York Hall of Science, where we watched a dissection of a cow’s eye. The presenter explained that the lenses of our eyes curve outward and that that shape is called “convex.” (Hence the reason Fiona held her hand up to her eye to explain.)

I’m by no means a perfect preschool teacher. I won’t be making money off of this profession any time soon. But I’ll count the last few months a success.

This article appeared on pages 4–5 of Issue 12 | October 2013.

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