Cooperation/Corporation, Continued

Spring has sprung here in the ‘hood. Painting crews are blasting conjunto music while they scrape and prep houses in a repainting ritual that seems to take place every spring. The lenten roses, green belles of the early spring ball, are laden with demure blossoms. The Bradford pear trees are a confectionary of exploded cotton batting.

And just as there has been every single spring for the past five years, controversy is reaching a boiling point at the cooperative preschool where we’ve thrown in our lot.

Cooperative preschools — or for that matter, Montessori preschools, Waldorf preschools, Reggio Emilia-method based preschools, and state-funded preschools— were not something I was aware of, pre-children (I actually don’t have enough fingers or toes to count up all the things I knew nothing of, pre-children). To tell you the truth, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into exactly what you did with kids once you had them. I knew they went to kindergarten at five, but other than that…. who knew?

Now that I’ve got six years of parenthood under my belt, I’ve come to appreciate the cooperative approach to preschool education (and maybe that will be blog fodder on a slow day), but in the beginning I made the decision to enroll Elder Girleen there when she was 1 1/2 based solely on this: the cooperative preschool was close to our house, I was attracted to its flexible schedul, she and I both needed some breathing space from each other, and I’d seen the children enrolled there as they marched (or rather strolled and rode on shoulders) in the annual free-spirited neighborhood parade.

They looked happy. In fact, they were happy — they are. Under the nurturing guidance of a cadre of teachers, a hardworking preschool director and all those fellow parents who “own” a cooperative preschool and pitch in when the building floods or someone has a baby or a child’s nose needs wiped, my daughters have blossomed into a sharp, inquisitive, polite (mostly), poised little people.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But at the same time, that annual free-spirited neighborhood festival, now one of Atlanta’s biggest events, is sponsored by Red Hook Beer, and the preschool (now just Younger Girleen’s school) might just as easily be described as a loose consortium of small fractious countries, each with its own nuclear warhead and fingers itchy to start hostilities. In short, things change in five years. Or maybe it’s just that the Pristine Surface is always, no matter where you find it, in good part about spin.

Last year I was on the board of directors at the preschool. Quasi-political, following — roughly, chaotically — the same Roberts Rules of Order that theoretically instill parliamentary procedure into everything from neighborhood meetings to … well, uhh … preschool board meetings; equal parts tedium, political brinkmanship and occasionally, heartwarming cooperation, the board of the preschool and the time I spent serving on it dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a level of social and political engagement that, before I had children, I mostly chose to observe from the sidelines.

Maybe because of that fact, this year my role can be best described as that of a mostly disinterested bystander. Not for me, board meetings that last for three hours where life-affecting details such as whether or not the child-drawn figure that serves as the school’s logo “looks lonely” at the top of the school letterhead are discussed. Not for me, those sidelong looks and huddles of two or three board members on the playground as the latest board powerplay or malfeasance is dissected. You might even say that I find myself watching this year’s controversy build the way you might watch a car crash — o, that spectacular fishtail! o, the crumpled bumper! somebody call 911!

Past springs, preschool controversies have involved everything from teacher hirings and firings to the possible dissolution of classes for certain ages of children. The specifics of this year’s controversy don’t really matter. The globals, though, as I read them, involve where you stand on the following statement:

Our organization is a non-profit educational institution, not a for-profit corporation with shareholders, etc.

This year, my motto as far as my preschool duties has been to tell myself yo! you can’t expect a sorority to behave like a commune, and even though this is about as inane as saying it is what it is, I’ve drawn a lot of comfort from it. People at the preschool generally mean well. I’m not so sure I would’ve wanted a commune anyway — we all know what happened to most of those idealistic sixties utopias.

Apparently, though, while I’m busy mouthing platitudes and keeping my head in the sand, the firestorm has been raging. I bumped into the poor soul who took my place on the board at the playground and she had a wild look in her eye. “The emails!” she cried. “One came down that said ‘we’re trying to run this place like a corporation.’ She took a deep breath. “A corporation! The first time I read that one, I read cooperation. That’s what it really is, right?”

Cooperation/Corporation. Ah, you wondered how I was going to pull this one off!

The answer is: I’m afraid I can’t pull it off at all. The serial nature of the medium has made me realize I’m on thin ice, narrative-wise: this one is just too hard for me to tackle. In blog form. Without a Ph.D. in Political Science. Or Philosophy. Or a bigger, less-mommified brain.

But I guess the point I might be trying for is this: As I stood there at Elder Girleen’s school while the Pledge was being recited, it dawned on my that we might all have some idealized vision of democracy, and the United States, lodged in our DNA. One vote, one voice! Our ancestors did mostly wash up on these shores believing this to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, after all.

So there we are, standing on that bedrock. But we live our day-to-day lives swimming (and sometimes drowning) in a sea of capitalist impulses. That’s why, when the parents charged with making decisions about a cooperative preschool get going, they start borrowing ideas from the corporate world. It’s not like they’ve been working on kibbutzim their whole lives! Where else are they going to get ideas from?

This is a big question. Maybe the BIGGEST question. But I think lots of folks are starting to ask it; that maybe the desire to find the answer to that is in the ether these days.

Apologies for the sociopolitical content of the last few days (we’re done now, I promise).

Howdy to all the folks in Texas who are in the political spotlight today.