A vibrant five-year old voice filled the room, announcing, “It’s showtiiiiiiime!” the cue for another dozen small voices to join in singing the opening song for the twenty-fourth — and last — graduation ceremony for our Open Arms Preschool. I’ve only missed one commencement in my twenty-one years here in Palm Coast. As we close the doors on this ministry, I am already missing the songs, stories, prayers, laughter and screams that are a part of early childhood education.
Much of the education has been mine, as I learned so from the teachers, the students and their families about preschool education, classroom management, learning styles, and growing up in the world today. It’s hard to express how much I love reading stories, singing, playing and praying with three to five-year-old children. (Those who know me would say the age range is from zero to eighteen.) My once a week time with twenty to fifty children was definitely a highlight of my week.
With both thankfulness and sadness, we had to close the doors last week. Steadily declining enrollment made it impossible to keep the school alive. Why? It’s hard to say. When we opened, we were one of about four preschools in the county. Now there are eighty plus. Once the state picked up the tab for the four-year-olds, everyone wanted in on the action. Ups and downs in the economy played a part, too. But as a wise man in the Old Testament wrote, there is a time for everything, for birth and death, for beginnings and ends.
In-between, the school was and continues to be a blessing not only to me, but also to the church, the community and schools:
- Our staff had a knack for taking on children that other preschools couldn’t handle. Their patience, experience and love overcame a multitude of learning and behavioral obstacles.
- The public schools appreciated the learning foundation our staff lad out before kindergarten and the early elementary grades. I’ve volunteered in some of those classrooms, and upper grade teachers are grateful for those students with a sound preschool experience.
- Not only did the children learn to pray to start the day and before meals, but they then insisted that their parents pray with them at home! They would retell the stories and sing the songs at home, too. Our students became great ambassadors of the good news taught to them and the love shared with them each week.
- Members of our church would adopt the students as prayer partners each school year. As we prayed for them and they prayed for us, we remembered and thanked God for the tremendous responsibility we had taken on in our school.
- Many in our church served on the school’s board of directors, sharing their skills and guidance with the staff and rejoicing as the children grew, developed and learned so much.
- I run into young men and ladies all over town who remember me from their preschool days. What a joy to hear about the things they’ve accomplished and their plans for the future.
- Over the years, I had the privilege of riding with the children in the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital Trike-a-Thon, singing and celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas and Graduation with them, teaching bible stories and playing guitar as we sang songs together. All of the teachers have been dear friends and a blessing to me over the years. I’d put them up against any staff out there.
The last class has graduated, but the echoes of the songs, the smell of the baked (and sometimes a little burnt) cookies, the wiggles of those supposedly asleep and the smiles (sometimes toothless) will linger for a long time in the classrooms, in my memory and in the fabric of our congregation.
I always began my prayer with the children with a little rhyme:
“I have little ears to hear of Jesus’ love;
I have little lips to talk to him above;
I have little feet to walk in Jesus’ way;
I have little hands and fold them when I pray.”
This big kid will never forget the many little ones who prayed with him!