You had the kid, and now you have to pay the price.
It’s your first Playgroup Duty morning.
Those who adore other people’s kids, babysat for everyone in the street when barely out of nappies themselves, and keep recipes for playdough in their pockets – push off. You don’t belong here.
I’m talking to the real people. Those who can’t tell George from Sam or Kaylee from Cassandra. Parents who don’t know the second verse to Dingle Dangle Scarecrow or how you make a fairy with coloured card and Pritt Stick. Or the precise level of violence permitted towards the Difficult Child. (We’ll deal later with support groups for when you find out it’s yours.)
One of your first tasks, apart from standing around like a spare part while the other parents make their getaway, will be to write names on blank sheets of paper that will soon be works of art.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
With just such an expression did the Littlest Pig view the Big Bad Wolf.
“Can you tell me how you spell your name?” Course not, stupid, else you wouldn’t have to do it for her.
“Oh, I bet a big girl like you can tell me your name.”
“That’s Jade,” says the Supervisor. “And she wants to go to the toilet.”
Now you find out why the other Duty Parent has rung in with leprosy.
Small children divide into two toilet groups. The first have been taught from the womb that Other Toilets are not to be trusted. Your attempts at conversation will be ignored while they fashion radiation-proof protection from squares of loo roll, and then go into shock when a quarter centimetre of skin touches seat or handle. The other lot will cheerfully pull down their sodden pants, chatter away while depositing the last remaining trickle, and run off to spread germs among the populace without even looking at the sink.
One of these groups will shock you rigid and make you think about home education. On the other hand, one benefit of toilet duty is that you will suddenly and clearly understand the principle of nuclear fission. Once one goes, they all go.
By now the experienced and world-weary supervisor will have you thoroughly sussed. If you are lively, creative and child-centred, you will be let loose with the dressing up box or the face paints. If you are well-meaning but woolly you will be invited to do the honours in Story Corner. If you are differently-talented, you get sent to wash the Duplo.
Do not regard this as failure. There is something very therapeutic about washing Duplo. It requires effort but no thought, and shows a result. It is therefore unique among playgroup activities.
You’re half way through the morning and you’ve survived. It ain’t so bad. They’re all painting, playdoughing, happily picking their noses while listening to stories. Even Difficult Child is quietly absorbed dismembering Barbie. It ain’t so bad.
“Juice and biscuits,” says the Supervisor, brightly.
Okay. Half of the children can manage ordinary beakers. Of the remaining half, one third need beakers with two handles and no lid, one quarter need beakers with one handle and one lid, and a sixth need beakers with two handles and one lid. Two children are allergic to E1178 (Sunset Pink) , so their parents have left a drink, but one is also allergic to E9824 (Sunrise Crimson), so don’t get them mixed up. One child will only drink water, but only filtered because of the chlorine. One is gluten intolerant, one has a nut allergy, two are vegan, and Christopher doesn’t like the ones with jam in the middle.
Bet now you’re wishing you’d never got pissed and forgotten the condoms.
Your next job will be to wash, dry and put away the multifarious beakers, while also making coffee for the staff. If you’re lucky or astute, this will last all through song time. If you’re not…
The first thing you have to learn is that your version of Wheels On The Bus is the Tweenies one, while here they prefer the Old Religion, and stick firmly to the Playdays text. Secondly, you’ve always had your fingers wrong for Incy Wincy Spider. Thirdly, there is not only a second but a third verse to Dingle Dangle Scarecrow.
The parents are starting to mass outside and peer through the window, like Victorian gentry visiting Bedlam. Staff at Playgroup always fix it for song time to run over, and always ensure that the Duty Parent has the seat facing the window. It’s their revenge for the crap wages. You, meanwhile, develop the ability to lip-read through glass. “That’s not the way we do Incy Wincy…”
“Have you enjoyed it?” asks the Supervisor.
“Oh yes,” you say, earnestly. “I didn’t think I would, you know, but I did. Yes. Indeed.”
“Then may we put you on our Emergency Rota for when this leprosy starts to spread?”
On the way home you find that all your reservations about children starting school just after their fourth birthday have disappeared. After all, before today you hadn’t realised just how mature and advanced Little Dumpling is compared to the others. Best thing really. For everyone.
Then you pass your neighbour, clinging on to the wall while staggering along the street, white faced and trembling.
“Dear God, what’s happened?”
“Classroom Helper morning…only parent who hadn’t…I tried…” A vice like grip on your arm. A dying of the light in their eyes. “I really did try…”
Be afraid. Be very, very, very afraid.