Control Freaks

Control Freaks

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Sissy and Cliff Tremont met a year ago at a small private equity firm in Boston. They loved that they were both Type A’s. They eagerly tried to outdo each other’s Type A-ness, especially in meetings.

“Sissy, wasn’t it you who recommended that Betty and John Seagram invest in MacLaren before it went deeply south?” Cliff said with a smug, muffled laugh.

Sissy replied in a deeply perturbed tone, “You know what, Cliff, it was your old pal Ian Broderick who told me MacLaren was a foolproof move. I am not taking the blame. By the way, genius, at least I get the deals done! Your need to have everything perfect keeps you from getting anywhere. That must make you feel like a champ, right?”  

Feigning composure and ease, Cliff loosened his tie and glared at Sissy.

This tension didn’t keep them from walking down the aisle the next summer. They sipped drinks from coconut shells on Fiji and discussed what day they should conceive so they would have a baby under the sign of Virgo a year from next September. They wanted a child who would be neat and orderly, which were common characteristics of a Virgo.

Sure enough, Lira was born right on time and life seemed good. The Tremonts were able to work as always, because they hired a top-notch nanny from the best agency around.

Franny was kind and competent and willingly did everything she was told. She had decades of nanny experience and she adored Lira. A strict schedule was critical to the Tremonts. They never stopped reminding Franny that naps couldn’t be off by a minute. Two books must be read before her nap even if Lira was almost asleep. Nanny cams were everywhere. Franny’s every move was monitored by Sissy and Cliff.

By the time Lira was old enough to attend nursery school, she had been tutored in math, had an occupational therapist visit to help with her crayon grip and a speech specialist who visited every other day. The Tremonts wanted Lira spotless. Paints and art in general were not permitted in the house. Lira and Franny did go to a little art class in town. She had to wear a full body smock. If paint got on Lira’s hands Franny was told to wash them immediately. In fact, if a teeny bit of anything got on her clothes, she was to be changed. Lira was a great little girl but she started to balk at the frequent changing. She was becoming her own little person. When the Tremonts witnessed her stubbornness on the nanny cam, they went nuts.

In September, just after Lira’s third birthday she was enrolled at Little Farm Nursery School. It was a beautiful place, sun filled and perfect for young children. Lira’s teachers were kind and instantly liked Lira, in spite of the pages of specific instructions they were given. Even though Lira adjusted to school easily, Franny had to sit for the first month outside the classroom door. Art, playing with a wide range of toys and not having to clean everything up immediately delighted Lira. Daily reports were expected by her parents and when Liz and Becky wrote that Lira had fun painting her hands, the Tremonts demanded a meeting with the Head of School and both teachers the next day. Mrs. Gallagher, Liz and Becky thought the request was odd, but the meeting was scheduled. Early the next day, everyone met in Mrs. Gallagher’s office, where the friendly attitudes of the staff were met with cold looks from the parents.

“Is it customary for teachers to allow children to paint their hands?” Sissy asked snidely.

Mrs. Gallagher smiled at the couple. “It is about as common an occurrence as one can witness in a three year old class. Art for very young children gives license to be messy. I am not sure what it is that has upset you.”

Liz added, “Lira was so adorable. She was just delighted to paint her hands.”

“Delight over making a mess? Is this what we are spending our money on? We loathe mess and we don’t want any more painting.” Cliff was clearly angry.

Mrs. Gallagher was as cool as a cucumber. “This is an important time for Lira. Exploration is essential to her learning. Sensory expression is what children need and adore, and within reason, we encourage them to experiment. You don’t have to offer paint at home if you don’t want mess.”

“You just don’t get it,” Cliff said nastily. He turned back to Mrs. Gallagher. “Here’s the deal. You keep Lira from mess and you keep your student. If you can’t comply with our reasonable request, you lose a tuition and a sizeable annual donation. Think it over. The ball is in your court.”

“Sissy and Cliff, I’m sorry for your disappointment,” Mrs. Gallagher said firmly. “We can’t promise you Lira will not paint her hands again. Nor can we in good conscience keep her from painting. Liz and Becky’s curriculum has art woven through it and painting is offered every day. Children adore this free expression. We would be violating our rule to do no harm to children if we refused to allow Lira to paint freely. Please come into the business office. I will give you your full tuition back. We will miss Lira.”

Cliff and Sissy looked incredulously at each other. “Wow, I didn’t expect that,” Cliff muttered to Sissy.

Liz and Becky excused themselves to get to their class. “We’ll get Lira’s change of clothes,” Liz said. They both felt terrible for the little girl.

Children were arriving. Lira and Franny headed into the sunny room. Liz and Becky greeted them warmly, feeling sick inside knowing what had taken place in the office.

Franny put on the smock and Lira bee-lined it to the easel. Liz saw Cliff and Sissy looking at the artwork posted on the walls. They saw their little girl, smiling as she was painting. John joined Lira at the double easel. He painted his hands and made multi-colored handprints all over his paper, smiling the whole time. Becky said, “We wish this could have worked out.”

Liz added, “We have really loved our time with Lira and Franny. Hopefully Lira’s next school will be more to your liking.”

“Mommy and Daddy, why are you here? I want to paint again.”

“Franny, do you think painting this much is an appropriate activity for Lira?” Sissy asked her.

“Absolutely. You can see how happy the children are just by looking at them. They love to paint!”

Lira moved to the window seat, playing with two rubber cows and making them “moo” as she watched their shadows. For the first time in their lives, Sissy and Cliff looked uncertain.

Cory ran into the room with his mother, Mary. “Liz and Becky, the birthday painting made my day. I love his cute handprints being part of it. Thank you, girls.”

Becky smiled, “He loved making it for you, Mary.”

Franny buttoned her jacket. “Mr. and Mrs. Tremont, I’m off to the grocery store if that’s okay with you.”

There was an awkward silence. “Please feel welcome to stay. We’re going to gather the class,” Becky said. “Children let’s all sit on the heart rug.”

Quickly the heart rug was filled with adorable very young children. Lira sat next to Becky. Liz asked if anyone had something to say.

Cory said, “I wove gool.” His pronunciation made Sissy grimace.

“We do too. Thank you Cory,” Liz said smiling.

Lira said, “I love it so much. I wish I could live here.”

Sissy and Cliff looked at each other. Franny waited patiently.

“Franny you may go shopping. We will pick Lira up at noon. Thank you, Franny.”

“Sissy, did we just blow this?” Cliff asked, looking earnestly at his wife.

“Pretty much Cliff. The clueless parent award this year goes to… US!”

Peering into Mrs. Gallagher’s door, they could see she was on the phone. She held up a finger, signaling that she would be off in a second.

“Please come in.”

Cliff and Sissy just looked at Mrs. Gallagher. “I am very sorry.” It was plain Sissy was   uttering these words for the first time in her life.

“Yes. Ditto.” Cliff smiled ruefully. “I’m hoping you’ll let me give you this check back. Please let Lira stay at this wonderful school.”

Mrs. Gallagher smiled broadly, “I can’t think of a happier idea. Liz and Becky will be thrilled.”

Cliff took Sissy’s hand, “Let’s stop by Sam’s Art Shop and get some art supplies for Lira!”

Sissy smiled. “I have no idea where it is, but I’m in.”

Anne Martine Cook has 40+ years experience teaching nursery school children.