To Catch a Unicorn

Chronicles of a pre-school teacher.


“Kiss me, Marcus,” a particularly precocious 2-year-old told me in my class last year. He then marshalled all the romance that both his tiny body and our bathroom could muster, hugging me after I changed his smelly diaper. If his look of earnest gratitude and relief was to be any indication, rescuing him from a portable carriage of his own filth was the best thing anyone had done for him that day, maybe even his life. Definitely in the discussion for best thing done for him that hour, at least. I can understand his getting swept up in the moment — I’d always fancied myself to be something of an unsung hero, anyways. “No need, my boy, I’m just doing my job,” I thought, silently patting myself on the back. Besides, I’d seen the many places his lips had frequented that day; last thing I needed was to know how our door handle tasted. 

Involuntary kiss propositions aside, I suppose the operative question is how I, an African-American male in his late 20s, ended up wiping snotty noses and discarding fecal diapers for a living. You don’t need to visit too many preschools to see that it’s a line of work for which someone looking like me represents the mythical unicorn, a fact that I actually relish. As an African-American male preschool teacher, I’m a rare double minority, which offers me a special opportunity to be the change that we’d like to see in the world. For the young boys there, regardless of ethnicity, it’s important to me to show them what a positive male role model looks like in a setting otherwise missing much testosterone. As an African-American, it’s important for me that the young children of color see that they don’t have to be — pardon my language — a slave to the statistics that say the school system — be it private or public — is just going to weed them out. I love the uniqueness that my presence brings, and while I never set out to do this after getting my degree, my stumbling into this world is exactly the type of thing I imagine for which the phrase “happy accident” was created. 

Right before I turned 26 (when I’d have my brief “Yikes, I’m officially closer to 30 than I am to 20” existential crisis), my mother and I had a pretty frank discussion about my post-grad working life, a tedious and maddening series of affairs to which I’ve since come to lovingly refer to as my “vocational purgatory.” But fresh off the nadir of said purgatory — an insufferable handful of months spent as what equates to a phone solicitor for a political fundraising company — I had unquestionably stagnated. And tired of semi-supporting a son that hadn’t lived close to them for almost a decade by this point, my mother decided it was time for the tough talk. “Find a career or come back home where it’s cheaper for all of us,” was the gist of this meeting, and from the day I moved out to Columbia, Mo., as an eager 18-year old from my home in Richmond, Va., fewer prospects terrified me more. By the end of that next day, I’d have an interview scheduled for what would go on to be the closest thing to a career I’ve had to this day — a job as a preschool teacher. 

I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and had done so since I was old enough to work, so the opportunity was a no-brainer. Indeed, had I done any real research, I’d have seen that preschools seemingly are always looking for help, and I would have jumpstarted this part of my life much sooner. The irony, of course, is that for years, whenever I told anyone that I was getting my degree in English, they’d first ask “Oh, well are you going to be a teacher?” and I always said that I wasn’t. Even now, I’d hardly consider myself a “teacher” in the traditional sense of putting together a curriculum buxom with lesson plans and chalkboard writings. And more than that, it’s not the area where I got my formal training or from where I draw my strengths. For me, the draw was that someone was essentially paying me to find ways to utilize my own childlike qualities: my physical presence, energy, playfulness and capacity to care. Every day is an opportunity for me to put my specific strengths to work, and I’m lucky to have found a profession that needs those specific qualities in droves. The joke of what my future profession would be is now definitely on me, but I’m more than happy to laugh about it. 

That, of course, is not meant to imply that this job is all sunshine and rainbows. In many ways, it’s chaos incarnate. Indeed, at the beginning of my second year, after I’d just made the precipitous switch from 4- and 5-year-olds to twos and threes, a parent aptly summed it up for me: “It’s like herding cats, isn’t it?” I’ve been bitten, slapped, spit on, screamed at, stomped, and cried on, and this is typically before Monday is over. If there’s a quota of the number of times the movie “Frozen” can be referenced in a three-year period before dementia sets in, I must be coming close to it. It is often a famously thankless and underpaying job with not much available in the way of upward mobility. Living in a world for which the costs of living continue to rise, it’s become both prudent and imperative for many of us that work in preschools to supplement that income with additional jobs. I know that going forward, it would be nigh impossible to support a family based on what I do or can potentially make as a preschool teacher. That’s a fact that is probably more emblematic of a fault in the economic system as a whole than it is of the particular job, but still, at some point I’ll probably have to move on. I often go home scratched, clawed, aching and hoarse from spending 8 hours a day as a human jungle gym/megaphone, and much to my dismay, find myself unintentionally peppering my conversation with child-friendly language.

But this job is, heretofore, the only one I’ve ever had that feels and looks like a career. It is something that was important to both me and satisfies the ultimatum given to me by my mother a few years ago. Being eligible for real benefits like paid leave and insurance was most definitely a welcome change in my life. Furthermore, making a positive impact on a small child’s life in ways both tangible and intangible is what brings me back every day. I see it on their faces when I arrive in the morning, and I hear it in their voices when they bid me farewell. Many are the days when a child has found a way to drive me crazy early before turning my hardened demeanor into absolute mush and pulling me right back in later when they get hurt and come to me for consolatory hug. When a parent tells me that their child cracks them up at home just from repeating my phrases and mannerisms, I know this is where I’m supposed to be in my life. They will absolutely drive me up a wall on most days, but if ever I’m away for more than a day or two at a time, I find myself thinking “Boy, I sure do miss that little gang of ruffians.” When I do finally get back and the little ones mob me like the returning hero that I like to think I am, I know this is where I’m supposed to be in my life. It may not be what I set out to do or what I do for the long haul, but for the time being, I am sure that I’m in the right place at the right time.ψ

Marcus Williams is a Mizzou alum who still happily lives and teaches in Columbia, Missouri. He’s slightly older now though. This article originally ran in The New Territory Issue 04, published in February 2017.

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