Ailanthus trees, although native to China and Taiwan, are successful transplants to New York City and many parts of New England. Known as the “tree of heaven” in Asia—where it is used medicinally—the ailanthus is extremely adaptable and persistent. Do a Google search for images of these trees in the Big Apple, and you will see them growing in otherwise barren vacant lots, in the cracks in asphalt and cement, on the ledges of buildings, and even in subway grates in Manhattan and the other boroughs. They require very little tending to survive and tolerate significant pollution. They make their place wherever it suits them.
We should not expect children to be so astonishingly resilient, but we do. We believe any child from any background, in the midst of trauma and emotional setbacks or absent parents—or worse an abusive situation—will thrive once they put down roots in elementary school. Instead, children who start kindergarten behind, usually stay behind. This is why early childhood education is vital, not just for children, but for our society as a whole. Preschool starts children on a path towards celebrating graduation instead of languishing in a prison cell.
The National Adult Literacy Survey indicates that children who have not yet developed rudimentary literacy skills before entering kindergarten are 3-4 times more likely to drop out of school later. There are disastrous consequences when students do not become fully literate. According to the Washington Literacy Council, 75% of those on welfare and the vast majority of unwed mothers have low literacy skills. Being functionally illiterate greatly reduces one’s choices in life. So it is heroic when some educators dedicate their lives to setting our youngest students on the right path—even though they choose a career that is persistently underpaid.
Last week, as our talented Chief Wrinn announced his retirement from the Brattleboro Police Department after 28 years on the force, another longtime community member—also fighting the good fight—retired after 22 years. Kim Jillson, at Brattleboro Nursery School, has nurtured and taught hundreds of area children and prepared them for life’s travails and triumphs.
Jillson’s vocation has a clear impact on the work of police officers like Chief Wrinn. When students receive quality preschool education, it sets them up to be more successful in school. Successful students are less likely to be arrested and incarcerated later in life. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate, and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. A defense lawyer I know once confided in me that almost every juvenile offender he ever represented had had reading problems.
After 22 years teaching, Jillson tells many stories about her work at Brattleboro Nursery School, but what has consistently brought her the most delight is witnessing a child learn a new skill. She told me, “When a child learns something new, such as writing their name, making a new friend or finishing a hard puzzle, I can see the joy in their eyes and their whole body.” It is even more rewarding to know that the child is excited to tell her family that she can do something by herself. The work of the early educator is about setting a course for future success by cementing and celebrating the important little victories each day. These teachers foster and honor a child’s sense of self and a sense of place in the vast world. We are so lucky to have women (and, yes, a few men) who are willing to take on this difficult, critical work.
Over her two decades at Brattleboro Nursery School, Jillson told me, she felt supported by parents and board members at the school; they seem to understand and appreciate her work. But she has also been told more than once by those not connected with the school, “All you do is play all day with little kids. That isn’t a job. Anyone can do that.”
Oh, my, what a statement! Clearly they’ve never spent an entire morning with my two opinionated Huns. I honestly can’t imagine teaching an entire class of preschoolers each day for hours. I used to come into my son’s preschool to teach music just once a week for half an hour. This 30 minute slot just about killed me each week. I am a veteran teacher, undaunted by surly, quirky middle-schoolers. And I really enjoyed it. But having a room full of tiny Napoleons all talking unintelligibly at once and singing off key and looking at me like “glazed donuts” as my brother-in-law calls them (because of the constant glaze of mucus under, around and on their noses), well, let’s just admit I was always squarely in my discomfort zone.
I saw Chief Wrinn the other night at Gallery Walk and we exchanged pleasantries as I thanked him for his service. We’d given him a rightly deserved standing ovation at Town Meeting the other night and I felt glad that our citizens are willing to offer effusively thanks in this way. I only wish our childhood educators received the same hero’s send off.
For these preschool teachers are the ailanthus trees for our children. Each year they make a home with a new batch of children. Whatever the children offer them, they make a home for it: Trauma, hardship, joyful victories and willfulness. They see what they are given to work with and they put down roots. Always.