She was two when her firefighter dad lifted her into her stroller to take her to two-hour sessions in a cheerful yellow Victorian home that had been converted into a nursery school. It was five doors from their home.
Trees, flowers, and shrubs bordered the wraparound porch of the school that had a homey atmosphere. A traditional kitchen, a standard piano with a claw-footed stool, and a residential bathroom were the remnants of the home the head teacher grew up in. In the vestibule were big sky blue hooks for hats, coats, and backpacks. Polished pine desks and chairs were arranged in groups of four in the classroom.
When Ms. DoWell turned five, she attended all day. At dismissal, children waited on the lawn, their tiny hands clinging to their paintings of birds, flowers, trees, and stick figure families.
During her three years at the school, Ms. DoWell made friends, sang, played, and learned how to read.
Her kindergarten experience was the opposite of her idyllic nursery school years, at least for a while. Ms. DoWell, whose brown bob was streaked blonde from playing outside during the summer, started kindergarten like a person forced into joining the military.
She was overwhelmed by the mile-plus drive to the combined elementary/middle school that more than 1000 students attended.
At dismissal, teachers escorted their classes outside. From there, they were on their own to walk home, catch a bus, or meet parents, guardians, or nannies at an arranged spot.
Ms. DoWell, standing alone and crying, feared her mom wouldn't see her in the teeming crowd of children, teachers, and adults. She did, though, lifting Ms. DoWell with her arms and kissing her only child.
"One day, the cafeteria smelled like the pizza had burnt," Ms. DoWell told her parents, holding her upturned nose with her fingers. "The chicken wings tasted like the smell of our Christmas tree. I didn't eat much of either meal."
Her parents listened to her complaints and created a plan. One of them would pick up Ms. DoWell's close friend from nursery school and drive them to and from school together. Ms. DoWell's mother, a teacher, packed her lunch each morning, so she didn't have to eat cafeteria food. To reward her for going to kindergarten, her parents gave Ms. Do Well money to buy books at school. If Ms. DoWell was unhappy at the end of the school year, her parents would look into other schools.
By first grade, Ms. DoWell had adjusted to the school. She earned good grades and was happy. The plan worked.