Listen time: 16 minutes
What happened on your first day of pre-K? That particular memory is likely buried deep for most of us, but not so for ParentCorps Educator Leila Eldomyati. She remembers the usual first day jitters, the block area, those who greeted her first. But what also stands out when Leila gets talking is how her nurturing early learning environments fostered lasting connections – with bridges built between her and new friends, her mom and her teachers, and her life at school and her own cultural identity.
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Leila Eldomyati: I think a lot of my early childhood memories always have to deal with me being really thankful for the connections I made with people around me. So, my first memory of my first day of school in pre-K - and every time I tell this story my parents think I’m making it up because they’re like, “how do you remember something so vividly?” but it was so meaningful to me.
I have this group of friends that I’m still friends with until this day - so this is 25 year later - and when I walked into the classroom I was so nervous. I was such a shy kid that I did not know what I was walking into. My parents were both working people so they kind of just dropped me in. They’re like, “Hey, you have to go to school. We have to get to work.” And I walk into this classroom and there were these three girls sitting on the floor playing with blocks. And the first thing they did was [say] “Hi. Come play with us.” And that was it. They said, “Come play with us.”
And I was like okay, I guess I’m gonna go play with these people. I don’t know them, but I’m gonna go play. And it’s such a funny memory to me because I realized that I never knew their names until about three weeks into school. We didn’t even bother asking each other but we were looking forward to playing with each other all the time. And my parents would always ask, “What are their names?” I was like, “I dunno. We just play with blocks. All the time.”
Blake McKay: You’re listening to Tiny Big Moments, true stories about how early childhood’s tiny moments teach us big lessons. That was Leila Eldomyati, a ParentCorps Educator, sharing a peek into her own preschool experience. Hi, I'm Blake McKay. I identify as a Black American woman, and I work as a ParentCorps Educator alongside Leila.
Lisa Ellrodt: And I’m Lisa Ellrodt. I’m a white woman, a mom, a social worker, and I hail from Brooklyn, and I’m also a ParentCorps Educator. I’ve had the pleasure of working with our colleague Leila at ParentCorps for probably four or five years, and I’m really happy that we were able to feature her voice and her experiences in this episode of Tiny Big Moments.
To give you all a little context, we wanted to connect with our coworkers that we’ve spent so much time with over the past few years - but mostly virtually. We’ve really missed connecting in pre-pandemic ways, like in the office kitchen heating up food or sharing lunchtime walks. So it felt like a really nice time to be able to look inward and connect with a colleague in a deeper way, to talk about how our own individual early childhood experiences influence who we are and what we bring to our work.
Blake: I sat to talk with Leila about her early childhood experiences and what she remembers from her preschool days. At ParentCorps, our work is grounded in connections - connections between parents and children, between teachers and their students, children and their peers, and teachers and families – and how connections and, ultimately, relationships help shape strong early learning experiences. I was curious to hear Leila reflect on her preschool experience, and how it shapes her adult identity. The pieces of my conversation with Leila that we’ll continue to share speak to the power of those connections.
Leila: The teacher was always so nice about it because she got our station ready with the blocks and all the toys. Every time she saw me in the door she’s like, “Your friends are waiting over there for you to play blocks.” And I think that’s when I realized how meaningful it was to have connections with people. You just have a commonality, you just do what you like together and it creates a happy space. It was one of those things that I hold onto until this day because we’re still friends. The relationships are still there. And I’m thankful for it.
Lisa: I love that she remembers her teacher saying, “Your friends are waiting for you.” What a sweet example of the impact a teacher can have when they notice and affirm connections between students. Clearly Leila’s teacher noticed these little ones developing a budding friendship and she did what she could to water those seeds.
Blake: This anecdote reminds me that a little can go a long way. That's what this podcast is all about: those tiny moments with big impact. So I think it's telling that Leila was able to start us off that way. I could hear how important it was for her to feel like she belonged in that classroom. It’s so important that she remembered it 25 years later.
Lisa: I know, right? That blows my mind.
Leila’s memory reminds me of my own “block buddies” story and the power of connections. I was a school social worker for a lot of years, and I spent a lot of time in pre-K classrooms.
One year, there was a particular group of kids that loved, loved, loved the block area, but it was the beginning of the school year and they had a hard time playing cooperatively. I remember one day when the teacher asked me to join them in that center because the kids were bickering and yelling at each other. They were so excited to have a big person on the floor with them that they forgot about bickering and focused on connecting with me and vying for my attention. When we were down on the floor, I followed their lead for a bit and we got to talking about things that we love. For me it was a swimming pool, for them it was a farm, with trucks and plenty of animals. So we built a super fancy AAA farm, complete with a swimming pool and hot tub.They took the things we connected about - swimming and animals - and they ran with it.
And I’m not kidding, every single time I walked into that classroom for the rest of the year, those kids would run up to me in a group and update me on what was happening on the farm. Like the fact that the pigs loved the hot tub. It reminds me of the importance of uplifting child-led play and how powerful simple connections can be. Fifteen minutes on the floor with these block buddies blossomed into a year-long, mini-community of farm architects.
Blake: Blocks really can help bring us together, can’t they?
LE: I know, I wish I had more block time in my life as an adult.
Blake: Another story Leila shared involved her cultural identity: her mom is Filipina, and Leila has memories of learning about her Filipino heritage and culture from her mom as a young child. This touches on something we talk about at ParentCorps: the home-school connection. And, what does that specifically look like from a child’s eyes?
Leila: There was something around New Year’s where - there’s a tradition, a Filipino tradition where you have twelve round fruits. And you have to collect twelve round fruits to make sure that you have a year that is complete. And I was like, okay, and my mom was explaining it to me, and I was like, “Okay, mom, we have to get twelve round fruits.”
And I remember going to a fruit store with her and we’re looking and we’re looking and we’re like okay. And I keep on grabbing watermelons, I kept on grabbing huge watermelons. And she’s like, “You can’t pick twelve watermelons.” She’s like, “How are you gonna bring that into the classroom?” And I was like, “No I’m gonna bring watermelon.” And she’s like, “No, we can switch this up, let’s get an apple, maybe a cantaloupe, maybe even strawberries. It’s not circular, but it’s close enough.” But it was one of those things that I started bringing with me every new year when I was much younger, so like pre-k, kindergarten, first grade.
And everybody knew that Leila was the girl that will bring fruits on new year’s because she needs this tradition. It was nice that they recognized it. But it was important because it was important to my mom, and it was important that I was doing something that was recognizing our Filipino heritage. It was, like, really important, and I think having the teachers recognize that it was something that I always did because it was meaningful to her identity and something we shared together and something we shared when I was super young.
Lisa: I loved this piece because I can just picture little Leila running around the fruit store picking up all these huge watermelons while her mom’s trailing behind her putting them back one by one. Just the joy that you can hear even Leila as an adult just retelling this story she’s sharing.
Blake: To me, it felt like this connection was also about making Leila and her mom feel welcome in the classroom space. It was an invitation to be a part of the classroom community. Of course, the fruit story highlights only one piece of Leila’s identity: how her family celebrates a particular holiday. However, inviting this tradition in was also a gesture of inviting in all of the layers that make up Leila’s identity, and also inviting in her family’s identity.
Lisa: Absolutely. Celebrating holidays with kids can be a great first step in helping children develop a sense of cultural pride, and holidays are really accessible because usually kids love them usually and families enjoy sharing about them. Nothing tricky there. But there’s probably like 350 other days of the year that aren’t holidays for a particular child or family, so holiday celebrations really only scratch the surface of a child’s cultural identity.
Thinking about Leila’s mom, I’m reminded that helping children build strong racial, cultural and ethnic identities has to grow from building connections with their families. Leila said it herself - “It was important to me because it was important to my mom.” That’s our entry point. That’s where we start. However parents are invested, whenever parents are invested, that’s where we have to meet them.
Leila: My mom is Filipino and my dad is Egyptian. And I went to an Islamic school where majority of people spoke Arabic. And one of the things that always stood out to me was how much they didn’t let my mom feel left out. You know, they always made a space for her. I think having her always share her culture with me was so important because it wasn’t something I was dealing with everyday. Like, it wasn’t something I was seeing in other people every day. So, like, even when it came to holidays in the classroom, or like around New Year’s, she made sure that I brought a little bit of Filipino tradition to the classroom, because she knew no one else was gonna share that.
Blake: Making space. That’s one big takeaway from this part of my conversation with Leila. What Leila remembers is that her teachers made a space for her mom in the classroom. They made space for her culture - so that both she and Leila felt celebrated and affirmed.
We’re all racial, ethnic and cultural beings, and how our school environments make us feel - whether it's valued, heard, seen, or understood - that deeply matters. This next share from Leila really speaks to the power of affinity.
Leila: All of my experiences, I like to say, brings me to my current day and how I do things. Like when I go into a school - being visibly Muslim with my hijab and everything - I know that there are a lot of families out there, especially like Muslim families, especially like mothers that are also wearing hijab, a lot of times those are the people that I connect with because we make eye contact. I always say there’s this magical hijabi eye contact that you always look at each other across the room and you know that you want to say something to each other. I always have that instinct. Like, you know, that's usually how we connect because it's like we have this shared identity, we have this shared experience and here we are. And that’s usually who I talk to.
Like that's when I hear some of the concerns. Like, you know, “Oh sometimes there is not enough translated materials,” Or even with our program at ParentCorps like how can we share that with a family that does not speak English? And I think that is one of the most important things for me - being able to share our program with as many people as possible.
Blake: That "magic hijabi eye contact" feels deeply relevant to me. I couldn't tell you the amount of times I have felt more at ease when there is another Black person in a shared space. Having someone who shares my affinity brings me a greater sense of calm. And that could be because then I don't feel I have to "speak for all Black people" or that I feel there may be someone in that space whose lived experience could align more closely to my own. It's powerful to feel you are not the only one of any given identity in a space. I could hear how Leila uses that aspect of connection to address concerns.
Lisa: Leila has an amazing capacity to make connections, to help people feel comfortable and seen. Starting at a young age, the adults in her life noticed what made her unique - how she connected with people, what she valued in her culture - and I think that’s how she wants to make other people feel. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen that this is how she shows up for the families in the communities we partner with.
Blake: When we celebrate little moments, we are really celebrating connection. Leila and I spoke just before the new year, and I asked Leila what she hoped to leave listeners with as we enter 2022. Let’s end this episode with Leila’s wish - it's about a tradition that her family shares throughout the year.
Leila: The tradition that we have in Egypt is baking this cookie called kahk, K-A-H-K. This cookie is used to celebrate any big moment. And when I say “big,” it does not have to be your definition of big. It could be a baby's first steps, or it could be something like someone learned how to ride a bike, and it could be any big moment, and it's something that we usually bake to celebrate it. And it's very big around graduations, you know weddings, like all of that. What I always say when I go into a new year is I hope it’s filled with kahk. I hope we have so many cookies. And I hope that there’s so many moments where we can bake those cookies. And that’s what I’m looking forward to in 2022.
Blake: That’s it for this episode of Tiny Big Moments brought to you by ParentCorps. Thank you to Leila Eldomyati for taking the time to share her pre-K stories with us.
Lisa: For more information about ParentCorps and this episode, along with the transcript, please visit our website weareparentcorps.org. While you’re there, you can read many more stories on family engagement, social-emotional learning, and racial equity in early childhood education.
Blake:This episode was written and edited by me, my co-host, Lisa Ellrodt, Cindy Gray and Jennifer Vargas. Thank you to all ParentCorps staff who made this possible, including Shanika Gunaratna, Kai-ama Hamer, and Kat Rosenblatt.
Lisa: And Tiny Big thank you to you, the listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Do you have a Tiny Big Moment you’d like to share with us? Let us know. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-A-R-E-N-T-C-O-R-P-S at N-Y-U L-A-N-G-O-N-E dot org. Make sure to include “Tiny Big Moments” in the subject line so we know it’s for us.
Blake: I’m Blake McKay.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Ellrodt. Thanks for joining us. Bye!
Blake: We’ll see you next time!