When my son Liam was about to turn 2, I nervously enrolled him in a neighbor-hood preschool in Alexandria called Abra-cadabra. I was a wreck. He was so little. Who were these people I was turning him over to for so much of his day?
His teachers in the Munchkin room, Miss Ayne and Miss Daisy, did not remain strangers long. Miss Ayne became my son's first crush. She invited us to her wedding and showed us how to shimmy our shoulders, Ethiopian-style. She held her reception on the playground among all the whooping kids. She was so luminous in her silky, floor-length gown that my usually talkative son became suddenly shy. He whispered to her, "You look like a princess," and wouldn't let go of her hand. She was just as devoted to him, observing to me at a parent-teacher conference later that year, "With Liam, you get the sense that anything is possible."
In Miss Kathy, Abracadabra's director, a former political advocate who had changed her life completely once she'd had her own children 20 years before, I found a friend and someone who understood my kid better than I did. When I lamented that Liam still liked his pacifier, she blasted me: "You know, we have our booze and our cigarettes, and we're worried about a lit-tle piece of plastic. Let him have it. He'll know when he doesn't need it anymore."
Miss Kathy became my trusted guide through the uncharted territory of parenthood. Her advice always blew away conventional wisdom and the admonishments of the airbrushed parenting magazines on how to be a perfect mother. Sometimes with a pointed barb, always with humor, she taught me to trust my instincts, to appreciate what the world looks like from the eyes of a 2-year-old. When I confided to her how nearly paralyzed with guilt I was about leaving my son to go to work every day, she gave me absolution: "You're more involved in your son's life than you realize."
When Liam was 4, and Miss Diana became his teacher in the Genie room, I worried that he liked to skip around the room in circles rather than do crafts during Small Group Time. "He likes to think," Miss Diana said, matter-of-factly, in her soft Guyanian accent. "That's just the way he does it."
That year, Miss Diana held my hand as we tried to decide whether to send Liam to kindergarten the following year at the public school down the street, where he would always be the youngest in the class. With her encouragement, we decided to give kindergarten a try, and when Liam struggled, the preschool teachers went into action. Miss Kathy sent home a stack of information on building the fine motor skills Liam needed to hold a pencil and write. Miss Diana assured me there was always room for him in her packed Genie class if we changed our minds.
Liam is now in second grade. On his days off from elementary school, he begs to go back to Abracadabra, where his 4-year-old sister, Tessa, is in the Genie room. The first thing he does when he visits is fly into the arms of his old teachers.
A few weeks ago, a friend called to say Miss Kathy had died suddenly of a heart attack. I felt as if I had swallowed a stone. I couldn't figure out my rush of grief. Was this like losing a mother? A sister? A wise aunt? It was only in facing the prospect of being a mother without her guidance that I realized just how much she had shaped the kind of mother I'd become. I sat in Kathy's office with Miss Nathalie, who'd taught my daughter when she was a Wizard, the two of us weeping and laughing as we dug through photographs and mementos to display at Miss Kathy's funeral.
A few days later, as I dropped Tessa off during what my husband calls the chaotic early morning "mosh pit" time, Miss Nathalie, who was born in a little town near the German border, was doing her wild Frenchwoman dance to the high-pitched song "Barbie Girl." Even without Miss Kathy, Abracadabra hadn't lost its magic. Its teachers have made me a better parent. They have helped me raise my children. And we are all so much the richer for it.
Brigid Schulte is a Metro reporter for The Post.