School of Soft Knocks

UPDATED 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

IT'S KINDERGARTEN AND IT'S CHAOTIC. IN THIS CORNER WE HAVE MARGIE, up to her elbows in finger paints. That's Larry at the easel, creating another poster-paint masterpiece. Caitlin won't let go her Legos, and Cara is cutting out paper dolls. The furry one on the table is Cloudy, the class rabbit, who's being nuzzled by a student named Chandi.

Break time! Teacher Betsi Smith, 44, tells everyone to get cleaned up and ready for a snack. "Come here and form a circle," she says soothingly. "We have chocolate milk and juice, and I've baked bread with lots of good things in it. Everyone get your mug!"

All in all, this class at Abington Friends, a private elementary school in Jenkintown, Pa., is a typical kindergarten in every respect but one: Most of the students are old enough to remember Dwight Eisenhower, and one could have voted for him. Margie Eisen, 59, is a writer; Martha Romney, 36, an attorney; Laurence Brent Miller, 40ish, a psychiatrist; Cara Stein, 29, a talent agent; Caitlin McKinnell, 29, a homemaker; and Chandi Smith, 46, a financial planner. They've gathered in Smith's classroom to revel in 3½ hours of unadulterated childhood. "It was nice to be able to do whatever you wanted and not be judged by it," says Stein. Observes Betsi: "Kindergarten is a place that's safe. You are encouraged to be who you are."

Smith, who has been working with 5-year-olds at Abington Friends for nine years, hatched the idea of adult kindergarten classes while attending a teaching seminar in November 1990. For years she had been searching for ways to show parents the process of discovery that their kids go through. Bingo, she thought, with childlike logic: Why not just invite the parents to go through it?

As a test, Smith invited 10 volunteers to attend a Saturday class last February. Since then she has averaged two or three classes a month, charging $30 per participant. About half arc parents of kindergarteners, at Friends School or elsewhere; the rest are adults who simply long to wallow in blocks, paper-paste and lost innocence—if only for a few hours. "It took me back more than 50 years," says Eisen. "I really felt like a child." Adds Marge Williams, 34, a homemaker who attended an earlier class: "No one had ever read a story to me before. That felt good."

It wouldn't be kindergarten, of course, without show-and-tell. People bring very personal items: photographs, a stuffed animal, even a pair of pet pygmy goats. Romney, whose daughter Alexis is one of Smith's regular students, began to weep as she read aloud from a Winnie-the-Pooh book that had been her favorite as a child. "This is a kindergarten play session, not therapy," Smith says. "But people feel safe to cry. They never hold back."

The classes have been a continuing source of inspiration for Smith, a divorced mother of two (Brian, 15, is a 10th grader; Justin, 19, is a sophomore at Ithaca College in New York). "I see something of myself in everyone who walks in the door," she says. Often she is reminded of her own experience as a kindergartener and farm girl in Palm Harbor, Fla.: "I never got tired of watching the baby chicks hatch in the spring." Most of all, she enjoys sharing a sense of discovery with her charges, young or less so. "I guess I'll stop teaching," she says, "when I stop learning from my students.

DAVID GROGAN
ANDREA FINE in Jenkintown

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