Missing kindergarten

If it’s true that “all you really need to know you learn in kindergarten,” then Vivian Paley and I are in trouble.

When I interviewed longtime Lab Schools kindergarten and preschool teacher Vivian Paley, PhB’47, for a Magazine story, I realized that we had at least one thing in common, and it wasn’t our infinite patience for the younger generations: neither of us had gone to kindergarten.

After attending school for a few weeks, her teacher had suggested that she wait a year and start school in first grade because she was sitting apart from the other students, not interacting with them. “I went back home,” she remembers, “and played the rest of my five-year-old existence on the back porch with the other kids in the building.”

Paley talks with me about my too-short kindergarten experience, and how she, as a teacher, would have done things differently.

REK: I was in kindergarten for about a month, and I guess I acted out a lot. I was apparently always asking the teacher to let me read to the class when she wanted to read a story.

VP: Perfect!

REK: But she didn’t like that.

VP: Of course.

REK: So I took some kind of a test on the teacher’s suggestion, and I moved into first grade way before I was ready.

VP: Where is this?

REK: In New Jersey.

VP: In those days, they skipped you in the Chicago schools [if you were good at academics], so that I was further and further away from making up this kindergarten experience. Is that what happened with you?

REK: I remember it took me a really long time to grasp math functions: adding, subtracting. It took me a really long time to get there. Intellectually, I don’t think I was ready. You get pushed so fast on this path that you lose what you were supposed to have learned in kindergarten. I didn’t know left and right until I was in fifth grade.

VP: I remember the number of children—many of them were boys—way back who knew how to read and kept it a secret so they could spend the day in the doll corner or with the blocks. They got the impression that once a a grown-up knows that you know how to read, forget about play.

REK: This was when?

VP: When I was teaching. Oh, absolutely, that was the impression. In other words, no longer, look how nicely he plays, but come and read to us.

But I must say that once this was pointed out to the parents, all of them—and I have great faith in parents—reacted let ’em play. But at some point, make him aware that you know that he knows how to read. At some point. And that was a very interesting idea, see.

Let’s say you had been in my kindergarten class, and you wanted to read. I would have hopefully figured out a way to make this such a plus. “Can you read this while the children act it out?” Or something like that. Now, in very short order, you would want to be one of the actors, and you would want to be telling your own story, but what an entrée.

I mean, what would you do as a kindergarten teacher if I were shy and wanted to watch and see? You know it’s not easy for some people. [I’d ask the class,] “Do any of you have an idea for Ruthie?” So easy, and maybe it would have taken a week or two before you would have tried it out. But you would have gotten the message: people care about me, even if I’m a reader. Even if I’m afraid to join a big group. And we would change that to people care about me especially because I’m a reader. And they like that. I’m shy, and they wanna show me how to not be shy.