A Prayer at Recess

By: Tosha Woronov

Leo is on his second full day of kindergarten. He actually started two weeks ago, but to allow the kids some transition time, Days One through Six were partial days – an hour here, three hours there, two days off for the Jewish holiday.

Leo would like more transition time, thank you very much. Not at all ok with the new, regular, five-hour day, he tells me, “That’s too long to be away from you.” I remind him that preschool was much, much longer, and then greatly disappoint myself for missing the key difference, which he has to point out to me through tears: “I could go for 100 hours at preschool, because I had friends there.”

The aches and pains of his adjustments to preschool are distinct from those we have now. Back then it was about whether or not he could nap in a strange environment; Was his lion blankie allowed? How would he do without a pacifier? Can he make it to the bathroom before having an accident, and if not, how many extra pairs of pants and underwear should I pack?

But for kindergarten, he’s thrust into this place, expected to make friends. Make friends. I keep repeating that in my head, imagining having to go through it myself. Of course, the payoff is one of the sweeter things in life –a new friend and all its attendant joys– but the work involved, that first and second contact, is unbearable. At least, it is for me. And so it seems for Leo, because it did not help him to be reminded that all of the other children have to go through it, too. He can plainly see that some kids are just better at it than others. It comes easier for them. Plus, he has his own butterflies to settle. Like his dad (and quite unlike his mom), another person’s similar struggles don’t ease his own.

Yesterday I did something I promised myself I would not do. We live next door to his school, on a small hill overlooking the kindergarten play yard. Knowing it might hurt, but hoping for a happy surprise, I went against all my internal warnings and those of my friends who said “Don’t be tempted to watch him from up here. It will break your heart.”

“Break” is the wrong word.

My heart sank as I watched Leo move through the playground, completely alone, his round belly jutting out under his tight, white shirt. Walking around, looking for something to do, worse -someone to play with. It seemed all the kids were paired up or in groups except mine –my sweet, good-natured, funny boy. A month ago and all the days before it I could have, would have, intervened. It was acceptable back then to say to another mom and her child at the park, “Hello. This is Leo! What’s your name? Would you guys like to play in the sandbox together?” But from my painful vantage point I could do nothing but watch (Stop watching Tosha! Walk away! Go inside!), and cry, and try not to curse the hard-working, underpaid teachers monitoring recess who have a dozen things to handle other than a little boy with no one to play with.

I watched him circle around an area where six or seven kindergarteners played basketball, his favorite sport. He approached them–three separate times –each time being either ignored or (god, I hope not) admonished by the other boys. He would walk away and circle the playground again. I could not stand it. I stood near our fence, amidst the morning glories and the bees, my coffee cold and tears streaming down my face, praying to a god I never pray to, please, please, please, let him play ball with these other boys.

His bravery astounds. It does not come from me, or even his dad (but more so his dad). He stuck it out, grabbed a rebound as it rolled near, held on to the ball for just a beat, and then made a shot. He gave a little inner jump-cheer to himself. And then he did it again. And again. He stayed and played. I finally walked away to call my husband and tell him. To share a cry about this little boy who’s trying so, so hard.

After school he told me he made twenty shots at recess and played basketball with a boy named Gabriel.

Thank god for basketball and Gabriel.

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