Meg and I ran into Miss Betsy down at Peet’s coffee this past weekend. She was the preschool teacher for all three of our children. But to say that she was just a preschool teacher misses the whole point. This short, diminutive, cheerful woman with the bright eyes is connected to the deepest and most powerful things in life. Since those pre-school days, everytime I see her I ask her when she is going to write her book. And every time, she just laughs warmly as if to say what a silly notion. That’s Miss Betsy.
She is enjoying her retirement now, after some 30 plus years running Central Preschool on H Street in East Sac. Her preschool was so popular that you had to get your kid on the list the moment you knew you were pregnant...if not before. The mechanics of the school really weren’t that different than other schools--she and her staff offered great activities in a warm, happy, nurturing place designed to allow the kids to prosper.
The thing that made her different is more subtle, something that you might overlook if you weren’t paying attention. It was about the way she regarded those kids, the specific way she cared for her charges. There were only a few occasions when she would address the group of parents, like at the end-of-year celebration or the annual pageant. When she did, she always made sure to say that we should try to let the kids be who they are. Seems overly simple, right? Until you start to think about that statement, unpack it, and notice how much of what she did was based on it.
Parents today, especially affluent parents, like in East Sac, go to great lengths to shape their kids, to set up the perfect sequence of experiences that will result in a successful person. This is all well-meaning and good. Except that in recent years this has turned excessive. The helicopter parent, the Tiger Mom, the intense sports dad are now common in our culture. These uber parents cross the line--their parenting becomes excessive, controlling and potentially stifling. With our kids currently in high school I have seen this phenomenon first hand, on a daily basis for the last many years. Often it’s subtle, and sometimes not so much.
In thinking about this particular preschool teacher, I’ve managed to bump into bigger things that lie just below the surface of parenting.
In thinking about this particular preschool teacher, I’ve managed to bump into bigger things that lie just below the surface of parenting: hubris and triumphalism, the Western bias toward active solutions--crushing the rock instead of going around it. The whole nature/nurture dynamic. Without realizing it, Miss Betsy was intimately involved in this classic academic paradox.
It’s one of the hardest balances as a parent, knowing when to intervene and when to stand down and let life take its course. With my teenagers I am confronted by this dilemma on a daily basis. More and more, I am trying to learn the difficult task of standing down, of letting them make their own decisions, their own arguments, their own mistakes.
Who doesn’t need a little circle time, right? She agreed, gracefully weathering my latest attempt to connect her with larger philosophical points. But it really is true, that we grownups can all learn something from Miss Betsy.
When we were finishing up our chat at the coffee shop I was telling Miss Betsy about my corporate gig, and I mentioned how we could use some of her wisdom at work. Who doesn’t need a little circle time, right? She agreed, gracefully weathering my latest attempt to connect her with larger philosophical points. But it really is true, that we grownups can all learn something from Miss Betsy: how to keep our aspiration in check in a society that prizes aspiration. How to temper the instinct to control things, lest things end up controlling us. Lessons come from lots of places, and in all shapes and sizes, including from this little woman. By way of a true heart she has managed to strike this difficult balance, maybe the true measure of the success that we’re all chasing after so madly.
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