When we launched our Chabad preschool in 2008, I was introduced by a staff member to The Container Store’s clear plastic shoe boxes. They fit just perfectly into the cubbies for a change of clothing and diapers. We ordered a few cases. Soon, each child had two shoe boxes, boldly labeled with his or her name, an inauguration of sorts that marked the beginning of each school year.
Thirteen years of preschool, thirteen years of labels, hundreds of children. I can’t count how many of these plastic shoe boxes I now have. They are everywhere. Their uses expanded to candles and gift wrap; paintbrushes, socks, plastic cutlery, and virtually everything. A quick wipe, and a bin was clean and ready for a new use. After ten years in one location, we moved to a new building that would house our preschool, Chabad center, and residence under one roof. Along came the boxes — used for everything, purposed and repurposed again and again.
The thing is, the labels don’t come off so easily. Long after a child has grown up from their preschool days and their personal box has moved on to some other purpose, the label remains.
So as I rummage through the basement for one thing or another, a label on a bin of napkin rings will catch my eye. Lily. Ah, sweet Lily. A lovely, sunny, two-year-old fashion plate. I wonder if her parents are still together — they were going through a rough patch. We were in touch about it, then we weren’t. I wonder if they still live three blocks up. It’s been at least five years. I should reach out, I think, and send Mom a text.
Searching for paintbrushes in my preschool supplies shelf, I find a bin with a faded label. Gary. Big eyes, serious demeanor, a love of trains. Such a sweet, sensitive boy Gary was. I hope he’s doing alright in the rough and tumble world of middle school, where he must be by now. I remember his parents fondly — they continued to show their support for our work long after they left the city.
Packing my kids up for camp, I find a bin of socks labeled Liam. Liam, with his professorial glasses and matching demeanor, even at the age of two. Somehow it made its way from our old preschool location to my kids’ closet. These bins are indestructible, I think — and so are the connections. Liam and his family became regular shul-goers, and we remain close despite their move to a new neighborhood.
This year, as we embark on a building renovation and focus our efforts on community building, we temporarily closed the preschool. Personally, I embrace the time it allows me. My own children need so much more of me now as they grow older, and I’m grateful to have time for them and some peaceful mornings to walk the park, teach women Torah, and run my home and Chabad activities from a place of tranquility.
I relish the extra freedom, but I miss the day-to-day of preschool life. I miss what we built — the rush of a magically transformed learning space, a fabulous group of parents coming together on the first day of school, beautifully functioning classrooms; islands of love and peace and kindness in the big city.
But the labeled bins, the children’s names — they are in my basement, all over my home, at our Chabad Center, and in my heart. Even as my students have moved on, their tender sweetness stays with me. They may forget their preschool experience, but I like to think that the love that filled their days here has left a trace that won’t fade. The connections and friendships we have formed with their families are eternal, too. I hope and pray that the soul-impact of our work — like the labels on their bins — stays with them forever.
Raizy Metzger is co-director, with her husband, of Chabad Sutton, a branch of Chabad of Midtown Manhattan. She is a mom of six and author of “Listen with Your Heart,” a children’s book about autism, inspired by her special needs son.