As a child back in the early eighties, I was one of only a few kids in my class with a single working mother. Most of the time this difference didn’t bother me, except when the bell would ring at the end of the day to dismiss school. As my classmates piled out of the classroom running to the carpool line to claim their ride, I would heave my satchel onto my seven year old shoulder to cross the hall to the room where the after school kids would congregate until our parents picked us up. So, technically at 3:00 my school day was still not over. I was still at school while everyone else was free to go. This fact was a bitter pill to swallow because I hated daycare. I hated even saying the word. Daycare. In my seven year old book daycare was for losers.
During the day the daycare room was used as the Kindergarten classroom so it consistently smelled like a sickly combination of pee and apple juice. The toys that were assigned to daycare were always broken, the dolls would be missing a limb and the books were too “baby” for me. Plus, there was no one to play with at daycare. The boys would rush out the door to the playground and engage in some sort of game that meant dirt and sweat. I wasn’t into either of those two things at seven. The other little girl in daycare was my classmate that sat behind me. Nobody liked her because she ate her boogers. Needless to say my hours from three to five seemed like prison. I endured them until my release.
Until… Mrs. Stencil. For reasons beyond my comprehension at the time, during the middle of the school year we were assigned a new daycare teacher. Ms. Stencil—my saving grace. She was kind, cheerful, smiling and one armed. Yes. One armed. Fascinating. A grown up lady with one arm. I was mesmerized. At the time I was way too shy to ask any questions about her arm, but I loved watching how she could do everything I could do with two arms. She could tie shoes, work the water fountain, button buttons and fasten hair bows. Truly amazing.
The best thing about Mrs. Stencil was that she got it. She understood that daycare sucked. There was nothing stimulating or interesting about the last couple of hours of my day. It took her one day to figure it out. Daycare was boring!
Mrs. Stencil was a smart woman. She knew that engaged kids are happy kids. Creative kids are focused, interested and stimulated. Her solution for the boredom—arts and crafts. Art that non-daycare kids didn’t get to make because they didn’t get to stay after school. Art that we could take home to our parents or proudly show off to our friends.
I remember right before Christmas she brought in cross-stitching. I know it may not sound thrillig now, but at seven I loved it! I loved seeing a pattern in a book and knowing that I could recreate that pattern on a piece of cloth. I loved learning how to thread a needle with my little fingers. I loved counting the squares on the dotted cloth so I knew exactly where the next stitch had to be made. I loved changing the colors of thread. I loved knotting the end of the string when I was finished with the design.
I also loved that this was the perfect way to make Christmas presents that year. One ornament for my mom, one for my Papa (grandfather) and one for my Shasha (grandmother). Three all together. Nothing less would do. These were the most important people in my life and I needed them to feel equally loved. Equal presents meant equal love in my little mind.
Mrs. Stencil understood this idea. She knew how important it was to me to make three presents. So, day after day I diligently worked on my projects. Grabbing a quick Kool Aid and cookie from the snack table and then getting right to work. No time to waste. I would spend all afternoon on my cross-stitch ornaments and then hastily put them away when my mom came to the door to collect me. (She was a little peeved that I wasn’t watching for her car which meant that she had to park the car and cross the playground to come get me after a long day at work, but I didn’t care. I had a surprise!)
I watched proudly as my grandparents and my mom unwrapped their Christmas ornaments that year. I felt so empowered that I could do something for them on my own. A real surprise. My grandparents hung their ornaments on their Christmas tree until I was in my 30’s. When they both died I became the owner of their ornaments. My mom still has hers stashed away with my childhood stuff.
It has been a long time since I have thought of Mrs. Stencil. She was a teacher who cared enough to not only entertain her kids but also love them in the process. Thank you Mrs. Stencil for understanding the heart of a seven year old little girl. Thank you and Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas Everyone!