The Uncollected Works of Filomena Zarra

miathompson-filomenazarra-4
Photo by Mia Thompson.

The works of Filomena Zarra are tucked into closets and drawers and cabinets, hidden deep within glitter-strewn construction paper sheaves of the more minor masterpieces of her students. Sandy Malmquist, the director of the daycare center where “Filly” has worked for 32 years, often encourages her to publish these stories. Filly says she might someday, but for now she writes them by hand, slowly tracing out sentences in her chameleon script. The letters morph as the meanings change, sometimes shifting into cursive in the middle of a word, three different kinds of r’s on a single page, four different h’s, the last one looping up and over itself and three other letters, the tails of the y’s and g’s curving into cutlass hooks or twisting into themselves or plunging straight down before bouncing into emphatic rainbow arcs.

 ***

When Filomena Zarra was born, in St. Raphael’s Hospital in New Haven in 1962, the Holy See had just declared that Saint Filomena, patron saint of babies and children, was not really a saint. Her works were widely venerated but poorly documented (as the fourth-century works of 13-year-old virgins martyred by Diocletian tended to be). Despite this, Gerardo and Natalina Zarra named their first child Filomena.

The Catholic Church had more influence on Filomena’s last name: when Gerardo, a Zarra from the village of Teora in the Campania region of southern Italy, fell in love with Natalina, a Zarra from the nearby village of Conza, the Church traced their ancestry back seven generations looking for blood ties close enough to prevent marriage. In Campania, Zarra bloodlines had lengthened and divided for so long that they probably could’ve gone back even farther without finding any. Gerardo had four siblings, and Natalina had nine. By the time Filly was born, nearly all of them had left Campania to move to the United States. Before long, she had two brothers and forty-two first cousins, most of them New Haven Zarras. They grew up together in the Italian neighborhood under the watchful eyes of older Zarras. They spoke to outsiders so rarely that Filly didn’t become fluent in English until she started kindergarten.

Filly was ten when her third brother, Nicky, was born. She’s 50 now. Grey roots creep into her long waves of dark red hair, and comfortable sandals peek out from under her skirt. When she talks about Nicky, as she sits in a sandbox on a bright November morning, she rubs her palms against her thighs in small, steady circles. “We just had a special bond,” she says. “Because I was ten when he was born, I feel like I was his second mom.” When naptime starts later today, some kids won’t be able to fall asleep. Filly will sit between their cots and rub their backs with the same small, steady circles.

Filly’s father wanted to create his own piece of Campania countryside in rural Connecticut. When she was in middle school, he finally saved up enough money to buy farmland in Cheshire and begin building a house. Just after the foundation was laid, three-year-old Nicky was diagnosed with leukemia. More and more of Gerardo’s earnings from his job laying ceramic tile were used to pay hospital bills. Natalina went back to work at a pocketbook factory in New Haven to make ends meet. Money was scarce. But the Zarras were a construction family, and building was what they did, so the Zarra brothers of Teora and the Zarra brothers of Conza spent the summer working in the Cheshire countryside. By September, the house was built.

Gerardo and Natalina still live in that house, and the whole family gathers there on most Sundays. Filly loves the photographs of Nicky from the first years they lived in the house: a young boy chasing chickens, or holding rabbits, which he trained to come to him when he made rabbit noises. Nicky gathered eggs every morning, dressed in his favorite outfit: a Yankees uniform. He wore it to Little League games, where he cheered on the older Zarras. He dreamed of going to a Yankees game, but his immune system wasn’t strong enough to travel to Yankee Stadium. So Filly went for him, bringing back a ball signed by outfielder Lou Piniella and stories that Nicky asked to hear again and again.

jenniferlu_filomena-16

Photo by Jennifer Lu

In 1885, the townsmen of New Haven protested against the organization of the first local daycare, on the grounds that the town already had two orphan asylums. The townsmen’s callousness can be partly excused by their unfamiliarity with the institution of childcare. In 1878, there were only three daycare centers in the United States.

There were 700 in 1916. And during World War II, the Lanham Act established thousands more, to allow women with young children to work in the defense industry. Still, care outside the home for children under the age of five was largely considered a service for the poor.

By the time Filly entered the daycare workforce in 1980, 9-to-5 child care had become a way of life for millions of Americans: both for the women who had always used it — women who had no other choice — and for the women who could have stayed home, but chose to work. To some, day care was still a patchwork solution. But to others, it was an opportunity to expand education into early childhood, a head start in the increasingly competitive race to college and a crucial element in the building of a more perfect society where children would be raised by both men and women, both family and community.

While daycare activists like Sandy (Filly’s boss and longtime friend) cared about women’s rights, children’s rights were their primary concern. Not entirely unlike the New Haven townsmen of 1885, they refused to think of daycare as simply a space where the children of working women went during the day. Sandy wanted to question the traditional ways of caring for children—to reimagine child care from the child’s perspective. “Our goal,” she wrote in 1979, “is to work with kids to help them create themselves.”

 ***

At Creating Kids Childcare Center, a shelf of binders contains the accreditation guidelines of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Assembling the binders was a good exercise for the people who work at Creating Kids, Sandy tells me, not because they had to make any changes in order to comply with the guidelines, but because it gave them a structure for identifying the things they had always done. According to criterion 2/E.05, children must be “provided needed assistance in writing the words and messages they are trying to communicate.” In the Creating Kids binders, 2/E.05 is accompanied by a note Filly wrote: “When children want to write a word or message, we either write the word for them to use as a model or tell them how to spell it — depending on where they are developmentally.” With Filly’s handwriting as a model, there is little risk that the children will acquire narrow ideas about the possibilities of letters. An f can be an f, or it can be seven other kinds of f.

At 9 a.m., as the last parents say goodbye, Filly writes out Charlie’s story by hand. Charlie and the other four-year-olds who sit at Filly’s round table in the Big Kid classroom — Emily, Hannah, Kiyu, Leni, Leo, and Tomi — can’t read, and Charlie can’t write much more than his name. He writes it in an examination blue book, the same kind Yale students fill with frantic scribbles — each line less legible than the last — in gothic lecture halls just a few blocks away. Charlie uses the whole page. He starts writing his name in unwieldy capital letters, and when he runs out of space at I, he compensates for the lack of an E by filling the stem of the I with short horizontal marks. Filly calls this “creative spelling.”  When Filly appends the adjective “creative” to something, it usually falls into the category of things she doesn’t want to change. After all, this is day care. There will plenty of time for learning rules in kindergarten, or first grade, or college.

Under his name, Charlie traces a ship torn from a toy catalog and drowns it in blue, brown, and yellow scribbles. Her pen poised, Filly asks him to tell the ship’s story. Stories don’t come quickly to Charlie, a quiet boy with tousled brown hair and big dark eyes, so she asks him about the ship: Who is in it? Where is it going? When will it get there? She reminds him of the rhyming books they have read and acted out this week, Nursery Rhyme Week, and suggests that he think of words that rhyme with ship. Charlie’s story, as transcribed by Filly, ends up like this:

This is a big ship

It doesn’t flip

It doesn’t tip

It doesn’t do anything

Except go in the water

And float!

It

is

a

BOAT!

By telling their own stories, Filly’s students learn to navigate a boundary that age will make far less navigable. “Four, five, six years old, they’re just getting used to it — what’s real, what’s not real,” she says. “Are witches real? Are monsters real?” She can help them understand that witches and monsters are make-believe, but that sometimes the things they fear are real. One of Filly’s first students was terrified of the wind. “Why?” Filly asked. “Because Mommy read ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and it blew my house down,” replied the student. “I said ‘Oh, the wind can’t blow your house down!’” remembers Filly. “I mean, of course it can, but he doesn’t need to know about hurricanes at that age. So I rewrote that.” Her version is called “The Three Little Pigs Fly a Kite.” That was thirty-two years ago. Perhaps somewhere in the world, a middle-aged man is less scared of the wind because of it.

 ***

Nicky died when he was seven, as winter melted into spring. Filly graduated from high school, Class of 1980. After a long summer, she started in the fall as a freshman at Quinnipiac University. While walking through a residence hall one afternoon, she noticed Sandy standing in a half-renovated dorm room. She liked Sandy’s hippie earth-mother look, so she asked, “What are you doing?” Sandy was creating a lab site for the Day Care and Child Development concentration, part of the Psychology major. Filly was a psych major, so she decided to try working there. “There’s something about kids, you know what I mean?” she says. The circular movements of her hands make her skirt ripple over her knees and into the sandbox like a psychedelic waterfall. “I think it kind of filled a void for me.”

She worked there for all four years of college. On some weekends, the daycare workers took the train into New York for protests and peace rallies. “The whole day care was just very involved in having a better world,” Filly remembers. “I mean, that’s our job, to take care of these kids, and also try to do our best to make a safe future for them.”

On other weekends, Filly and a few fellow daycare Deadheads would travel to see the band. While Filly looks tall in a crowd of preschoolers with an average height of three feet, she would disappear in the lankier crowds swaying to “Touch of Grey,” happy to hear and feel the music without seeing the stage. In 1993, around the time she attended her hundredth Grateful Dead show, a reporter wrote, “The Dead design their shows and their music to be ambiguous and open-ended … A Deadhead gets to join in on an experiment that may or may not be going anywhere in particular, and such an opportunity is rare in American life.”

Day care at Quinnipiac was a similar kind of experiment. Under the guidance of Sandy and psychology professor Bert Garskof, who co-wrote the Day Care and Child Development concentration’s handbook, A Theory and Practice of Radical Intentional Child Care, teachers and students asked questions like, “How can people raised in the repressive modality know any better and how can we not pass on ourselves to the kids we work with?”

When Filly graduated, Sandy hired her. But in 1994, Quinnipiac sold the lab site to a for-profit day care. Sandy doesn’t believe in for-profit day cares, so she left to start Creating Kids, and Filly followed her. In 1999, Creating Kids moved into its current location, the Connecticut Children’s Museum. To decorate the entrance, Filly’s class made drawings that were turned into slides and projected onto the white walls. Artists then painted over the patches of projected light, following the contours of every crayon scrawl.

“The kids that year were so great,” Filly says, admiring a green figure dancing on the wall. “I remember the girl who drew this one.” Like all of Filly’s students, those kids left after turning five. Filly doesn’t see herself leaving anytime soon. “As long as I’m healthy, I just wanna keep doing this,” she says.

 ***

“This is Mia,” Filly tells Kiyu on my first morning at Creating Kids. “Remember how I told you she was coming? To write a story about us?” A few minutes later, I scribble in my notebook:

Occupations Week, Hairdresser day

Filly had the kids pick what occupations

Kiyu afro, Leo redhead, Leni & Hannah       best friends,

Charlie loner, Emily ballet, Tomi pre-hipster

Kiyu tugs at my sleeve: “Aren’t you done with your story yet?” he says. “Finish your story so you can play with me.”

Kiyu wants to play with blocks, which are stacked under the tank of Rocco the Turtle. Filly tells us Rocco’s story: he’s 14, the same age as Filly’s only child, Annie Zarra Aldrich. It’s easy for Filly to remember this because she was several months pregnant and bobbing in a canoe when her husband reached overboard and scooped Rocco out of a bale of turtles and into her coffee cup. I hold Kiyu over the tank and he pretends to be a canoe. Then Leo wants a turn, and the other kids run over, and everyone wants a turn, and then another turn, and another. After a while, I say that my arms are too tired to keep picking them up. They solve this problem by making it my turn to be picked up. Fourteen little hands push at my legs. “Be careful!” yells Kiyu as I topple over. “Don’t make Mia hit her head!” They all laugh and pile on top of me. “We can’t pick you up,” says Tomi. “But we can make you fall down.”

Filly doesn’t like telling kids what to do, but “everyone gets a turn” is an inviolable principle. If someone isn’t getting a turn, she’ll ask questions until the kids figure out how to fix the situation. One of her students at Quinnipiac was a four-year-old named Robert who used a wheelchair. When the class went exploring in the campus forest, she asked the other students how they could make sure Robert got a turn to explore. They ran ahead, gathering smooth pieces of wood to place ramps on uneven sections of trail. Over the years, Filly tells me, she has learned that the best solutions to kid problems come from the kids themselves. You just have to ask.

Filly’s daughter spent the first five years of her life at Creating Kids, where her best friend was a blind girl called Bree. Whenever Annie and Bree played hide-and-seek with their friends, the seeker would close her eyes and the hiders would make animal sounds. Growling or hissing or mooing, the hiders would lead the seeker to unseen hiding places. Now animal sounds are one of Filly’s favorite teaching tools.

At the start of Nocturnal Animals Week, Filly records the kids imitating nocturnal animals — chirping like crickets, hooting like owls, croaking like frogs. That Thursday, the kids wear pajamas. Filly hangs up nocturnal animal pictures, turns off the lights, and hits the play button on the boom box. Flashlights in hand, the kids run wild. Crisscrossing beams of light reveal the creature-covered walls in fleeting flashes; as Filly turns the volume up, gasps and shrieks and giggles blend into the tape of chirps and hoots and croaks; the kids are as delighted by the reverberations of their recorded voices as by the glossy pictures of googly-eyed critters. This delight is familiar to Filly — it takes her back to the seventies, when she would record Nicky singing along to disco songs on the radio in spite of her mother’s protests that a little boy shouldn’t sing about shaking his booty. “I used to tape him,” Filly tells me. “And he would listen to himself.” I can almost hear the cassette tape reels spooling and unspooling a young boy’s voice around him, bouncing campy lyrics off the newly-painted walls of a Cheshire farmhouse, turning in small, steady circles.

Bree is fifteen now; when she visited a few lunchtimes ago, Filly got up from the round table to hug her. She pointed out the place where Bree used to sit (where Kiyu was sitting), and told the kids that Bree is in high school now, a track star and cheerleader. After Bree left, Filly ran her fingers over the translucent adhesive strip of Braille dots on the page of the book she was reading aloud. She asked the kids if they remembered what Braille was, and explained how, even though Bree can’t see with her eyes, she can read with her fingers, and play hide-and-seek with her ears.

 miathompson-filomenazarra-6

Photo by Mia Thompson

The day is almost over, and Charlie is making something out of wooden blocks. I ask him what it is. He says, “A machine.” I ask him if I can take a picture of it. He says, “No.” I ask him why. He says, “It’s not really a machine, it’s a statue of a machine.”

My camera, a heavy DSLR with a gaping lens, is a real machine; all the kids, even Charlie, want a turn taking pictures. I have a twinge of anxiety about letting four-year-olds use a $600 camera, but it vanishes quickly. They are intent and unsmiling, so absorbed in the task of pressing the shutter button, so aware of the fragility of the camera that they don’t press hard enough until I place my finger over theirs.

Later, Filly tells me how much they loved it, and that the first thing they told their parents at pick-up time was how they got to take pictures with Mia’s real camera. That night, as I scroll through the crooked photos of elbows and toy ponies and patches of carpet, I imagine the untaken photograph of Charlie’s statue buried in a closet, slipped into the curling pages of his nautical blue book. Like the best of Filly’s work, it will remain uncollected, all evidence of it lost and saved somewhere on Charlie’s journeys between reality and pretend.

 ***

A four-year-old has been alive for 35,063 to 43,829 hours. Nine hours are about .022816% of a four-year-old’s life. In a 21-year-old’s life, .022816% is 43 hours. In a 50-year-old’s life, .022816% is 101 hours.

At Creating Kids, a daycare day is nine hours long. For Charlie, Emily, Hannah, Kiyu, Leni, Leo, and Tomi, these hours are different from how they are for Filly and me. As the percentage of my life spent at Creating Kids nears .022816% — 43 hours, accumulated in one to five hour increments over the past several weeks — the days I spend other places have started feeling shorter.

Daycare hours always feel long — there is something contagious about how we experience time, and nine hours are almost .21% of the six months that Ava, the youngest child at Creating Kids, has been alive — but when my shift ends at one, and Kiyu hugs my leg and won’t let go until I promise to stay until he falls asleep, an even longer kind of time starts. From all the nights I’ve waited for myself to fall asleep, I know that this is a kind of time that might not have an end. I sit next to Kiyu’s cot in the dark, and look over at Filly, who is slowly weaving between the rows of almost-sleeping children. I rub Kiyu’s back in small, steady circles. I think about Nicky and listen for the rhythm of sleep in Kiyu’s asthmatic breath. “Don’t leave until I fall asleep,” he whispers again. “You promise?” I promise.

The next fifteen minutes feel longer than any night, as long as a lifetime of promises I might now trust myself to make, promises of lifetimes that will be made to strange little people I have yet to meet. As I stumble out of the room of sleeping children, the nerves of my left foot numbed by my uncertain attempt at holding a perfect motherly pose, Kiyu sits up and waves me back. “I was just pretending to be asleep,” he whispers. “I didn’t even try to fall asleep for real because I wanted to say bye to you.”

***

Postscript, 17 December 2012

A few hours before my flight home, I unbuild stacks of borrowed books until my apartment’s wide white windowsills are empty, cleared of all the things I meant to learn. At Sterling Library, I drop book after book through the return slot until there’s one left, a red volume with gold lettering: A Theory and Practice of Radical Intentional Child Care. The bag is so light now that I keep checking to make sure that it isn’t empty. When I get to Creating Kids, I punch in the four-digit door code. It doesn’t work. My wrist shakes. But it was just one crazy guy and he’s dead, I think. Three days have passed since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Why would they change the code? Trying once more, I press harder, and it flashes green. I find Sandy in her office. “Just returning this,” I say, handing her the book.

In Filly’s classroom, Kiyu grabs my hands and starts bouncing. “Are you trying to be as tall as me?” I ask him. “You’ll have to jump higher.” I put my empty book bag down, and lift him up. “Someday you’ll be this tall, ” I say. Then Leo wants to know how tall he will be, and then everyone does.

I think of the twenty kids from Newtown who will never be this tall. “You’ll be this tall,” I say over and over as I raise them to the unlikely heights of NBA players. “You’ll be this tall,” I say to Tomi as I lift her up until her mop of dark curls is at my nose, about as tall as she will probably be. Her face falls. “Oh wait,” I say. “That’s not right.” I tilt my head as if I’m listening for the voice that tells me how tall people will be, squinting up at the fake plastic wisteria vines draped around the glow-in-the-dark stars, at the real bundles of basil, sage, and thyme tied over the doorway. I lift her up, as high as my arms can go, higher.

Comments