When I was 3 and 4 years old, I attended what would now be called pre-school but back then was called nursery school. Happy Time Nursery School to be exact – on St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg, MB. The school was in a small house, with the upstairs decked out with a coat room, art spaces, and kitchen, and a play room in the basement. I imagine nothing about it would pass a modern day inspection, but it was still the early days of working moms, and the concept of regulated day care was still a glint in the feminists’ eye.
Like much of what anyone remembers from that age, memories are a disconnected bunch of images and vignettes, many of which don’t make sense. I don’t remember the early morning drop offs, the lunches, or what we did all day. I do remember there were naps, and a little square cubby hole where I put my stuff. I remember some of the teachers – the young ones were misses, the others missuses – but none of the other kids. The principal was a robust woman with tight black curls held up with bobby pins, the kind of woman who likely kept a bottle of scotch in her desk for when the kids have all gone home; I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor of her office, watching her do her grown-up work, when she pulled a bobby pin from her hair to clean her ear – gross but fascinating. There were the usual visits from Santa at Christmas (fun), the time I got a button stuck in my nose (embarrassing), and the time my parents didn’t pick me up on time (traumatic at the time, but really a non-event – the kind of miscommunication that happened in the days before cell phones).
At Happy Time, there was snack time every afternoon. My four year old brain remembers dozens of other kids but there couldn’t have been more than 12. Snack time was preceded by nap time, with all kids on their little mats in random spots on the main floor. After nap, we all went downstairs for snack – juice and a cookie (I distinctly remember peanut butter, so again not a modern day care). Everyone sat in a circle, one teacher came around with the cookies, another with the glasses of juice on a tray.
All of the glasses were identical plain plastic, except one. One of those things was not like the other. One juice glass had horizontal ridges and a smooth rim, and it was the Holy Grail of juice glasses to every Happy Timer. The teachers knew this, and had some secret system for remembering whose turn it was to pick first. And the first pick was almost always The Cup.
The drama of those first few moments, the teacher moving around the circle – which felt like an eternity at 4 – was my first memory of desire and anticipation. Then the disappointment those 11 out of 12 times when it wasn’t my turn, the horrid smugness and gloating of some of the others, and (as I remember it) my own gracious and humble satisfaction when it was my turn for The Cup.
I also have a distinct memory of declining The Cup. There was a new kid (I think it was a boy – some interesting psychology for my later life) who had seen the thrill of the Cup but not yet experienced it. That day, he sat beside me in the circle, and when the teacher stopped at me with the juice tray, the usual hush and moans and whines fell over the group. I remember drawing out the drama – my first diva moment? – and then reaching to the tray…and taking a regular glass. My version of the memory includes a monstrous intake of breath from the crowd, a knowing wink and smile from the teacher (“good job, Robyn”), and the eternal gratitude of the new kid as he got to select The Cup for the first time. None of that Disney-like drama likely happened, but it was an early lesson in the good feeling of generosity.
I hadn’t thought much about The Cup for a long time, until several years ago when I was outfitting my current kitchen. I was shopping somewhere when I saw not one but TWO Cups. I had to get them both. I don’t use them for juice, as I rarely anymore have naps followed by cookies. One holds my teaspoons, the other my toothbrush.
They are omnipresent now, a daily reminder, in their duality, that the preciousness of something is not just in its rarity or its value to others, but also in the childhood memory that a simple object can evoke and those associated lessons. I could use them any time, all the time. I don’t – just because I can, doesn’t mean I should or do.
The snippets of memories from Happy Time are some of my earliest. A time when nap time and snack time were my earliest exposure to quotidian routine, group dynamics and the Karma of generosity.