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The Great Divide: Milk & Cookies

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Norman Rockwell it was not - but there were milk and cookies every day after school in my Brooklyn childhood. I remember dropping my school bags in the living room and racing to the kitchen table where my grandmother's warm mandelbroit was stacked on a plate and cold milk filled a tall glass. Sometimes my grandmother, who lived with us, ripped open a bag of Chips Ahoy. I didn't mind. Grandma was in charge of after-school snack because mom, an elementary school teacher who came home when we did, commandeered my father's carpet business after 3 pm.

Until winter set in, my sister and I played outside after school until dinner was on the table. We'd gather a pile of fallen crimson and yellow leaves, and plunge into the stack as though it were a featherbed. On Wednesdays I'd take a piano lesson in the basement with Mr. Klampkon, who smelled like soap. After dinner mom checked our homework. The television was never turned on until homework was done, and done right.

My daughter is in second grade. She's not home at 3:15 for milk and cookies. She doesn't come home until 5 or 6 because she goes to an after-school program. It's not my first choice but my husband and I both earn a living. When we first moved to our suburb from Manhattan I was thrilled her elementary school offered an on-site program. If I couldn't be there to bridge time between the end of her school day and supper, at least she would be enriched - or so the brochure said: The children receive healthy snacks and get help with homework. They play organized games and engage in dramatic play.

A few weeks into kindergarten I felt air leak from my chest as though it were a punctured tire every time I picked her up. A bunch of tattooed, nose-ringed counselors did little more than supervise a band a wilding children. What organized games? One day my daughter slipped off the monkey bars and broke her wrist. She was hysterical crying when my husband picked her up. "What happened?" he asked the teen-in-chief who'd applied an ice pack but failed to call my husband or me to tell us our child had an accident.

By winter, the wilding moves indoors. My daughter likes to mix it up with the older boys who play kickball. Being small and a girl, they give her a hard time. I guess that's why she ultimately agreed to partake in the "arts" portion of the after-school program, which consists of rows of children sitting blank-faced at long table "fuse-beading." The kids stick beads on peg boards and counselors iron them on to make permanent adornments. Day after day of witnessing this reminds me of the Cuckoo's Nest. I feel a cross between anger and disgust as I hold my daughter's hand while we walk to the car. "Look at what I made," she says from her car seat in the back. I try to smile but I'm weeping inside.

My mother didn't know how good she had it. She came home after a day of teaching and ran my father's business. She had that luxury because my grandmother was a second pair of hands. I imagine it was a comfort to know her girls were close at hand. My daughter's after-school program feels like a wasteland. Other than offer me the convenience of a babysitter - a rather expensive babysitter - I don't feel good about the time she spends there. I'm caught in an endless cycle of guilt and relief over having to balance my time constraints with the only choice available to me.

The other day my daughter told me she did her homework at her after-school program. Looking it over I noticed most of the math answers were wrong and the penciled scrawl was not her handwriting.

"Who did this homework?" I asked, a vein bulging in my forehead.

"The counselor," she said.

"What the hell is wrong with these people?" I yelled. "Why would she do your homework for you? What's the point of that? How are you supposed to learn? This is crazy. And she didn't even get the answers right - that's rich."

My daughter stared back at me with big-brown-eyed concern.

"Did I do something bad, Mama?"

"Come here," I said, arms extended. "Let's have some milk and cookies."

"Before dinner?" she asked.

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