Dr. Glenna Zeak

–  Dr. Glenna Zeak, Head Start parent, Martinsburg, PA

Mrs. M and Cory

Portrait of a Head Start Parent

Mrs. M was the mother of three children between the ages of 1 and 3. She spent most of her days at home, tending her children, and looking forward to the afternoon soaps. Mrs. M was also the wife of an abusive alcoholic. She often prayed that her husband would come home and pass out on the couch, but most of the time she would get a beating instead. One afternoon, a Head Start representative came to visit. Mrs. M was embarrassed not only by her bruised and battered appearance, but also by the condition of her house. Dust and clutter were not the major problems; her house was literally falling apart. Mrs. M thought about the hole in her bathroom floor from which the basement below was clearly visible. Mrs. M pictured in her mind's eye several places in the walls that her husband had punched through and hoped that the visitor from Head Start would not ask to come in.

Thankfully, she didn't. They talked at the door instead. The woman introduced herself as Ruth Anne and mentioned that she knew there were young children in the home who might be eligible for Head Start. Mrs. M's eldest child would be 3 in November, so she was old enough to begin Head Start. If the child was enrolled, she would be picked up by bus three days a week and spend three hours a day in a preschool classroom. Mrs. M was delighted. This program promised to make her life a bit easier. After all, caring for two children would be easier than managing three. Mrs. M accepted Ruth Anne's invitation and consented to have her child begin the program. As the months went by, her eldest girl seemed really to enjoy going to school.

One afternoon, the phone rang, and the woman on the other end of line identified herself as Romaine, the parent involvement coordinator from Head Start. Romaine invited Mrs. M to come to the center the following Tuesday to meet with a group of parents who were planning a Christmas party for the children. Mrs. M. declined, saying she was far too busy that day. Then, after hanging up the telephone, the young mother returned to the sofa. A month later, Romaine called again. She mentioned that the parent group still needed help with the Christmas party and offered to provide child care for the babies if Mrs. M would agree to participate. The meeting was to be held the following Tuesday in a local church basement. Reluctantly, Mrs. M. attended. She observed briefly, and when it seemed as if little was being accomplished, Mrs. M offered some suggestions that sparked a productive conversation. Everyone appeared to relax with one another, and a successful party was planned.

Mrs. M felt pretty proud of herself. Not only had she spoken up, but the other parents had listened, and her opinion had been valued. She was glad she had come. Before the meeting ended, Romaine requested that this group of parents meet on a monthly basis to plan other activities for the children and to provide mutual support for the participants. Romaine also suggested that the group elect a committee chairperson, and Mrs. M was elected. Mrs. M was elated, yet worried about what her husband would say. Would he let her participate? Despite her concerns, Mrs. M accepted the responsibility and resolved to do well. After the meeting, the new committee chairperson was elected to the role of something called Policy Council representative. This was the decision-making board of the program, consisting of parents, the Head Start director, and community representatives. The thought was a bit overwhelming, but Romaine assured Mrs. M that she could simply observe the first few times. Romaine also expressed confidence that the young mother could handle the responsibility and excel in her new role.

As she considered all of this, Mrs. M decided simply to tell her husband about her plans. After all, he wasn't home during the day. That evening, when she nervously brought up the subject and broke her big news, her husband was too drunk to take much notice. On the day of the Policy Council meeting, Mrs. M observed as planned, but not for long. Someone noticed that she had been busy writing notes all through the meeting, and with that, Mrs. M was selected as secretary for the group. Although Mrs. M had always been a very quiet, introverted person, and her self-esteem had reached an all-time low of late, her personality began to change with her involvement in Head Start. Throughout the year, Mrs. M continued to serve as Policy Council representative and to work on several additional committees. The following year, with her second child enrolled at Head Start, Mrs. M became even more involved. That year, the Policy Council elected Mrs. M state representative and Policy Council chairperson. This meant she would attend the state-level meetings and be responsible for sharing and obtaining information for Blair County Head Start. As Mrs. M met those new challenges, her confidence in herself continued to grow. Another year passed by, and Mrs. M's youngest child was enrolled in Head Start. Mrs. M was again elected Policy Council chairperson, continued as the state representative, and became a national representative for Head Start. This meant a trip to a national conference in Colorado, an experience that proved to be an awakening for her.

While she was away from all of the stress of home for a week, with the children cared for by Grandma, Mrs. M realized she did not have to live in an abusive environment. She saw that she was worthwhile and valued. At the conference, she promised herself to make major changes for her children's sake as well as for her own. On her return home, Mrs. M secretly planned to file for divorce but wanted to wait for the "right time." That time came all too soon, when one of her husband's episodes of violence lasted for hours. All the while, she held on, determined that this would be the last time she would ever endure this treatment. She turned to Head Start for help, and Romaine arrived and guided Mrs. M and her children through every step, from hospital to lawyer to shelter. Her life as the wife of an abusive alcoholic had ended, but her life as a Head Start teacher had just begun.

In the fall, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania State University, where she received her undergraduate degree in early childhood education. She returned to Head Start as a teacher, hoping to repay a debt of gratitude by giving families the care and support her family had experienced from the moment that Ruth Ann, the Head Start representative, had first knocked at the door. As a result of her firsthand experiences in Head Start, Mrs. M knew that the parent involvement practices of Head Start had much more to offer families. She had learned an important lesson; every successful parent involvement effort is built on sincerity, friendship, and a non-judgmental attitude. Even when the parents of children in her class did not choose to be involved in Head Start in ways that she had hoped, Mrs. M did not assume lack of interest or laziness. Instead, she thought about how different her own life might have been if Head Start staff hadn't taken the time to draw her out and seek a variety of ways to include her. What a waste of human potential it would have been if the Head Start professionals hadn't searched for Mrs. M's subtle strengths, gradually nurtured her self-confidence, and helped to educate all three of her children!

In her interactions with parents, Mrs. M sought to keep in touch with the feelings she had experienced when first approached by Head Start personnel; embarrassment about her living conditions, fear of failure, a low self-concept, and anguish about her family's situation. Over the years, Mrs. M grew to understand Head Start from both sides, first as a parent and later as a teacher. In the spring, she began working toward her master's degree in early childhood education so that she could continue to learn and develop as a professional. Every detail of Mrs. M's life described in this Head Start's story is true. I know, because I am the former Mrs. M. (Zeak & Reneck-Jalongo, 1996)