“How did your nose,” asked one of the wide-eyed kindergardeners last week, “get SO BIG?”

“Just lucky, I guess,” I said, and they all nodded, like, yeah, that is lucky.

I’m still totally unemployed but last week I started picking up a little cash by working as a substitute teacher’s aide at the Montessori school where my mom has been teaching for thirty years. I don’t do any of the actual education, of course—I do things like get juice and cookies ready and staple books together and explain why you shouldn’t step on snails (“Because then the snail will be dead and never wake up ever ever, right Miss Chiara?”) and break up heated arguments over art criticism/crayons (PINTAS FEA! NO! PINTO LINDA! DAMELOS!). I find it pretty tiring work but it beats sitting at a desk doing data entry so I’m firmly on the sub list now and would work every day if I could.

Since my responsibilities are so low key it’s been pretty fun so far. They feed the mice and work on spelling their names and standing straight in line and on art projects involving a lot of glue and googly eyes. Since it’s Montessori they’re super independent and work time looks totally unstructured to an outsider—they’re all just sort of sitting randomly around doing their math notebooks or their word boxes but when you pay attention you can see that they can fingerspell the capitals of Europe or do long division or play long elaborate games involving alligators who go into space and maybe for people who have more contact with small kids that’s not so amazing but I’m pretty stunned by it all, what they’re capable. They have a pinwheel they blow when they’re upset so they can take deep breaths and calm down. They are all responsible for each other in the classroom (one of the super little ones told me, very seriously, “When Miss Olga says stop, you stop“) and are constantly talking about setting good examples for each other. They have a gorgeous big yard with a swingset and a little outdoor room under a big tree; on Thursday I took some of the bigger girls on a nature walk around the whole playground and today they came screaming up at me about the “MUSHROOMS! MISS CHIARA! MUSHROOMS!” that they found. It’s calm and pretty and busy and all in all, a very nice school.

It also happens to be where I went to kindergarden—this fact came out the other day during afternoon playground and just blew the kids’ minds, leading them to not only ask what medals I got at my graduation (“We didn’t have kindergarden graduation in the late seventies, kids, and we didn’t have safety rules for playground equipment, either,”) but also, for reals, what “school was like in the olden days when you went here.” Some of my old teachers are still there, actually; the school’s principal, in whose class I was 1979, introduced me to someone else not only as my mother’s daughter (which is kind of like, in that school, being Suri Cruise) but also as an alum, and mentioned that I had been a very good student back then.

While it’s always nice to get compliments about how good I was at coloring within the lines thirty years ago, what’s been really interesting about being there is seeing my mom from a professional standpoint. I’ve helped out in her classes before, years ago, so I had a vague idea of how it all came together, but it’s like you know your parents work but you don’t think much about it— that school is the site of some of my first memories; it’s always been there and so has she and that’s all there is to it. I remember when she got her master’s and she does talk about things that go on there sometimes but for the most part—especially when I’ve been living on a) the other side of the country or b) the other side of the world, I haven’t thought too much about her work, even though obviously it’s a huge part of her life. As a kid you assume your parents’ real life is with you and that anything else that goes on with them is incidental. I guess that’s how most people continue to think about their parents: your mom is just your mom, and you think that the aspects you know—those that have to do with you–are the most significant ones, the ones which make her who she is.

It’s amazing to watch her work; I was constantly having to ask stupid questions about what was going on and who needed to go where and what happened to the color pencils, anyway? I hardly ever see Mom and her second teacher, Miss Olga, talk to each other to exchange information so I’m assuming there’s just some sort of ESP going on between them, the way they work together so seamlessly and the way everything gets done “I’ve been married to your mom for twenty-one years,” Miss Olga told me on Friday by way of explanation, when I was trying to figure out what table to put juice and cookies on. They know every name and every parent and what every kids is supposed to be doing at every given time; I haven’t seen them write anything down or take any notes and yet all the songs are sung and all the snacks are brought and all the letters are learned. I mean, whatever, it’s kindergarden, but do you know how to keep thirty-two bilingual kids aged 3 to 6 not only physically safe from harm but also on track with learning how to, like, read for seven hours a day? Yeah, man, me neither. The skill set required is amazingly vast and complicated; I have come home exhausted from three days’ worth of cutting out skeletons from paper alone. There is a lot to admire about my mom but working with her for just a couple of days has sort of taken it to a new level for me.

And everyone seems to think it’s natural that I would be able to do such things, just because I’m her daughter. Everyone keeps telling me how much they love and admire her and how happy I must be to be home and how lucky I am. One of the moms said to me today, gesturing at her own face: “Oh, you look like a teacher! You must have the gene!” It’s been so long since I felt this connected to my family or to my past; I’ve been at least half a continent away for almost half my life and have got used to being a newcomer, to being without history.

This year has been all about the unexpected, about all the things I’d never thought I’d do. It’s small and simple, maybe, this tiny, temporary bit of work—one more deep breath, one more eye open, the world a little bit wider.


  1. That’s so amazing you get to have this experience. I bet your mom is thrilled to have you there!

  2. I’m so calling you Miss Chiara now. :)

  3. I was a Montessori kid full-time from 2 – 5 and then again after-school from 6 – 7, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I’m going to visit my school, when I’m home at Thanksgiving. Thanks for the lovely wave of nostalgia.

  4. Okay, so I’m totally biased from years of teaching and education grad school… but I loved this little piece. I think it’s fascinating to get to see other peoples’ perceptions of how classrooms and learning work!

    And it must be lovely to get to work with your mom in such a different way, too. How cool!

  5. This is so incredibly cool. Wow.

    Also, I like that you’re Miss Chiara. I felt really grown up for the first time ever the summer after 7th grade when the little girl I was babysitting was instructed to call me “Miss Jessica.”

    Oh, and one time I showed J a picture of me and my brother watching Sesame Street, circa 1978. The first thing J said: “They had color TV back then?”

  6. I think that the School ought to bring me over for educational purposes. Have you *seen* my nose?!

    I don’t think I knew that you were a brontosaurus kid. So is Michael. Huh.

  7. I can do long division. Really long. Takes forever. I usually have to blow into the pinwheel to wake up (although the spinach does tend to go everywhere).