These past few weeks, in anticipation of the big transition, I have been trying to find ways to hold on. I have taken photos of my son with his teachers and classmates, photos of the school itself, videos of my son walking into school and out of school, and even (I know) videos of the trees along the path blowing in the wind.
Several times a week for the past three years, I have driven through Zilker Park, parked under the noisy and bird-poop-risky Mopac bridge, and then walked into an urban oasis: through the arching bronze tree sculpture (Arboreal Passage by Colin McIntyre, 2012, part of Austin’s wonderful Art in Public Places program); up the winding path; past a big mesquite, some adolescent hop trees, cedar elms, live oaks, and ash junipers; through a sea of American beautyberry, turk’s cap, and coralberry. The path rises in big graceful curves to accommodate wheelchairs and strollers. Big throaty wind chimes rise and fall with the breeze as the rumble of the highway recedes.
At the top of the hill is a little stone cottage, a former farmhouse built in the 1880s. A majestic live oak, jasmine encircling its formidable trunk, stands guard; a Texas mountain laurel flowers nearby. A charming iron gate with cat tails as bars opens to a tiny courtyard.
The schoolhouse has three small classrooms, a smaller kitchen, and a tiny bathroom, connected with passageways bursting with cubbies, backpacks, changes of clothes, art supplies, and the occasional family of hatching chicks.
The kids are rarely in their classrooms though. A good book might lure them there, or a rainy day, but outdoors is where most of the learning happens at Nature’s Way Preschool. The large, shaded, gated backyard is much bigger than the footprint of the school itself, and its contents rotate with the seasons. Hay bales in the autumn, a surprise “forest” of repurposed Christmas trees in the winter, a kid-made “stream” created with shovels and a hose in the spring. All these excitements intermingle with the backyard regulars: easels with paper and fat paint brushes and bowls of bright-colored paint, a wide hammock, a table for erecting wooden train track tangles and Lincoln log lean-tos, a garden the kids tend, a climbing structure, and a big sand pile that dwindles throughout the year and must be replenished at the start of the next. (“Where does the old sand go?” I ask one of the teachers. “Home to your houses,” he said, “in pockets and shoes and socks!”)
The kids explore the rest of the Nature Center, too, with hikes to the preserve to look for crawling bugs, walks in the meadow to catch (and release) flying ones, digs in the Dino Pit, and on special days, a splash in the stream. “Animal visitors” are a regular treat, with the kids getting an up close look at various critters the Nature Center is nursing back to health. They take trips to the Trade Counter, where the friendly and knowledgeable staff help the kids identify whatever treasures from nature the kids have brought in to trade. (They can save their points for the choicest prizes; my son saved for weeks to bring home a deer skull.)
The teachers are enthusiastic about nature and children in equal measure, seeing it as their job to bring the two together. The ABCs are nowhere to be found in this school, but next year’s kindergarten teacher will teach them just the same. From my kids’ preschool teachers, I hoped for a warm and caring transition from my arms, a watchful eye, a patient manner, and if I was really asking for the moon, an appreciation of my child’s unique set of strengths (and an acceptance of the accompanying challenges). With each of their teachers (and the other teachers as well, for they have a collaborative style that lets the kids get to know all the teachers), I got all I hoped for and more.
But now it’s time to say good-bye. My youngest is beyond ready for kindergarten, having watched his older siblings navigate the twists and turns of elementary school for so long now. So I say I have no regrets in saying good-bye. I know time keeps up its pace, and we run along with it as best we can. But still, I will miss the walk up the path, the sound of the chimes, the smell of the jasmine, the sight of chubby legs hugging tight to a live oak’s trunk, and for my son, the relationships he made, and all the opportunities to get messy, run through the meadow, and learn to love his Earth.
© Amy Daniewicz