Emma Miller Grock: C is for cooperative

Dawn Elliott photo##McMinnville Playschool teacher Teressa DiAndrea solicits ideas from students about how to care for the school garden. DiAndrea is the program’s sole employee; parents take turns volunteering in the classroom.
Dawn Elliott photo##McMinnville Playschool teacher Teressa DiAndrea solicits ideas from students about how to care for the school garden. DiAndrea is the program’s sole employee; parents take turns volunteering in the classroom.
##Emma Miller Grock
##Emma Miller Grock

When we first visited McMinnville Playschool, the vibe hooked me. The room was a rainbow hodgepodge packed with objects of small child fascination.

A cooperative preschool. The notion was so enchantingly earnest and pure, I wanted to enroll my daughter.

But after weary pandemic years with scant child care, this was arguably nuts, as the Playschool runs on volunteer power. A valiant teacher is the sole employee.

Adult reps from each family — yes, mostly the moms — take shifts working the classroom. Each family also handles one of the many jobs that keep the school humming: directing the planning, raising the funds, registering the students and ordering the supplies.

When the school day ends, volunteers sweep, mop and glop up the glue puddles. In a culture that prizes convenience, a cooperative preschool is frank in its intent to inconvenience you.

Still, the place had a magic to it and the teacher clearly had chops. So my husband and I dissolved our post-pandemic fantasies of easy living through frictionless child care and signed on.

We chose right. We signed up for something we needed far more than the ease we were originally after, as this school weaves families into a rare kind of mutual reliance.

Managing a rambunctious room of 3- and 4-year-olds can challenge even hardened professionals, though. Imagine, the chutzpah of just one teacher and a ragtag team of parents attempting the feat.

When my daughter began Playschool, I was intrigued and hopeful, but also a tad terrified. What was to stop the whole thing from melting into chaos?

That was how last September began for us and many other parents. After all, half of us were strangers to each other, and many of us, me included, were unseasoned in the art of preschool management.

Some young ones, mine included, were away from family for the first time. And they were prone to tears, shrieks and meltdowns. Under cover of the din, some remarkably creative mischief had to be managed.

But each morning, a circle formed. The teacher served as its unwavering key spoke, with the children arraying themselves alongside her in preparation for the classic rituals of preschool.

Week by week, the frenzy arranged itself into a pattern.

The little dears established habits and friendships, buzzing from easel to blocks to snack table, gathering and dispersing, arguing and making up. Our kids had made a tiny community, their first.

We got to know each of our children — who loves tap-dance, who loves Peterbilt trucks, who loves saturating paintings to the point of requiring a multi-day dry out. The real hotshot volunteers even learned to match each coat to the correct child.

It turns out it’s pretty sweet having your kid’s pals’ parents also be her teachers. We ended up with a tiny kibbutz of collective care.

The whole thing would be impossible without an intensely devoted teacher, and we have one in Teressa DiAndrea. She has an uncanny ability to see into the soul of a preschooler.

DiAndrea applies high-minded educational philosophies even to moments of apparent mayhem. She quietly fills in gaps left by us parents, imperfectly reliable as we are in our habitual state of frazzlement.

When I check out photos posted at the end of a school day, it looks like a utopia of cooperative cuteness. But it’s not. It’s a weekly grind, replete with screwups.

The slack usually gets picked up in time, and the system rolls on. But sometimes it teeters precariously.

If too many volunteers are felled by sickness or mishaps, we have to scramble to line up reserves. We’re genuinely dependent on each other, which means our flub-ups reverberate. And any text thread of 20 people occasionally dissolves into a comedy of communication errors.

It has to be said: This is not for everyone. A school like this makes hefty demands, and at a life moment when parents are already a bit overwhelmed.

It is not all-purpose child care, and sometimes you actually need some all-purpose child care. But for families who are a fit, it’s a mighty good value for the cost, which is far lower, monetarily, than conventional preschools with more paid staff.

Like most Oregon counties, Yamhill is officially designated a “child care desert.” We are not blessed with abundant, affordable, high-quality early education options. That makes Playschool a rare gem.

At some point in my ambling through the last school year, I looked up to find myself in a lovely but unfamiliar place.

My 3-year-old wasn’t the only one experiencing a newfound sense of community. I was, too.

We had begun as strangers but become co-teachers, jointly invested in helping our children thrive. The network of family jobs had fashioned us into a village from a bygone era, each member playing a tidy role in a closed system.

I’m embarrassed to admit how unfamiliar this felt. Perhaps my childhood in exurbs and adulthood in urban centers accustomed me to raw individualism.

But I’m not the only one deficient in the nutrients supplied by communal belonging. For so many folks, this is a lonesome time in American life, with sources of firm fellowship dubiously supplanted by the flimsy connective strands of social media.

As our second year of Playschool gets underway, I’m still staggered by the energy demands of working with a pack of little kids. There’s some alchemical trick of absorbing their frenetic energy and feeding their enthusiasm, while transmitting the necessary calm back to them.

I see the best teachers do this, and I don’t know how they pull it off. As we non-pros hack our way through classroom shifts, we gain a greater appreciation for the difficult and essential work undertaken by early educators.

And the kids? They love Playschool.

Mine began last year harboring dread. She began this year bursting with back-to-school fervor. She spent August counting the days and planning the funky outfits.

Miraculously, it works. Or maybe it only struck me as miraculous because my own community muscles had atrophied to the point of seeming vestigial.

I sold us short initially. I underestimated what a committed group could do outside the bounds of paid work and big organizations, simply by relying on each other.

I had stumbled into something not so easy to find nowadays — a tightly interdependent community forged in trust and care.

Guest writer Emma Miller Grock lives on a lively Carlton farmstead, where she and her husband, Paul, raise produce, poultry, dairy goats and a daughter named Laila. They moved here in 2019, when the herd outgrew a quarter-acre urban patch in Oakland, California. Much like a cooperative preschool, the farm aims for a measure of self-sufficiency, and is ever susceptible to a measure of craziness. Emma has previously written for the East Bay Express and Subversal, among other publications. 


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