The knotted highway unwound itself from the mountains and could now be seen for miles in the distance. Alberta. From the ditches to the horizon, Natasha saw peace. She was a traveler enveloped into tranquil imagery of hay, horse and cloud. Callous cement drifted behind the vehicle. An entire sky reflected within a muddy passing pond. Not only the calmness of the farm life, but also the motion of the vehicle lulled her. Natasha stared ahead into a future unknown until the silhouette of the city finally defined itself. Her eyes followed sunrays leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper. With Natasha"s every blink, the shading of her mental sketch of tomorrow became more apparent, the colors less abundant. All the contentment drawn from her voyage here was now overshadowed by the surrounding city limits.
New to the city, Natasha wound up lost in a downtown she one day would recognize as carefully planned streets and avenues. She desperately needed to find a home and a job. A place to pay the monthly rent was so much easier established than an income. A few weeks passed by before she was finally hired as a daycare teacher. In the end, it seemed all her distress in searching for work was as worthless as her salary. The only math she now practiced was multiplication of her banked hours by a minimum wage. Natasha wasn"t afraid to be poor. On the contrary, she was able to appreciate the simple beauty in having little, but what was felt deeper inside her were condescending stares. Whether Natasha realized it or not, poverty was affecting her mood and self-perception. Consolation, however, arrived to her within the thought that time was on her side, and as she would adjust to the new life in a new city, her path would clear with understanding and familiarity.
Natasha"s job started on a Monday morning. It was five minutes to eight when she was standing patiently in a cozy hallway, on a freshly mopped daycare floor, absorbing the lingering smells from the kitchen. Nostalgia of childhood hit her as she glanced over the displayed lunch menu. Those youthful recollections would be a happy retreat from the worries that were to come. Alas, there was no chance to slow down or to smile at her memories. Natasha"s attention was grabbed, and she was now following the footsteps of the daycare manager to a bright, spacious classroom.
Natasha barely looked up to hear the manager say, ""Meet Kelly. She is the supervisor of the two-year-olds" room. She will show you around." The manager vanished away as Kelly greeted Natasha.
This was it, the new beginning of Natasha"s life, and here she was - she and Kelly - in a toddler room full of tiny people and tiny furniture. One wall was occupied by two large windows set low enough for the children to see out onto quiet streets. Colorful miniature tables, chairs and tiny toy shelves separated the room into different play sections. Within one area stood a sand table and a water table, next to this was a corner of cozy couches, a collection of dolls and doll-sized bedroom furniture. The little kitchen and toy cribs looked almost real. On the floor, a thick carpet covered a section reserved for building blocks. Another side of the room had a glass wall which divided the space in two - the other half occupied by the older children.. That would be the three-year-olds" classroom was where Natasha was to teach once her training was complete. However, for now, Natasha stood in the toddler"s classroom, and within this world, kids seemed very busy: building up and destroying their own creations, starting from the beginning again and again. From her first impression of the room, Natasha noticed that not one soul here was bored.
"Have you noticed, everything in the room is made for the children?" Kelly asked after a few minutes of small talk. "There is no adult sized furniture!"
Natasha nodded, smiling. She had seen the awkward movements from Kelly as she inched off of a teeny plastic chair. Natasha had also noticed that her new co-worker was an experienced teacher. Kelly seemed great at multitasking; she cleaned, looked after the children, explaining the rules and routines along the way. Natasha paid attention to her every word. There was a lot to learn, but first she needed to get the key points, the most important things, later on she would fill in the blanks with details. As Kelly talked to the children, her words seemed calm and gentle, yet her voice seemed to freeze like ice in Natasha"s mind. It was as if within the tone of her co-worker"s voice she could sense some harshness, some unpleasant hidden quality, or was it only Natasha"s imagination?
"You know, you have to explain to kids the simplest things. You tell them not to be greedy, but their favorite word remains the same: mine, mine! They yell and hit, and pull each other"s hair. See, there is Crystal in the "kitchen" corner. Watch her closely. You"ll see how badly she scratches her friends with her fingernails," Kelly continued to explain.
A blue-eyed girl paused at her game. She hid behind her toys and grew quiet as she stared up at the teachers examining her. One finger was pointed directly at Crystal, and her heart raced knowing she was in for it again. Then, one teacher smiled, and she felt a troubling black cloud disappear. It was Natasha who was smiling at the young girl; she couldn't picture Crystal hurting anyone at all. "Why would Kelly talk about a child that way? Surely the girl has ears and eyes capable of understanding the negativity aimed at her," Natasha wondered, but kept her observations to herself.
"It's hard to believe Crystal scratches. She looks so quiet and so very sweet," Natasha remarked out loud.
"Oh, appearances can be so deceiving, and you better make sure to stop her before she hurts anybody. Before, not after!" Kelly stated as she gazed at Natasha distrustfully.
"To Kelly I am just a rookie. She doesn't think I can handle these children," was Natasha"s thought as she translated Kelly"s look and tone of voice.
"There is still time before serving breakfast. Let"s listen to some songs," suggested Kelly to the toddlers, placing a music player before the classroom mirror.
The kids were drawn one after the other toward the music. In the opposite corner of the room, a black haired girl, Jessica, tucked in a doll and whispered promises of return into the baby"s plastic ear hurrying over to join the others. There, on the dance floor, children stomped and jumped to the music, watching their own reflections within the mirror. Two year-old Madison admired his own imitation. His body flailed every which way and sure enough his double followed. The youngest, Brandon, didn"t dance, he was parked to the side, laughing intensely, his eyes darting from his friends to their dancing reflections. Sure enough, the kids were dancing for themselves, but they were dancing for an audience as well. Every time Brandon giggled, the toddlers exploded with more bouncing. Keeping close eye of their reflections, they mimicked the movements that offered the most laughter. Kelly asked the children to be gentle to each other, not to push, and not to touch the mirror with their fingers.
"I'm sick and tired of wiping the mirror of handprints," she explained to Natasha. "See, there on the left side the glass is cracked. We"ve ordered a new one. For now, I just taped it. Still though, the kids could cut themselves!"
Little, blond Crystal was the only one who didn"t join the others in dancing. She had found a small doll tucked away and picked her up from a tiny bed. Suddenly, waiving her hands and screaming, Jessica raced toward Crystal.
"That's my baby, it's mine!" she hollered.
"The best way to prevent a fight - is to stop it before it has even started," Kelly mumbled, as she awkwardly lifted herself up from the small plastic chair.
If a teacher could save one child from being hurt, her day would not be spent in vain. As quickly as she could, Kelly followed Jessica into the play area, but the little girl was way ahead her teacher. She snatched the doll, screaming angrily right in Crystal"s face. Crystal froze, let go of the baby and in the next second had drawn red scratches down her friend"s cheeks. And now, huffing and puffing, here was Kelly. Too late! Too late to prevent the fight and pain, now the teacher could only offer her sympathy and love. Kelly hugged crying Jessica and grabbed the other child"s hand. Crystal"s eyes were open wide; she knew she was in trouble - again.
"See the blood? That"s very painful. Your friend is hurting. Hur-ting! Didn't I tell you to use your words; you must just say no," Kelly explained.
"Kelly is so great! Good at her job and fair to the children. She's is not just punishing the little girls, she is teaching them how to...," yet this realization faded quickly in Natasha"s mind as Jessica"s tears stopped, and she shot at Crystal:
"Yah Crystal! You need to use your words!"
Natasha shuddered. The ugliness of the young girl"s tone had just magnified the hatred hidden behind Kelly's teachings. No adult could have reflected the true emotions of the teacher"s essence any clearer. Kelly told the girls to understand one another. Using the very same words, Jessica communicated the annoyance the teacher felt towards little Crystal.
During the following week of training there was a lot to learn. Kelly shared her experience and knowledge. Natasha listened carefully, trying to learn every minor thing. Scattered details slowly began to form a system. Soon, Natasha was assigned to look after the room occupied by the three-year old boys and girls. On the first day, co-workers wished Natasha luck. Kelly explained to Natasha that when children turn exactly three years of age, they would be transitioned to her room. There was a tradition at the daycare. Two months before a third birthday, the child would visit the older kids" room for a chance to get to know the new friends and adjust to a different atmosphere.
"You can expect Jessica and Crystal today... so make sure to watch the little monster!" Kelly warned Natasha, shaking her head. "Soon enough she will be three, then she'll be in your classroom for good! To keep her from scratching, we"ll have to make sure she wears thin gloves. We"ll tell the girl that they look pretty, but you better ensure she doesn"t take them off when she"s with you."
After the usual breakfast of toast and jam, Natasha welcomed the two young girls to her room. Jessica hurried off to play with her older friends. Crystal, in pretty little gloves, sat alone in a corner. She hated the gloves she was forced to wear, but couldn"t take them off. Natasha sat beside her, determined to make the child smile.
"Jessica is my friend. Why is she playing with the other girls?" Crystal asked, staring into Natasha.
"Well, I can't order Jessica to be your friend, but I"ll play with you. Would you like to be my friend?" Natasha replied.
Soon enough they were constructing castles on the carpet. Unevenly balanced blocks placed by Crystal gave into the ground, but she kept trying and it was paying off. Natasha, a master of castle building, dropped her block pieces on purpose, asking Crystal for advise on construction. As Jessica walked by them, Natasha winked at Crystal, saying:
"Hey, this is so fun! You are amazing! Where did you learn to build?"
"Can I play with you?" oblivious to Natasha"s trick, Jessica asked them excitedly.
"Well you should ask your friend Crystal," Natasha answered. "She has made such a wonderful castle - it"s hers."
"Yes! You can, Jessica, you can!" Crystal"s eyes were shining.
A few months later, Natasha felt familiar with her new job. She didn't see the daycare as a foreign country with strange laws. On the contrary, it was the children who were the foreigners to life, and she watched them learn their way. Children acted unknowingly, and if the action was met with an adult smile, this meant green light. Surely, the children understood Natasha"s words, but just as individual pieces of a puzzle cannot display an entire picture, a lecture here and there couldn"t explain the "adult" logic. Soon enough, Natasha had discovered that children learn better through emotions, and she began to teach through actions. To communicate with the children, Natasha had to learn from them, too.
She adjusted herself to a child"s world. It was a game and an exercise for her soul. The growing friendship with Crystal was a source of many joys. Finally, one morning, trust brought Natasha to take off Crystal"s little gloves. Through the glass wall, Natasha could feel Kelly"s disapproving stares. "I know what I am doing," Natasha silently answered her co-worker"s angry glares.
"In my room, you don"t ever scratch the other girls and boys, do you?" Natasha answered the young child"s confused look.
"But why?" Crystal had just realized that it was true. Since she moved to Natasha"s room, she never did have to use her nails, but what had made her change, she wasn"t sure. Natasha looked down at the little "monster" and there she was, looking back at Natasha. Her short blond hair was beautiful and soft; her bright blue eyes were full with wonder. Natasha led the girl to the mirror, and fixing a hairpin was only an excuse.
"Just look at yourself, Crystal, look at you in the mirror. You're such a pretty girl," Natasha told her as she tucked away her little friend"s hair. "You know what? Beautiful girls like you just don't scratch, do they?"
First thing the following morning, Crystal"s mom was putting away her daughter's jacket and hat in a locker.
"You behave like a nice girl, and tonight tell me all about your day! On Saturday we can even invite Jessica to our house and bake some cookies. Would you like that?" Crystal"s mother asked.
"Yes, I like that! But look at me, look at me," Crystal said, pulling her mom into the classroom, pointing out the mirror.
"Look, look what a pretty girl I am! Mommy, am I pretty?"
"Oh yes, sweetie, yes, you are!"
"But the mirror in Kelly's room is cracked."
"Oh, is it?"
"It is!" Crystal warned her mother. "It"s broken, you know?"