One of my earliest memories is of my maternal grandmother. She would write in her notepad, and I would weave in and out of completing logic puzzles and running around the yard. At the time I thought of the activity as a game -- “answer these questions about shapes and order, then go run around the flowers” -- in which each activity was a reward for the other. I did not realize at the time that my mother and my grandmother were actually using these notes to create experiential and data-driven early education programs for preschoolers.
You see, I come from a family of educators. My maternal great grandparents were high school math teachers and district leaders in India. In fact, my great grandfather made a highly scandalous and controversial first step: he threw traditions and allegiances to patriarchy away, he stood deftly in the face of criticism and ridicule, and took the miraculous and radically simple step of educating his daughter, my grandmother.
And, indeed, such bravery paid off. By the time my grandmother was 12 she had completed high school and at age 16 she had earned her master’s degree in philosophy from a prestigious university in India. That superhuman, accelerated pace is something that I have always admired. I can remember being a toddler, steadying myself against my grandmother’s wooden chair in Karachi, Pakistan, as she sat with an open book, running two fingers down a page for a few seconds, then running two fingers down the next page. I asked her an unpretentious question, “What are you doing, grandma?” “Reading, bata [little one], reading.”
I remember growing up knowing I was in a learning environment. Sure, the preschool itself had the logic games and puzzles, the “toys” that taught critical thinking, the art teachers who taught beauty through math and the math teachers who taught us that math is majestic. I saw the final results, the products of my mom and my grandmother’s labor. But I also saw behind the scenes. My childhood kitchen pantry was filled with books and white papers. We had more books on how to cook than we had cookware together.
My mom and my grandmother would speak endlessly of the rule of threes, how to unlearn a behavior, how to correct bad behavior by focusing on the act and not the person. My grandmother’s dream was to open a school of her own. One where she would have the freedom to teach to the child. One that was informed not by punishments and rewards but by relentless peer reviews and through scouring neuroscience articles on learning and child development.
The thoughtful, meticulously designed curriculum that I enjoyed as a student at Self Development Preschool was STEM-centered before that was fashionable. We did math problems in roman numerals and designed weather experiments by testing them on building. At the preschool’s summer program, which functioned as a daycare, my 12-year-old self asked a teacher, “Didn’t we study weather and climate last summer?” To which the teacher responded, “Yep, but this year we get learn how Greek Myths were informed by weather and climate.”
And so my summer was spent either in a science lab or inside a toga reenacting scenes from Antigone. I also realized that the toga was actually perfect for Arizona’s infamous summers. Fashion, meet Science.
The summer after my 7th grade year was the first year I couldn’t attend Self Development Preschool’s Summer Program. I spent a few days in melancholy and idleness before my brain could not take the dull march of a vapid summer. I set out to work for the school. Over the next few years I would come back to the Preschool to work with the children.
One of the truly humbling features of this summertime work was that I was working for Vernetta Madsen and Rachel Hunt. Vernetta Madsen is Director of the Preschool and overall master of all trades. Rachel Hunt is a brilliant science teacher who has functioned as a close advisor to my mom on pedagogical issues since the 1970s. They are two tirelessly dedicated individuals who formed such an integral part of my upbringing that they fall inside some category between an aunt and mother. I don’t care what genetics says, they are my family.
I was used to taking direction from these two master craftsmen. I would dutifully put my building blocks away when I was a kid—okay, sometimes dutifully— because they were, like all adults are to kids, gods to me. But I now learned how they were able to convince me to do the right thing, how they were able to wade through the age difference and speak to me like a wise friend: it was time to work on my science report, it was time to eat my beets.
There are tender parts of me that I miss about preschool. I remember learning about the geometry of snowflakes when I was three and how cold water structures itself thusly. I think about that when I think about my formal schooling and I feel mildly plaintive. Not “wear a toga and yearn to be back at Self Development Academy” sad, but sad enough that through my high school years I’d comment to my mom on how unfortunate it was that I was not able to learn in such an integrative way as I had while attending her preschool and daycare. I wasn’t the only one commenting. Many parents of children who went to the preschool did as well.
While away for my freshman year of college at Vassar, my mom, Vernetta, Rachel, my dad, and Sherri Cote (current Director of the Phoenix) set about opening their first charter school. The school opened in 2000 with just 37 students. Thirty-five students were from Self Development Preschool, nearly all kindergartners. The school was of course built around the same philosophy that the preschool was built upon: every child learns if we make it hard enough and if we make it fun enough.
Side note--There is a smile that my mom has. It is part pride and part humility. I see it when her grandchildren greet her. I see it when cats finally decide that she is of course a very kind human and snuggle up next to her. But I would also see it every time I would come home from college. Her school had won another award. Or a teacher had won teacher of the year. Or the school was ranked #5. Then #4. Then #3. Then…
She was a proud daughter who had turned her mother’s dreams into a reality, and I was a proud son of my mother.
No one sits in my grandmother’s chair in Karachi. It is still there, but out of respect no one sits there. On one trip to Pakistan, my mom looked wistful, sitting in a chair next to her mother’s. I remember her saying, “Look at the poverty here. Baji [my grandmother’s title/term of endearment] planned to open a whole series of schools here in Karachi.” She swirled the milk in her tea, then tapped the spoon against the rim as if to commit to something internally. She then said with resolve: “The Mesa campus was consistently ranked in the top five. It was unfortunate that while this campus was educating so many, other communities all around us had little to offer their families.”
This success reminded my mom and her close staff of their role as shapers of destiny. The core Self Development group (Vernetta, Rachel, Sherri) got to work to open a school in a highly disadvantaged area in Phoenix using the Mesa campus as a model. At the time I was living in Washington, DC, having just finished law school. I worked with the staff on a grant for the school and felt that stir of excitement around the idea of working for something larger than yourself. But I stayed in DC while the Phoenix Campus opened in 2015 to 185 students. My mom would send me updates on both schools, and I’d feel that same longing I’d felt that first summer I couldn’t spend as a student at Self Development’s Summer Program.
In early 2016, my mom came to visit my sister and me in Washington, DC. On a grey morning, she sat lost in a pensive brooding as she swirled her milk in her tea with a spoon. She preceded to tell me that she had been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I took that in unwillingly. Then I remembered an eerie similarity: my grandmother had died of cancer at the age of 66, about the same age as my mom when she contracted breast cancer. My mom has built three successful businesses. There was no way that life’s perverted sense of humor, that mere coincidence and symbolism would shake my mom’s indefatigable desire to educate the impoverished. Nonetheless, I believe it did allow my mom to confront her own mortality, to embrace the natural arc of life.
She tapped the side of her cup firmly with her spoon and she asked me, “Will you move back home to Phoenix? Will you help me?”
I can’t say that I wasn’t conflicted. I loved my life in DC. I was close to so many museums, buildings of knowledge and history, of art and innovation. I was in the process of going back to school to receive my doctorate’s degree in social psychology to work in academia. I wanted to remain surrounded by culture and the pursuits of knowledge. But it soon dawned me: isn’t that same culture at Self Development Academy? Didn’t my mom teach me to value those things? Isn’t that exactly what she tries to inculcate in her students? Weren’t her campuses mini communities of scholars and artists?
After that revelation, it didn’t take long for me to make the decision to move back. Sure, I was going to miss walking everywhere, the cleaner air, the humidity. But what I would lose in the minor conveniences and niceties I would more than make up for in feeling deeply rewarded.
That last part has proven very true. As I write this I had to tell my small pullout group that I was not going to be able to work with them this week. My heart broke because all weekend I had been creating lesson plans in my head. I was trying to figure out how this student, if pushed in this way, could bring out this other student. They seemed disappointed too. In the past few weeks we’ve grown to appreciate the few hours we have together, and I feel as though I know their brains--what could make them eat beets, how to get them to write their science report. I feel deeply enriched.
These moments with the children-- I have been on all sides of it. I have been the child. I have been on the outside watching the adults learn how to handle those moments. I am now the adult in that moment. It is my own arc curving toward the path it was always meant to be on, a path that began generations ago.
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