You can imagine my surprise and delight when Little Learners Preschool asked that I give the commencement speech at their graduation. (Granted, I wasn’t their first choice. Raffi was performing a concert elsewhere, and the clown from The Big Comfy Couch had a previous engagement.) I did not take this responsibility lightly. Having been a preschooler myself many years ago, I knew what awaited these children and I wanted to do everything I could to prepare them for the road ahead.
The graduation fell on an unseasonably cold, rainy day. Thankfully the ceremony was held indoors in a classroom that smelled of crayons and Play-Doh. After a lovely reception of apple juice and graham crackers, one of the teachers clapped her hands and asked that all students sit on the classroom rug.
“Criss cross applesauce!” she hollered. Eleven children scrambled to their spots and sat Indian-style. After Joey and Olivia stopped bickering over who got to sit where, I took my place on the child-sized chair a teacher had placed in front of the rug. With my knees hitting my chin, I cleared my throat. The audience was rapt. Aside for Theodore (who stuck his hand down the back of his pants), no one moved.
I began my speech Al Gore style:
“My fellow preschoolers. We are gathered here today to recognize a momentous occasion. These past ten months, you have faced many challenges and have gloriously overcome them. You share better. You now color in-between the lines. You deftly constructed Christmas ornaments out of pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks. Some of you had pink-eye, strep throat or colds, yet you returned once you were symptom free for twenty-four hours.”
I paused to let Liliana – who was suddenly struck with an allergy attack -stop sneezing before I proceeded.
“You have learned the letters of the alphabet and how to tie shoelaces. You know the days of the week, and the seasons of the month. You should be commended for your efforts and accomplishments.”
There was noise. I looked up from my speech to find Matthew whispering to Peter, “What is she talking about?” Matthew looked over at me and I raised my eyebrows. He clamped his mouth shut and I continued.
“Yet, you have only just begun. Kindergarten, my little friends, is no joke. It is there you will be expected to learn how to read. You will even have tests. What are tests? They are a set of questions where you are supposed to know the answer. If you don’t know the answer you receive a bad grade, which is like a punishment.”
Now I had their attention. “Punishment?” Peter said, clearly worried. (“Shhhh!” Liliana shushed.)
“You will be expected to write your name – and not in all caps.”
I wasn’t exactly sure about that, but I still forged ahead.
“Do not be deluded. Kindergarten is the start of real life! Just as life isn’t fair – neither is the big K. The kid you sit next to may not invite you to their birthday party, but they invite everyone else. Your mom might pack you gross snacks like raisins while your friend has yummy snacks like popcorn or brownies – but your friend refuses to share these delectable snacks with you. You may lose your blue crayon, only to discover that the kid behind you stole it. Girls, you may have to sit next to a boy with cooties. Boys, you may have to sit next to a girl who never stops talking. Then she claims you never listen to her.”
Pausing briefly, I glanced at the graduates. They sat wide-eyed and open mouthed. (Except for Nina who was now sucking her thumb – her index finger curled protectively over her nose.)
“I have faith in your ability to handle these challenges! You know the names of colors and have braved an apple picking field trip. These are vital life skills that will help you walk into that kindergarten classroom. So go forth, my graduates, and seize the day! (Just, whatever you do, DON’T eat the spaghetti and meatballs in the cafeteria. School meatballs taste like cat food.)”
Silence. I looked at the teachers who were both frowning. Jacob began to cry. Olivia slowly raised her hand and asked if she could use the bathroom.
“Of course, Olivia. Go ahead,” The teacher turned to me, “Um…thank you Underground Writer. That was … interesting.”
I was presented with a honorary preschool graduation diploma that was framed in dried ziti noodles and fruit loops. The teachers thanked me for visiting and escorted me to the door. When I turned to ask if I could return and give the Little Learners Commencement Speech of 2014, I found they had locked the door behind me.