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A Perfect School

Richard McManus


We lived in Cambridge before we moved to Hingham. During that time three of my four daughters attended Parents Nursery School, a school that opened in 1947. It is a parent co-op with a staff of two and two parents rotating in each day. I visited PNS recently to find that the little school feels almost as though it is in some kind of time warp.

The furniture is funky and mostly wood, there are layers of poster paint everywhere, and a big garage door is opened on some of the most unlikely days, allowing students to go out for explorations at almost any time. When you first visit the school you are impressed by this timeless appearance. The materials are old and well used. The chairs, tables and cubbies go back more than 30 years, possibly to the founding of the school.

My youngest daughter, Becca, was the only one of my children who never did get a chance to attend PNS. She did visit though, and in answering a parent who asked her how she planned to spend her time there she inadvertently summarized the philosophy of the school. “I am going to do what I want to do.” While all who know Becca recognize this as lifetime credo, it is also a perfect encapsulation of the PNS philosophy.

The school is very careful to respect its students and their parents. Parents are involved in staffing and in governance of the program. One thing that stood out as I worked and parented at the school was that girls loved it more than boys. There had been a long streak of Quaker influence and weapons were discouraged. This led to an ongoing struggle between boys and teachers around “weapons.” A tree branch, a long thin block, a stick could all become “guns” in the hands of the boys. Meanwhile the older girls might put together some desks and replicate a traditional school set up, sitting nicely while one of their number played teacher.

The equipment at PNS never changed, as my daughters progressed from Sara, now 33, to Caitlin, now 29, to Aimee, now 20, and finally to Becca, now 18. The same big blocks for building structures, the same old boat, the same giant sandbox.

One exception was the swing set. It was decided that a delegation of dads should get rid of the old set, replacing it with something newer and safer. In a Saturday to remember, we tore out the old and replaced it with the bigger, better new. But that was a dramatic exception to the usual approach at PNS.

There were no computers, nothing modern – then or now. Kids were everywhere, building structures out of big wooden blocks, looking at books, playing dress up in costumes of all sorts. No one ever worried about “screen time.”

Toni Genovese, the director now, has written about the move from the long-time home of the school to its new location, how the move was made, and why it was of such great value. The giant garage door has a new facsimile, the outdoor space is a giant sandbox covered with snow, but children were out today in 20-degree weather, playing for the entire hour I was there, with only a handful staying inside to do artwork or look at books. The heart of the school remains the wishes of the children to learn.

Parents often wanted the school to change from its morning only schedule only to find that the founder who owned the property did not allow an “extended day” program. He thought parents should be with their young children and that the school should enrich young lives, not provide baby-sitting. His spirit guided Toni as she wrote her paper on the history of the school and why it is so special. The special sanctity of this place and significance has continued despite the change in location and the latest trends in how children are taught in other places.

One day, when I was on clean up duty, I came into the empty school and found Mary, who I knew from a few years prior, when Sara, my oldest daughter had been at PNS. Mary was sitting at one of the tables and looking very solemn. I was glad to see her and asked why she was there. “My husband is in surgery for a brain tumor. There is nothing for me to do there and the hospital suggested I should wait somewhere else. I came here because this is the safest place I know.” I knew exactly how she felt, and to this day feel as though that shield of safety would protect a parent or child through any danger. Later her husband recovered – the blanket of PNS security kept her whole throughout the surgery.

That sanctuary builds confidence and a love for learning that is life long. Everyone involved with the school comes under its spell, and the warm, safe vibration charms all. Though there is no obvious instructional approach to the way PNS works, the core of it is that kids choose what they do. Learning is constantly fun. One day when I was the parent helper we worked on the boat, an old rowboat that was falling apart. We did some painting, some hammering, some other “repairs” that were fun and noisy. Kids and parents alike thrashed around with less than perfect skills, but a safety person made sure that we had done no harm. The same old boat is in the yard of the new school today. Some things can be fixed but they can never be improved.

PNS remains a perfect school.

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