The gray February day starts as usual. I rouse three-year-old Button from the cozy unicorn sleeping bag slung across her bed. We perform our rote morning activities as if in a trance: breakfast, potty, dressing, brushing, boots, backpack, lotion, chapstick, lock door. Muscle memory drives us across the thawing Maryland landscape.
On the ride to preschool, I tell Button, “Remember I told you on Friday you’re going to a new school room today, just for a little while?”
In the rear view mirror, I see her nod from her car seat. She clutches her toddler-sized ladybug book bag on her lap. Inside, I have packed her ladybug lunchbox with her ladybug sandwich container and a ladybug spoon for her snack. Toddlers do not love anything halfway.
Satisfied with her answer, I turn up her favorite kindie rock album and we amuse ourselves singing about marching dinosaurs all the way to school.
In hindsight, I should have known that a simple reminder, on top of a week’s worth of prepping, would not be enough. The community center preschool was redoing the floors that week. It meant the three, four, and five-year-olds would be moved to an adjacent room in the same building for five days. Knowing how Button could unravel if I merely tried to make her go potty then eat breakfast instead of eating breakfast and then going potty, I had tried to ready her.
Button stops when we walk through the wrong building entrance. “Where are we going?” she asks.
“Remember, baby? You’re going to be in a different room today. A new fun room!” I do not know if the room will be fun; the pep in my voice is a calculated gas up to change the direction of her downturned mouth. I tug at her hand impatiently. The baby slides heavy on my hip. Button steps forward as if I am leading her to the mouth of Hades.
When we arrive at the doorway, I understand I have told a bold-faced lie, an empty hope. The new room is windowless with dingy white cinderblock. It boasts no cubby with a name tag that spells “Iman,” an ugly rack to hang her coat, and a forlorn cluster of toys in the corner. She does not release my hand.
“Hi Iman!” Ms. Brenda, her teacher, welcomes her.
“I don’t want to go to school today,” Button starts, signaling my failure. I put Seth-Bear on his feet and set about unzipping Button’s coat before Seth-Bear can protest. Her tears land on my hand.
“Button, see Ms. Brenda? See your friend Gracie? All your teachers and friends are here. It’s the same school, and you’ll be at the old room soon-soon.”
She wails, not hearing a word of my futile encouragements. I hang up her backpack, kiss and hug her limp figure, and let guilt chase me out of the room.
She cries at dropoff for the next three days, until she comes down with the flu and does not have to return to the imposter preschool room with the white walls. In a few short weeks, they will close the center temporarily for COVID-19. We never go back.
The White Room vs. The Yellow Wall
Today, July 21, Button takes me back to that week in late February. “I didn’t like the white room.”
But we have been home for COVID-19 since March. I don’t immediately know where her random recall has taken her. “What do you mean?”
“Remember, at preschool? I was scared of the white walls.”
The guilt I feel flooding back reminds me. “Oh! But why did it scare you, honey?”
“I didn’t see the layyo walls and it scared me.” I’d forgotten her original preschool room had a wall brightly colored yellow, which she has mispronounced since the day she learned how to draw the sun. “It was different.”
And I am writing this now because only five months ago, she stood in a puddle of tears and could not say what about that room made her cling to me. A white wall that should have been yellow. Fear superseded the comfort of the teacher she loved and the familiar playmates who sing-songed “Bye Imaaaaan!” every afternoon at pickup. It overruled the sunniness of my voice and the promise of my return. I mattered less than a yellow wall because I did not tell her an emotional truth.
In these alienating pandemic days, when the world seems so surreal, I feel somewhat like Button did in that makeshift room. People are trying to convince me nothing has changed while I stare at an ugly, unfamiliar present. School districts and officials want to send kids back into school buildings as if COVID-19 is just the flu and they will “get over it.” Pandemic life pantomimes normalcy, but Button knew. The color is all wrong. And I was wrong to tell her it was all right. Layyo is the color of sun rays, of hope, of the room that brought her comfort because everything was where it should be. This year is a white wall.
Button will not be able to go to preschool in person this coming year, and I ache for all the experiences she will miss. We’re homeschooling together until Kindergarten. While I can teach her how to skip count, I cannot give her the chorus of friends welcoming her into their circle, into the joy of being loved outside your family. And when she asks about going back to school in person, I have no accidental bold-faced lies to tell. Only uncertainty. But with everything in me, I know I will be the yellow wall she needs to weather COVID-19 intact, even while I search for my own. She taught me how.