Having discovered that another child is making her son Jack’s life a misery at nursery school, Libby has decided to consult Patsy, the nursery school owner. She realises, though, that this Consultation will actually be more a Confrontation.
“Have a seat,” Patsy says, waving at the hard wooden chair on the other side of her desk.
I’ve been in Patsy’s office only once before, when I enrolled Jack at the nursery school. It’s a small room with a big smeary window and dinosaur print curtains drawn back, offering no shade against the afternoon sun that dazzles the occupant of the chair opposite Patsy.
On the wall to the right, nestling among framed finger-paintings by star students, hang assorted certificates from universities and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – proof, presumably, that Patsy and her staff are competent to impart knowledge to our offspring. A cork board on the other wall is littered with coloured posters advertising local events and fundraisers. Many posters are several months out of date, the paper sun-faded and curling at the corners.
It’s a pretty depressing chamber, with its stegosaurus curtains and floating dust motes. Sitting here, opposite Patsy in her Chair of Power behind the coffee-ringed desk, reminds me of squirming in the office of my old GCSE English teacher, trying to explain why I hadn’t done my homework. Though my English teacher had better dress sense. She would never have come to school in Patsy’s red sweatshirt, home-decorated in acrylic paints with a spotchy picture of what looks like a psychedelic T-rex, but isn’t. “Happy 2012 – Chinese Year Of The Dragon!” trumpet the clarifying words under the T-rex.
Patsy forfeits dress sense for seasonal attire in a big way, I’ve noticed over the last couple of months.
“Is Jack sick?” she asks. “I noticed he wasn’t here today.”
I drag my eyes away from the Chinese T-rex, wondering uncomfortably if Patsy thinks I’ve been sizing up her boobs.
“He’s not sick, no. He didn’t want to come,” I say, and pause for a second. “I think he’s being bullied. By Dominic,” I add, and wait for her reaction. This is going to be a difficult conversation.
You see, Patsy doesn’t — or won’t — believe that three- and four-year olds are capable of bullying each other. This much I learned last week from overhearing her dialogue with Dominic’s mother. The child had been chucked out of a rival nursery school, allegedly for harassing his little classmates. Patsy had been sympathetic toward Caroline, the tiger-mum mother, and I’d heard her opining that bullying didn’t exist among toddlers – it was all the fault of overprotective parents’ imaginations.
I know I am not overprotective, that there is nothing wrong with my imagination, and Dominic’s ex-pre-school probably had a point. When my three-year-old refuses to get in the car to go to a place he’d previously enjoyed attending – coincidentally, before Dominic’s arrival – I know something is wrong.
Patsy, as I had anticipated, is in denial that something unpleasant should happen in her Lilliputian Utopia, and shakes her head at me patronisingly. I just bet she’s been to see that film with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.
“Oh no,” she says. “No. No, no, no. We don’t have bullying in our school. Some children are more confident than others, of course, and the, er, more sensitive souls such as Jack sometimes feel a little intimidated by the confident ones. We try to work with children like Jack, to raise their self-esteem—”
“It’s got nothing at all to do with Jack’s self-esteem!” I splutter. “He’s got plenty of self-esteem! He’s just not very keen on spending time in a place where undisciplined little sods ram toy strollers at his legs for the hell of it and the people supposedly in charge stand around and waffle on about self-esteem.”
Patsy winces. Whether it’s at my accusations or at the word “Hell” (a very bad word in Woodhaven, I’ve discovered) I don’t know. It won’t be the word “Sods” because she won’t know what that means. It’s what Oliver calls “High-frequency swearing” along with other choice British words that make their way past the censors on TV. Kind of funny really – they’ll bleep out most of Gordon Ramsay’s vocabulary, but the word “Wanker” is allowed to remain because it’s foreign and unknown.
She draws in a breath and folds her hands carefully on the desk, making a steeple out of her index fingers. Definitely Maggie Thatcher.
“As I said. At this age, we do not have a bullying problem. Bullying in pre-school years is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. But rest assured, I will monitor any bad behavioural choices by Jack’s classmates.”
My mother used to monitor my own bad behavioural choices with a couple of slaps on the leg, but I doubt this is what Patsy intends. Sometimes I long for the dark ages of the 1980s.
“And how do you intend to deal with any ‘bad behavioural choices’?” I ask. “Punish the child by not calling them ‘Honey’ at the end of a sentence?”
Pointless to use irony or sarcasm on Patsy. She’s spent too many years with small children, and interprets everything literally.
“Yes. We will speak kindly but firmly with the child – whichever child it turns out to be who Jack is distressed by.”
” ‘By whom’,” I mutter. You can’t pretend to be Maggie Thatcher if you don’t know the difference between Who and Whom.
I put my hand on the seat of the chair and carefully lever myself into a more assertive standing position.
“If I can persuade Jack to come next time, then of course I will. But frankly, Patsy, I’m not reassured by your plan of action. If this child is causing Jack distress, I’m sure he will be causing distress to someone else as well, and I don’t understand why you’re willing to put up with it.”
I hold my hand out to shake Patsy’s, and as I turn slightly, I catch sight of the cork board and its faded posters. One of them is for a fundraiser dear to Patsy’s heart – the Nursery Improvements Fund, currently raising cash for a new jungle gym in the playground. Patsy sends home requests for donations every week. They always go in the recycling bin at home – in my view, what Patsy charges every month should be enough to pay for a new jungle gym, heated swimming pool, and an indoor ski slope – but I know some other mothers donate regularly, holding bake sales and coffee mornings and what have you. Mothers with cash to throw around. Mothers driving Porsche Cayennes. Mothers wearing big diamonds in their earlobes…
“It’s the money, isn’t it?” I say softly, releasing her hand. “You’ve taken this child on for more motives than just out of the goodness of your heart. Getting near the total you need for the new swing set, are you?”
Patsy’s face goes a little pink.
“No, you’re quite wrong if you think I’d—”
“Am I? Am I? I bet if Jack was displaying ‘bad behaviour choices’ you’d be chewing my ear off about it before I could say ‘Supernanny.’ How big a donation would I have to make to your Nursery Improvements Fund before you’d overlook the fact that Jack was making another child’s life a misery?”
“Thought so. Goodbye, Patsy.”
I walk out of the room.
The dust was making my eyes water anyway.
To be continued next week
Next: LIBBY’S LIFE #37: Plots (and waistlines) thickening
Previous: LIBBY’S LIFE #35: A big piranha in a small pond
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