by Gina Maguire, MSW, LSW
Most of what I need to know as a healthy person, I learned in preschool... if only I had paid better attention. I went to preschool in a small, private, Jewish preschool on the first floor of one of the buildings in the projects where we lived. Living near Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, I was raised Catholic, but all of the three- and four-year-olds in the 2250 building went to this Jewish preschool. I can still remember my teacher, Miss Martha.
Looking back now, I realize that Miss Martha taught me most of what is important to know in life, and as a social worker. I’d like to share her lessons with you, in case you, like me, didn’t pay close enough attention back then.
First, she taught us about colors. We had crayons and we had finger paint. When we used the finger paints, we wore smocks. When we used crayons, we didn’t have to. We were always allowed to use all of the colors! Miss Martha never chose one color as “the best color,” nor did she ever tell us that any colors were bad to use or have. In that class were children of several religions, races, and ethnicities. We were as colorful as our crayons, and we mixed as well as our finger paints.
Miss Martha taught us our shapes. We drew circles, triangles, squares, rectangles—well, you get the idea. We learned that circles had to have curves. Triangles never had curves, and squares had all equal sides. Again, all of the shapes were equally represented in examples, and equally desirable to draw. Why, then, do we look down upon the different shapes of our bodies, and the bodies of others, as we age? Why do we love the curves of a circle as a child, but turn our noses up at “curvy” women who do not fit the “norm” seen in magazines? Why do we look at the rectangular shapes of super models and aspire to that one shape? When did rectangles become the norm? If I remember correctly, Miss Martha showed us many shapes, not just rectangles. We liked them all.
We learned about numbers, too. Amazingly, when you put two numbers together, you get a new number. A number always represents a numerical value. That’s what I remember. Amazingly, as I grew up, I was taught by others that this was not always the case. I learned that a woman who weighs 120 pounds and gains 30 pounds becomes fat. Shouldn’t she just become 150 pounds? Why then does a high number for age equal a lower status in society? Who decides at which number we change from a number of pounds to “fat or skinny”? Who decides that 66 is old, not simply one year more than 65? I like the math Miss Martha taught me much better. I am 43. I will be 44, and so on. I will not be “old” until I DECIDE that I am old, and I want to act old. Until then, my age is only a number. It defines neither my personality nor my abilities.
Miss Martha taught us to do things in pairs. We always had a “partner” to work beside. Having a partner was nice. We shared the work and had someone to talk to. We were usually allowed to choose our partners. Usually, we chose the other preschooler to whom we were closest. For my birthday, I chose Christine G. to help me deliver my cupcakes and to be that day’s helper. I know we held hands when doing our duties. Why was it okay in Miss Martha’s class, but not in today’s society, for me to hold another woman’s hand? Holding hands is a sign of affection, something every person deserves and needs. Why do we now try to choose who should be more deserving of this affection than others? When I walk in a park and hold my husband’s hand, people smile at us. I have some friends who are afraid to hold hands in public, because they have same sex partners. It’s not fair. Miss Martha told us holding hands was fine. I think she was right.
I learned about these things: colors, shapes, numbers, and partners, in 1973 or 1974. The lessons Miss Martha taught me were not understood and appreciated until I began my master’s degree in 2010. I had to “unlearn” 36 years of society’s lessons. I have always tried to celebrate the fact that we are all equal, different colors, shapes, ages, weights and orientations, but I never applied this knowledge to my life. Accepting one’s own differences, and celebrating diversity within, is more difficult to grasp.
If only I hadn’t waited all of these years to apply this knowledge. If only I could remind others of the important lessons we learned as children. If only I could help others to “unlearn” society’s unhealthy assumptions. Oh, I can! I am a social worker!
Thank you, Miss Martha, whereever you are!
Gina Maguire, MSW, LSW, is an adjunct professor of gerontology at Stockton College, an adjunct professor of psychology/human services at Brookdale Community College, and program assistant for the Stockton Center on Successful Aging. Gina has provided individual and couples counseling to older adults; organized and facilitated activity programs for older adults and a reminiscence autobiography group with older adults, which culminated in a published work; and provided research for several textbooks in areas of military, health, and mental health, social work advocacy, depression of older adults, and the anniversary reaction to death.