Did you ever get to spend the day sharing a toilet with forty-two children and ten adults?
I worked at a preschool whose bathroom system had the conditions of a 1904 Lower East Side tenement building. We might as well have pulled out a cast iron bathtub and told the youngest kids to look forward to cold water and a black sliver of soap since they’d be last in line on Saturday night.
The bathroom door swung inward. Looking in from the doorway, there were two small plastic potties on the floor to the left. Walk forward a few inches and there was a sink and step stool. To the left of the sink, a paper towel dispenser; to the right, a soap dispenser. The door, swung open, was positioned with a door stop directly in front of the sink so that an adult human body committed to regular daily exercise could just barely compress itself through the two inches between sink and door to maneuver to the other side in order to access the three-square-foot toilet zone.
I give you the coordinates of the physical space so you can appreciate the delicate exercise it was to move a pack of toddlers through the bathroom at an efficient rate.
I’ll set the scene for you. I bring three kids to the bathroom. Toddlers A and B use the two potties on the floor, and C gets the toilet on the other side of the door. I coach Toddler A through taking off their wet Pull-Up, putting it into the diaper pail, and sitting down on the potty to try to pee. Toddler B has wet their jeans. I send a bugle call down the line for someone to retrieve their clean underwear and sweatpants. Toddler A’s clean Pull-Ups are not the Velcro type but have to be pulled up around the ankles like underwear. This means a full pant and shoe removal, a hazardous process and dangerous use of time during a bathroom session. I squeeze around the door to assist Toddler C in her toilet journey. She needs a boost up, a hand to gather her full-skirted dress so it doesn’t get wet, and a gymnast-spotter arm to steady her on the toilet seat so she doesn’t tip in. (A kid fell in once, before my time. Soaked from head to toe.)
Toddler C, working on a number two, has a good grasp of the sides of the toilet, so I return to A and B at the potties. Toddler B has peed all over the floor. I move Toddler A back outside the doorway, coaching her through the pants-up process while she does the Macarena. I grab paper towels and the bleach spray bottle to clean the floor while an alarming wetness soaks through the hole in my Converse sneaker. I pick up Toddler A’s pee-filled potty and hold it aloft, praying no rogue droplets go flying as I edge it, and my body, around the door to dump in the toilet after helping Toddler C dismount. I dump the pee, help C wipe using the cotton-wisp scraps that reluctantly unspool from the cheap-ass roll of thin paper, and bash my head on the sharp edge of the toilet paper dispenser as I stand up. I clean the little potties and am hit with the door as the stopper is kicked out by an older child rushing in to wash hands. I’ve taken too long. The next group is upon us. You have to do everything at lightning speed, because this is a women's bathroom at a nightclub at 1 AM on a Saturday night, there is always a line, and you are the attendant. Get. Moving.
The teachers have begged for years to fix the bathroom situation. If only the door didn’t swing in, it would be somewhat bearable. There are options to refit a door so it swings the other way, put in a new door frame, install a sliding door. Most of the options would probably cost a few hundred bucks. The Queen would not hear of it. The Queen did not like to spend money.
When I started working at the school, people kept talking about the Queen. What she liked, what she didn’t like. Rumors. Warnings. “Make sure you read the staff handbook,” they said. “The Queen likes to pull teachers into the office and randomly quiz you.” “Don’t check the weather on your phone to see if it’s supposed to rain during playground time,” they said. “Go to the office and ask them to tell you. The Queen will fire anyone she sees using their phone.”
We’ll pause here to acknowledge: no one actually called her the Queen. This is a device used for dramatic effect. Back to the story.
The Queen was the owner of the establishment and had been running the place for decades. Two days a week, she called on the landline throughout the day to talk to our director, the Sergeant-at-Arms (I hope I don’t have to repeat myself here). The other three days of the week, the Queen came in, tromping around importantly and making an appearance in every room. “Hello, Children,” she said, looking down from her great height, hands folded in front of her like the Trunchbull.
On at least one of the three days she would go over finances, shut up in the office with the door closed. When the door was closed, you knew not to go in. The historic church our school was housed in had a cranky heating system, so it got cold in the office. The Queen would don long winter gloves with a fur cuff and put on spectacles attached to an eyeglass chain to go over the numbers with Grinch-like fingers.
The Queen lived by two philosophies: never spend any money, and keep the parents and teachers as separate as possible. The Queen was so terrified of her staff developing relationships with the families that there was a clause in the staff handbook expressly forbidding teachers from connecting with parents in person or on social media after they were no longer working at the school. A year after a teacher left the school and was babysitting for a family she’d met there, the Queen called her up and raged.
The Queen wanted all communication to go through herself and the Sergeant-at-Arms. No technology use was permitted for anyone else. All the teachers had plastic mailboxes, and any information for us was typed up, printed, cut into strips of notes with a fancy-edge scissor, and placed in our mailboxes. The notes were typed in Comic Sans.
Curriculum plans were to be written by hand on pre-printed sheets in a thick binder that the Sergeant-at-Arms occasionally glanced through. A monthly newsletter was to be typed, but using personal devices and email was expressly forbidden, so everyone had to use the ancient laptops in the office which were in a perpetual state of repair by frustrated visiting tech guys who told the Queen they were too old to properly work at speed. The newsletters had to be done in Microsoft Word on the laptops and saved on a flash drive, and the flash drive delivered to the Sergeant-at-Arms for herself and the Queen to have final creative control and the Sergeant-at-Arms to print out. Lest you assume this was the year 2002, I assure you it was in 2019. I listened, jealous, when friends talked about Slack channels and shared G drive documents at their workplaces. We had push-button 1980s telephones and were forbidden from plugging an iphone in to a speaker to play the Ultimate Raffi Playlist. The Queen simply wouldn’t have it.
When I first started working there, I noticed a lot of tension around the buzzer system.
We were on the third floor of a church building housing multiple organizations, so there was an intercom for parents to ring when they were downstairs and needed to be let in. This meant a steady flow of buzzing during arrival and dismissal time.
Some days, the Sergeant-at-Arms told us to answer the intercom. Other days, she would get it. At different points during a given day, teachers would say to each other, “Are you on the door? Who’s on the door?” There was nothing more disheartening than gently extricating from your lap a sensitive two-year-old, who’d just recovered from morning separation tears, to leave the room to answer the buzzer in the hallway, only to see someone else had already gotten it. I asked the Sergeant-at-Arms if we could write up a schedule.
Of course, a schedule was never written up. I found out that there was an unspoken rule that on the days the Queen was there, the teachers were expected to divide door-answering among themselves, because the Queen thought the Sergeant-at-Arms had more important things to do. Knowing that teachers constantly leaving the room was no good, but unwilling to draw the line with the Queen, the Sergeant-at-Arms would get the door on the days the Queen was not there. Because she was going against the Queen’s wishes, no one could officially speak of it. I came to see this was the case with many other things.
The teachers were the children of a messy divorce. Every day was a tense Thanksgiving dinner tiptoeing around the drunk matriarch and not entirely trusting her enabler. When the matriarch inevitably threw the stuffing bowl, everyone went in the other room and whispered, hiding the Jack Daniels and hoping to hold onto their job.
It was a real shift from the last preschool I’d worked, where staffers removed shoes to sit in a circle on the floor for some deep breathing before engaging in a democratic round robin to collectively choose a new hire.
The one area where communication was clear and consistent was dessert. There was on average a birthday a month among the staff, and teachers were assigned to buy cakes for each other (a crafty move by the Queen to impose the cost of a celebration onto her hourly-wage workers). Occasionally parents would drop off homemade brownies, or chocolate-covered grahams in clear plastic tied with gold ribbon they’d picked up from a Poconos gift shop while at their weekend cabin. Anytime there was special food around, the Sergeant-at-Arms would herald the announcement through the school.
“Don’t forget there’s donuts,” she’d say. “Did you hear there’s chocolates in the office?” “Make sure you get some cookies.” It was a real Marie Antoinette move. A teacher would be crying in frustration after months of begging for some admin intervention with a child who needed behavior support, and the Sergeant-at-Arms would pop in to announce with importance, “The cake has been cut.”
The thing was, by the time you realized what a dysfunctional mess you were part of, you had already bonded to the kids in your care.
Have you ever spent time with a group of two-year-olds? I recommend it.
Our kids were a delight. Michael entered the room every day like Kramer. He flung open the door, did a hips-first two-step, threw up his arms and yelled “Surprise!” Olive channeled a retiree in a flower print sundress, approaching the play dough layout critically like a Boca Raton senior eyeing up the Canasta table in an Active Living community game room. Outside in the yard, our kids played stories of dinosaur stampedes and competing ice cream shops selling through the playhouse windows. Charlie preferred to run an underground supper club, calling out “Pasta! Pasta!” from underneath the slide.
There’s pretty much a Mayor in every group. Our class was no exception. Our Mayor fulfilled the usual duties of knowing what was going on with everyone in the room at all times. Who’s that new grownup? Why is Joseph holding his blanket? Why would you move the bookshelf without consulting me? The Mayor’s visibility numbers were on target. If anyone had a problem, he was there. He knew that Constituent A was using the fire truck, and if Constituent B grabbed it from Constituent A’s hand, the Mayor would intervene and reclaim Constituent A’s right to the truck. (The Feds would come in to help all citizens use their words.) The Mayor couldn’t quite cross his arms yet, but by God he tried as he looked over his district with satisfaction.
One of the other teachers, Georgette, had been there for decades. She was a real character. A former dancer, she moved deliberately, with duck-like steps, and was no muss no fuss in track pants, old graphic tees and athletic sneakers. I loved catching up with her and hearing her running commentary when we crossed paths in the bathroom line.
Preschool teachers tend to narrate aloud and become a sort of embellished performance of themselves. After decades of doing it, the character can blend into the real. As a result, Georgette was a walking 1980s children’s television program. She made up rhymes, talked out loud regardless of who was listening, and welcomed hugs from adoring kids.
Georgette was intrigued by the hanging shoe bag I used to organize things in my classroom. I told her about decluttering and Marie Kondo. She was interested in the way a lifelong meat eater might explore the fringes of veganism. “I have so much stuff,” she said. Georgette saved everything. She had a huge CD collection and years of recyclable materials packed behind creaky closet doors in the classroom, and she knew the location of every cotton ball. She was always laden down with bags, hauling hoarded materials to and from her home, especially during October, when she celebrated Halloween every day and wore a witch’s hat, spider web earrings and spooky sweaters.
Georgette was unassuming but would always surprise you. When we got our class pictures taken, she took extra long in the bathroom to brush her hair and get her makeup situated. “I’m vain,” she said. When one of the younger teachers updated everyone on her dating life, Georgette would drop an unexpected saucy comment. If a kid really pushed her buttons, she’d turn into the put-upon, long-suffering mother, with sighs and frustrated warnings. God, she was entertaining.
One day, Georgette was out on her lunch break and I was in the bathroom with the Mayor. You’ll remember that the bathroom routine needs to be tight. Part of that involves keeping an invisible spreadsheet in your head charting which kids in underpants need extra reminders to go, which kids pee in the potty but do number twos in their Pull-Up, and all the rest of it. I was stationed at the sink, poking my head around the door to keep an eye on the Mayor, who was standing at the toilet, dry Pull-Up around his ankles, peeing like a champ. He was a Pull-Up pooper, but today, one snuck up on him. He realized too late what was happening and locked eyes with me in terror as it suddenly escaped between his legs and plopped to the floor. The Mayor burst into tears.
I placated the Mayor, cleaned everything up, and washed hands. As we exited the bathroom, another teacher was waiting with several kids. At that moment the Sergeant-at-Arms ran down the hallway toward us, her face wild.
“Georgette just got punched on the street,” she gasped. “We’ve called the police.”
The Mayor, sensing something going on in Gotham, poked his little head between our knees and looked up with the alertness of a court reporter.
“She was coming back from lunch and a man on the street came up to her out of nowhere and punched her in the face,” the Sergeant-at-Arms went on in a panicky tone. The security from the apartment next door jumped in and got the guy away from Georgette. The manager of our building came out and said the same guy had gotten into the church that morning and had to be removed after getting agitated.
Sixty-year-old Georgette finally arrived on the third floor with a bloody cheekbone. “I’m fine,” she said with the same resigned tone she had when a three-year-old having a tantrum let a kick loose.
She refused to press charges against the disturbed man but helped the police identify the right guy so they could pass him on to whichever hole-ridden social services safety net he would fall through next.
Georgette shrugged it off. “Oh well,” she said, putting both hands in the air and shaking her head. “I probably did something to deserve it.”
The Queen and the Sergeant-at-Arms flew into action, swearing everyone to secrecy and telling us to direct all questions from parents to the office. The next morning, a paper note showed up in our mailboxes. The top said, “This is what was emailed to parents” and the note was included underneath.
The first paragraph read:
This afternoon, in front of the building there was an incident involving a possible “Street Person” and one of our teachers. Our teacher was assaulted. With the help of our friends at the apartment building next door, the person was apprehended. The teacher is bruised but fine. I think she is more in shock.
The note was written in Comic Sans.
A flyer was spotted on the printer in the office, written in English and translated into Korean, advertising a need for a volunteer “Preschool Morning Greeter”. There was a Korean retirement community across the street. The Queen was trying to rope in a non-English-speaking senior citizen to volunteer for free to guard the door against intruders.
The tension around who was answering the buzzer got worse with the heightened security. Teachers were pulled from their classroom to take shifts guarding the door. Everyone was frustrated. The Queen and Sergeant-at-Arms held a meeting asking the teachers to come up with solutions for building security. I longed to flip the tiny preschool table like a Real Housewife of New York.
The same week, it was the Queen’s birthday, and the assigned teacher dutifully brought in her cake. On my lunch break, I saw the plastic-cased chocolate cake laid out on the table with some napkins and a typed-up, 8 ½ x 11 note printed out by the Sergeant-at-Arms. The note read: The cake knife is on the shelf behind you, next to the red box. Enjoy!
I no longer work for the Queen. I did give Georgette my Marie Kondo book before I left. No doubt she's got it buried behind a stack of CDs in the closet, and knows exactly where it is.