Fifty-two years ago, on a September morning in 1960 I had the good fortune to enter Heathcote Elementary School for the first time, arriving with some trepidation, the new kid in class, a third grader, unfamiliar with the town or the school or the children in it. But the moment I stepped into the school’s glass-sheathed world I knew I had entered an altogether remarkable realm filled with light and warmth and welcome, and for the next three years I thrived there, regretting only that we hadn’t moved to Scarsdale sooner.
Over the years I have returned often to participate in Heathcote’s annual ReadAloud program, re-experiencing that sense of openness and possibility every time I entered the building. One year I was assigned to a kindergarten class and felt as though I’d walked into a room full of enchantments: corners crammed with books and blocks and toys, shelves stocked with puzzles and games, with brightly colored folders and workbooks, with crayons and pencils, scissors and glue, with reams of colored paper, the walls draped with alphabet and number posters, with images of plants and animals, with poetry and song lyrics, with familiar words and book covers, and with children’s art. Here was the perfect environment for learning and fostering the imagination, filled with the tools needed to express language and artistic impulse, to gently begin the process of transforming nineteen largely illiterate children into readers and writers and thinkers, a room that welcomed curiosity and encouraged creativity, ever sensitive to the distinct differences of each child, fostering their intellects while attempting to inculcate a sense of self-control and of mastery over their environment.
How does this happen, how does a single teacher (or, in this fortunate community, a cadre of professionals) convert family-centric kindergartners into social beings possessing the necessary tools to acquire all the skills adult life will demand of them? What really goes on in these captivating spaces? What would it be like to observe the process at first hand, charting the gradual blossoming of aptitude, marking the moments of sudden insight or the slow emergence of understanding, the building of self-confidence, the ripening of judgment?
Responding to my request, Maria Stile, Heathcote principal, and Sharon De Lorenzo, Heathcote kindergarten teacher, invited me to document the life of a single kindergarten class during the course of one year. Thus began a ten-month-long photographic journey in search of awakening. So much is fleeting: a smile, a burst of laughter, a look of wide-eyed wonder, the clasp of hands, newfound physical mastery, sudden understanding. With nineteen children in constant motion, nineteen simultaneous narratives unfolding at the speed of light, could a single pair of eyes take in all the drama and capture it? It was this challenge that made each day in the classroom so rich in possibility. It was the beauty and boundless energy of the children that made it an alloyed delight.
The results of that exploration will be presented to the community on Tuesday, June 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Heathcote school. The exhibit’s 650 photographs are drawn from a total of more than 20,000 chronicling milestones large and small, a journey through the worlds of art and music, library and computer lab, dance and physical education, not to mention the special delights of snack time and lunch, recess and creative play, as well as encounters with guests and holidays—all contributing to the miraculous intellectual and emotional growth that characterizes life at the age of five.
The ideal observer would have been ever present; unfortunately this observer was able to spend only a few hours each week in the classroom; so of necessity the record is incomplete. Still, I hope it provides a deeper understanding of what transpires in these sacred spaces we call classrooms, reminding us of the boundless energy and irrepressible joy that life confers on each of us at this early age, a gift our schools nurture and nourish. I entered the classroom last fall in search of the processes that fuel creativity and analytical thinking during a time of life when the world seems overflowing with wonder and self-esteem lies untrammeled. I came away understanding why so many children in this community achieve so much. From their first moments in public school they are not only taught to believe in their capacity to achieve but are given the necessary tools to realize their dreams.
Kindergarten: A Year in Photographs, will open to the public at Heathcote School, 26 Palmer Road, on Tuesday, June 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. and remain on public view Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, June 6 to 8, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by appointment from Monday, June 11 to Thursday, June 14 from 10 to 2. All visitors are requested to enter the school through door #1 and to obtain a Visitor’s Pass at the Main Office.