Before we were bitter

I spent Monday morning at the Highland Presbyterian Weekday School. Some 23 years ago, I became a proud (although I didn’t know it at the time) graduate of the pre-school, tucked inside a two-story post-war style block building on Highland Avenue near Cherokee Road.

Highland Pres is upon its 60th anniversary, and director Ann Lacy, who remembers me when I was 3-foot-nothing and whiny (as opposed to 6-foot-1 with similar temperament), invited me for a return visit.

We spent the morning chatting and touring the school, which is much smaller than I’d remembered. I had the atavistic thrill of sitting in an undersized chair I may have occupied more than two decades ago. On the playground, the rounded roots of a particular tree jolted me back to a time when the only thing better than being alive to learn so much was knowing I’d get to keep doing it the next day.

It’s a useful exercise to, every so often, reverse-engineer your childhood. I came up in an ideal home, with two loving and exemplary parents who were kind enough to offer me a little brother to attack when necessary. (Although we live more than 2,300 miles from each other now, we remain close.) Both sides of my extended family are large, welcoming and supportive.

But I had a revelation Monday about my extra-family life as a youngster: This place where I spent some formative years is much more progressive and idealistic than I ever would’ve remembered.

And suddenly I was a giant stomping the halls of Highland Pres, a neat little ecosystem where children ages 2-5 are made to believe they are masters of their own destiny, whether that means using their fingers to splotch paint onto sheets of scratch paper when they feel inspired or carving a dragon from a pine cone. In math class, two kindergartners were presented with a pile of old keys and had to discern five different ways of grouping them. Rather than become frustrated with one another when they couldn’t find common elements among the keys, the pair schemed and devised, tried and failed. They swapped car keys for house keys, sliding and pushing them together and apart until they worked it out. Low-impact Math + Conflict Resolution 101 = Good kid.

Lacy showed me a flipbook that had to be a couple feet wide, written and fully illustrated by kids, each of whom had a page to tell their part of an overarching narrative.

In fact, kids’ drawings and paintings line the walls of classrooms and hallways; it is their own private museum.

“Their drawing for us is a way for them to represent their thinking,” Lacy explained.

This is also a major booster. Numerous studies have shown kids who are encouraged in the arts and other diverse, freethinking curriculums tend to become well-adjusted adults, and perhaps stronger thinkers. Affirmation begets creativity, and in the place of anxiety over test taking and failure comes a cycle of positivism.

I’ve been wondering lately where my hope has gone. In 23 years, I — and no doubt many of you — appear to have changed from a bursting idealist into an utterly negative, embittered and cynical “realist” who loses a little more of myself every time I hear the phrase death panel.

The American conversation, now more than ever, seems to be dominated by undercutting, cheating, intellectual theft, and a petty, shallow understanding of humanity that mostly excludes basic optimism. I am not suggesting being Pollyanna or naive about the real problems we face. We would falter if we simply ignored adversity in favor of an always-rosy outlook.

But we err egregiously when we overlook what children teach us about how to be — which is, if nothing else, sincere and genuine. The once-simple act of thinking something good requires extraordinary self-control in our environment of disinformation, sabotage and the daily deluge of terrible things.

I asked Lacy what she learns at Highland Pres.

“The essence of young children — they are so full of wonder and curiosity,” she said. Every child is the hinge of her own front door, but she comes to school and learns her peers believe the same thing, which strikes me as an important lesson in our time.

When the water ebbs and you begin to drift, remember finger-painting.

Highland Presbyterian Weekday School is holding a silent auction Saturday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Pleune-Mobley Center (969 Cherokee Road). Among items to be auctioned are original paintings by students. Proceeds will go to expanding the outdoor play area. Visit or call 456-6991 for details.