The Child Care Crisis
PAULINE sits at her desk in the office of Little Wings Child Care Center. TRACY, holding the hand of toddler daughter HARPER, knocks at the door.
TRACY: Hi, I’m Tracy. I’m here for the tour?
PAULINE (standing): Welcome! Pauline, center director. So glad you’re here!
PAULINE joins TRACY in the hallway.
TRACY: It’s a miracle you’re even putting people on the waiting list right now! I keep seeing in the news how there’s a major shortage of child care workers.
PAULINE: Oh, there is. It’s absolutely impossible to get staff right now. But we’re doing things a little differently here. (Her eyes twinkle; she rubs hands together). Let me show you!
PAULINE leads TRACY down brightly lit hallway with pastel green walls and cheerful bulletin boards pinned with informational printouts and construction paper stars.
PAULINE: How old is your little one?
TRACY: Harper is two and a half. Say hello, Harper.
PAULINE: Lovely! We might have a spot opening up soon in our toddler room. I’ll give you the full tour so you can get a sense of the whole center. We’re very proud of our space. All the rooms have big windows, so you can see inside. This is our infant room.
They stop at a large picture window and look in on a yellow-painted room lined with eight baby cribs. Several infants sit in high chairs. One stands up in her crib and wails. BEAR #1 lumbers across the room and pokes his snout over the side of the crib.
TRACY: I’m sorry…is that a bear?
PAULINE: Yes! We had to think outside the box when it came to the worker shortage. This one was nosing around outside one morning, and I asked him if he’d like to come in, since we were in a pickle for a substitute that day.
BEAR #1 scoops up the baby with a front leg and slings it across the room. The baby lands facedown on the diaper changing table.
TRACY: But is it – safe?
PAULINE: It’s fine! Isn’t he cute?
BEAR #2 emerges from behind a rocking chair in the corner.
TRACY: Oh! There’s two of them!
PAULINE: Of course. We have to follow ratio guidelines. The first bear recruited the others.
TRACY: It looks like their paws can’t manage the diaper changing.
BEAR #1 struggles with the baby on the table, slashing her onesie with his claws and attempting to remove the sticky tabs on the diaper. He can’t do it. He gives up and walks away; the baby rolls off the table and hits the floor.
PAULINE: It’s a learning curve, but we’re confident they’ll get there.
BEAR #2, standing next to a baby in a high chair, tries repeatedly to pick up a bottle of milk from the table. The bottle keeps slipping from his front paws.
PAULINE: The great thing is, they don’t require any wages! They just go back to their cave every night.
TRACY: But - are the babies okay?
BEAR #1, still frustrated over the diaper, lets out a roar. All eight babies burst into tears. HARPER watches through the window with wide eyes.
PAULINE: Isn’t it sweet? He’s singing a lullaby! Let’s check out the toddler room.
PAULINE and TRACY continue down the hall and peek in the next window. BEAR #3 is laying on the circle time rug, covered in nap mats and children’s blankets. Toddlers roam around the room. One methodically pulls toy containers off shelves and dumps them on the floor. Another climbs a bookcase.
TODDLER: My blanket! My blanket!
TODDLER tugs at the Princess Peach blanket in BEAR #3’s grip. BEAR #3 swipes at her with his paw; she goes flying and lands in the sand table.
BEAR #3 rises, stretches and shuffles lazily toward the easels. He shoves a paw into a jug of purple paint; it gets stuck. BEAR #3 shakes his leg vigorously to free the paw. The jug flies off and paint rains over the children. Several yell in protest. TODDLER throws sand into the nearest child’s eyes. BEAR #3 wanders across the room to the costume box, puts on a tiara and looks at himself in the mirror.
PAULINE: Adorable, isn’t it? Let’s move on. I’m most proud of my preschool room! We really found a way to economize here. Check it out.
TRACY peers in the next window. Eighteen three-year-olds are running around a large classroom.
TRACY: Where’s the bear?
PAULINE grins proudly.
PAULINE: No bear at all! We just put Carter in charge. He was the most mature, so he leads the group. Watch.
Three-year-old CARTER jumps up on a table and takes off all his clothes.
CARTER: It’s naked time!
CARTER leaps down, runs the perimeter of the room, then clambers back up onto the table and starts projectile peeing. Several kids get sprayed. Two children at a table nearby are sitting with their lunchboxes open. One wipes hummus on the other’s face.
PRESCHOOLER #1: I can’t open my Tupperware! I’m hungry!
CARTER (racing past): Tell your dad to pack a different container tomorrow!
PAULINE: The kids are mostly potty trained here, so it’s easier.
PRESCHOOLER #2 (tugging on Carter’s sleeve): I had an accident.
CARTER (whipping a toy fire truck over his head): Woo-eeee, woo-eeee!
PRESCHOOLER #3 stands at the water table, scooping water out onto the floor. A child walking by slips and falls into the puddle. PRESCHOOLER #2 reaches into his pants to feel the results of his accident. PRESCHOOLER #1 throws her Tupperware, goes to the block corner and kicks down someone’s tower. The tower builder hits her, and she pushes him into the wall.
PAULINE: I have to say, I do miss having the teachers in this room. Clarice would have managed all of this beautifully.
PAULINE: Clarice was the lead teacher. She and the assistant teachers, Kyra and Missy, were absolutely fantastic. They knew just how to keep everything peaceful and happy. Unfortunately, I have to lower my expectations for Carter.
TRACY: But what happened to the teachers?
PAULINE: Missy left to work at WalMart, and I think Kyra is at Target. They were making eleven an hour here, and Clarice was making twelve. I understand it wasn’t enough. I barely make a living myself. But the bears - the bears don’t need a salary at all! With them, we can stay open.
TRACY: Eleven dollars an hour is really low.
BEAR #3 crashes through the toddler room window and ambles down the hall toward the preschool room. He’s covered in purple paint and is now wearing a tutu along with his tiara.
PAULINE: Yes, and to be honest, there were a few awkward moments. One of the parents was making a donation at the food pantry and Missy was there to collect a bag for her family. And some of the other parents were uncomfortable with Kyra’s teeth. They needed work, you see, but she couldn’t afford dental. With the bears, we don’t have to worry about those types of things. And they don’t complain!
BEAR #3 smashes the window to the preschool room, climbs in and starts grabbing lunch boxes.
TRACY: Isn’t that bear supposed to be watching the toddlers?
PAULINE (sighing): It’s moments like this I do wish Clarice was here. She really would have everything under control.
CARTER runs up and yells through the broken glass.
CARTER: Pauline! Pauline! Jeremy fell off the fire escape!
Children are gathered at the open door leading to the fire escape, looking out.
PAULINE (calmly): Thanks for letting me know, Carter. I’ll call his mom.
CARTER: I’m not Carter! I’m Spider-Man!
TRACY (horrified): Is Jeremy okay?
PAULINE: Of course not. We’re three stories up. He’s dead for sure.
TRACY: But– but–
PAULINE: Well, what do you expect? There aren’t any teachers.
TRACY: How are parents leaving their children here when it’s so dangerous? Surely they would rather have someone stay home and care for the kids?
PAULINE: Some would love to, but who can afford it? One full time salary at a minimum wage job or even a median wage job isn’t enough to support a family. At our center, kids have a sixty-eight percent chance of survival. It’s the best we can do.
TRACY: This makes no sense! There must be a better way!
PAULINE: Well, it isn’t news to us that child care workers earn poverty wages. It’s just that the finger paint is finally hitting the fan.
TRACY: Is this what Kristen Bell was talking about on that podcast?
PAULINE: I don’t know who that is. (She sighs.) Unfortunately, I don’t have time to think about it much. I’m just trying to keep the lights on. It’s disheartening when a child dies. I better call his– oh! (PAULINE’s face lights up). Clarice! Clarice! You’re back!
CLARICE, wearing an Amazon driver uniform, pushes a rolling delivery cart down the hall.
PAULINE: Clarice, I’m so glad to see you! Carter needs some support in the preschool room, and the toddler room bear is still learning how to manage nap time. Actually, he’s wandered, so if you want to give him some supervision–
CLARICE: I’m not staying. I just came to get the last of my stuff.
She opens hallway supply closet.
CLARICE: My family chipped in to get me this laminator last Christmas. I’m going to sell it on eBay. And these are my books…and my puppets…and my tinker toys…and…
CLARICE empties the closet, then goes into the preschool room and starts removing toys.
TRACY: Half of this room’s materials was the teacher’s personal stuff?
PAULINE: Of course. Where else would it come from?
The children run up to Clarice and grab her legs.
PRESCHOOLERS: Clarice! Clarice!
CLARICE is crying. She wipes a tear with her Amazon uniform sleeve.
CLARICE: I miss it so much.
CLARICE gently removes the children from her legs and brings the last bin out to her cart in the hallway. The children poke their faces through the broken window. BEAR #3 comes over, grabbing children one by one and tossing them backward onto the rug. They bounce like Superballs. BEAR #3 sprints out of the room and up the hallway.
CLARICE: (to TRACY): I did this for twenty years, you know.
CLARICE turns to go.
PRESCHOOLERS (through the window): Clarice! Clarice!
CLARICE rolls her cart down the hall, still wiping away tears.
PAULINE (wistful): I’m really going to miss that laminator.
TRACY: This can’t be how things are. It doesn’t make sense.
PAULINE: Believe me, I’ve tried to make it work, Tracy. In this economic system, we simply can’t afford to have humans care for children. What can you do? I just grin and bear it. Hey, get it?
TRACY: Yes. I get it.
PAULINE: Sorry to cut you off, but I have another tour at eleven. Do you want to join the waiting list or not? We usually lose one or two kids a week, so I imagine something will open up soon.
TRACY: You mean they drop out?
PAULINE: No, the bears eat them.
TRACY: Well…what did you say the survival rate was?
PAULINE: Sixty-eight percent. Up from fifty-one percent last month, so it’s getting better all the time.
HARPER: What are you talking about, Mommy?
TRACY (decisively): Yes, put her on the list, please.
A roar sounds from the toddler room, followed by terrified screams. PAULINE’s face lights up.
PAULINE: Ooh! You just might be in luck. Let me go check it out.
PAULINE starts walking down the hall. She calls over her shoulder.
PAULINE: I’ll be in touch later today!
TRACY: Fingers crossed!