Marlene Adam (left) and her colleague in front of the Early Head Start at which they work.

The Calming Consistency of Marlene Adam

March 14, 2019

In an ever-changing world, one of the few constants is hope for the next generation. We hear this all the time; politicians, celebrities, and even family members speak of the children, and their potential to change the world for the better. In order for this hope to prevail, however, education is a must.

Marlene Adam has dedicated her adult life to the next generation, somewhat accidentally. Sitting in her office at the Early Head Start Marin on Fifth street in San Rafael, she tells me, “I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this. It was something that was there, but I didn’t really know until I started working.” Despite how she found her passion for childhood education, beginning as a preschool teacher and now as a teacher at Head Start, there’s no doubt that she has invested in children.

Head Start plays a vital role in supporting low-income families and their children. On its website, it says that Head Start “was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs and support the families in improving their lives.” Adam believes in this mission and dedicates her long days to it.

Living in Sonoma County, it is a long commute to the Early Head Start at which she works on Fifth Street in Downtown San Rafael: “People can’t believe I’ve done that commute for 18 years. It’s not that bad some days.”

Arriving at work, she tells me that her day “starts at seven. I prepare, I go through the yard, checking if there’s anything that shouldn’t be in the yards. I set up the classrooms and start breakfast.” In the small space located adjacent to the First Presbyterian Church, she then completes what is, admittedly, her least favorite part of her job: paperwork. She sifts through the piles upon piles of government forms and doctor’s notes. Government forms? Adam tells me that yes, Head Start is a government organization, receiving “federal and state funding.”

Part of the yard referred to by Adam. This space is available to the children every day for exercise and playtime.

Being a federally funded organization, as one can imagine, comes with its problems. The resources available to Adam and her many colleagues across the country are questioned every year when the federal budget is reevaluated. Every year, there is a possibility that the $9 billion spent on Head Start will disappear, and with it, the essential care Adam provides countless children.

“I think sometimes it is political,” Adam reluctantly admits, “especially with all that was going on a couple of years ago when Trump was elected, we weren’t sure if he was going to fund Head Start. That was one of the things that he talked about wasn’t important.” Every four years, Adam’s boss changes. And with that comes doubt, inconsistency, and, of course, a lot of paperwork.

Even the funding Head Start does receive currently is far from enough: “We don’t get a lot of money anyway for supplies, and that’s just like pretty much any teaching job. So sometimes you have to do what you got to do, come up with different ways to do things, recycle old stuff. It’s something that I think all teachers have to deal with.” Adam experiences this required frugality firsthand; as I walked in for our interview, she was researching how to make dinosaurs out of the leftover paper in the office.  “To me personally, I don’t think that schools get funded enough.” This is especially true in California, which currently ranks 44th in the country for Pre-K through 12th-grade education.

When Adam finally does greet the 19 kids ages 0-3 at 9 a.m., she enthusiastically serves breakfast and converses with the parents.

She knows those parents well, in fact, as one of the requirements for use of the Head Start resources is ‘family fun nights.’ Head Start is, Adam explains, more than just child education: “The parents are getting educated, too. They may need parental help with how to work with their child… because some of them are really young.” At these ‘fun nights,’ the parents watch how Adam and the other teachers deal with parental situations and then practice themselves: “When something happens with the kids here, in that kind of a teaching moment, they’re seeing how you interact with them, with their child or another child. Maybe they’re hitting each other, and at home they don’t know what to do. So we’re kind of modeling that for them.”

This type of education is rewarding for Adam. Seeing the families and the children improve is her favorite part of her job, telling me, “working with the families and their children, that’s why I get up in the morning.” When asked why this is, why she finds childhood education rewarding, she beams and tells me, “you’re working with some at three months old and you have them until three, if you’re really lucky. So all the accomplishments, all those milestones that they’re hitting, it’s like, wow. And you can really see everything that’s happening, that you’re helping them progress, and their brain is just turned on. Every little thing that you do, they’re aware of.” She pauses then adds, “and of course when they start talking.”

Throughout all the work she does at Early Head Start, Adam strives to create a nurturing and, most importantly, a stable environment for the children she teaches. She tells me that she and her colleagues’ goal is that the children are “emotionally stable. That they feel comfortable here, because that’s going to carry them over and then those other skills that they get are just going to fall into place.”

In a time of inconsistency and unknowns, unhealthy home environments and unstable political climates, Adam works to create a little world inside her little office for the little children that she teaches: “we try to keep the routine consistent so that they get to know, ‘oh, okay, this is what’s next.’”

1510 Fifth Avenue in San Rafael, the location of this Early Head Start. In the background is the adjacent First Presbyterian Church.

We all need to invest in the next generation because they will solve the problems created by those who came before them. I have no doubt in my mind that Marlene Adam believes in the children of today, and why shouldn’t she? They are in great hands at 1510 Fifth Street in San Rafael.

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