Four children are playing quietly and contentedly in a brightly colored room in a private nursery school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. They are about to teach the grown-ups a lesson.
One of them, 4-year-old Carmen, the bright, healthy daughter of a successful architect, is the sort of child you would expect to find in a school in this wealthiest of New York neighborhoods.
But at Merricat's Castle Nursery School, children of privilege mix with children of poverty and disease. Her playmates this afternoon are Jason, 5, who was homeless until a year ago; Saidah, 5, who helps care for a sick and impoverished mother; and Shira, 4, who has a deadly, crippling disease.
Jason is using wooden building blocks to make a house. It is his favorite pastime.
Carmen and Saidah approach Shira, a plump-faced, balding cherub who was born with a rare immune system disease and is deaf. Carmen gestures emphatically in sign language and points to the boy with the blocks.
"Shira, he wants to play with you," she says out loud.
Nods Her Approval
Shira's fat cheeks crease in a smile, and she nods enthusiastically. She helps Jason build his house.
Gretchen Buchenholz, the director of Merricat's Castle, founded the school 11 years ago on the premise that all children can thrive and learn from each other, given the chance. From the beginning, the nursery school and day-care center accepted handicapped, abused and disadvantaged children. For the last three years, it has been seeking out homeless children as well.
Slightly more than half the children fall into one of those categories. The rest include the cream of the crop from the Upper East Side.
"We were absolutely convinced that kids could be 'mainstreamed,' " said Buchenholz, "and that if you had the right mix of kids in the room, and the right number and quality and type of staff in the room, and the right equipment and a lot of craziness and some courage, you could really help a handicapped child thrive and reach his potential."
The effort is neither easy nor cheap. Leslie R. Williams, an associate professor of early childhood education at Columbia University's Teachers College, says most schools would like to take in disadvantaged children but lack the resources. Among those schools that can take in such children, disadvantaged students generally account for only 10% to 20% of the total, she said.
Merricat's Castle maintains a full-time staff of 18 for slightly more than 100 children. It also has a large part-time contingent of nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists and crisis-intervention specialists.
The school is on the second floor of a French Gothic church building on a quiet block lined with town houses and apartment buildings. Just around the corner is Elaine's, the restaurant where celebrities hang out.
Visitors enter the school through a fenced-in garden planted in honeysuckle and magnolia. After that, Buchenholz tells them, "just follow the noise."
Tuition--for those children whose parents can afford it--ranges up to $6,000 a year. In addition, the parents hold fund-raisers, and there is some support from private foundations.
Buchenholz, an impassioned crusader who has founded soup kitchens and lobbies vigorously on behalf of the homeless and handicapped, believes Merricat's should receive public funding as well. She sees her school as a national model and is suing the state for money on behalf of "at risk" students.
'Ends Quickly in Death'
"Childhood ends quickly," she said. "In many cases, it ends quickly in death. We are in a great hurry to do something substantial and meaningful to bring relief to these children who are suffering."
Where government will not step in, Buchenholz does. When she discovered the plight of the city's thousands of homeless children, who follow their unemployed mothers from the streets to barracks-style shelters to seedy welfare hotels, she began rescuing them.
Buchenholz has single-handedly taken several families out of the hotels, found them apartments and enrolled their children in her school. Sometimes she seeks them out; sometimes they turn up at the school "the way sometimes cats do."
One night, after attending a meeting of advocates for the homeless, Buchenholz decided to get a firsthand look at one of the city's emergency assistance units, where homeless families sleep on chairs as they wait to be assigned to shelters. It was there that she found Jason, the boy with the building blocks. He was with his mother and three siblings.
Shocked by what she saw, Buchenholz says she made "some kind of silent, inner commitment that I would get them help."
'Begging for Food'
"With this particular family, it was a very personal, subjective thing," she said. "The kids were in the worst shape I've ever seen. They were hungry and filthy. They smelled so badly I couldn't get the smell off me from carrying them. They had open sores on their feet. They had been begging for food. They'd lived in an emergency shelter all their lives. They'd seen things no child should ever see."
Jason has been at Merricat's--and in a church basement apartment found by Buchenholz--for one year. At the beginning, Buchenholz said, he was angry, restless and aggressive.
He is now a handsome, neatly dressed boy who is shedding those qualities.
"What we are seeing now is a child who is playing very well with other children. He certainly is very focused, he's concentrating, he's just a joy to be with," she said. "But he's still frightened. He doesn't have a sense that this is permanent, and I don't know if he ever will."
Shira seems to embody the spirit of Merricat's. While many Upper East Side parents worry about sending their toddlers to Harvard some day, Shira's parents worry about her making it through each day. The 2-foot-tall girl has had three bone marrow transplants to give her the white blood cells she needs to fight disease. As she was being prepared for a fourth transplant earlier this year, she began to show signs of developing immunities, and the operation was scrapped. The outlook for Shira remains uncertain.
But, throughout the ordeal, instead of isolating her from the dangers of disease by turning her into a "bubble" child, her parents have opted for Merricat's, to the evident delight of Shira and everyone around her.
"She has a spirit beyond anything I've ever known," Buchenholz said. "She's a riot and a joy. Even though she might not make it, there's enough life in her to last a lifetime."
Because Shira is deaf, all the other children in the school have been taught sign language. They appear to have taken to it enthusiastically. Similarly, because one child is diabetic, all children have sugar-free snacks when that child is present.
Buchenholz said her assumption from the beginning was that disadvantaged and handicapped children would be helped by their association with privileged and healthy children. Since then, she said, she has discovered something else.
"The person who gains much more from being in this program, I believe and the parents believe, is the child who isn't handicapped, the child who is from a stable family, perhaps an affluent family, who is gifted, who has everything, and who gains immeasurably in patience and in love and in tenderness and in humanity. And the parents feel that very keenly, and they wanted this."
Interviews with parents bear her out.
Learns to Accept Others
"I think my daughter has accepted a lot of different types of children . . . another child, who might go to a richer school, might not accept," said Gail Viener, the mother of 4-year-old Suzanne.
"I mean, when she sees children in wheelchairs in the street, she understands what it's all about. She has an enormous amount of sympathy for poor children. She understands, and she has a very good heart."
Margo Basta, a former public schoolteacher who now writes children's books, says she used to oppose the concept of "mainstreaming" handicapped children, but her daughter Catherine's experience at Merricat's changed her view.
"I think she's better off for it," she said. "I think she's enriched by it." Laughing gently, she added: "I just hope she's not old before her time. That's the only danger."
'Too Much Glee at Living'
When asked if she really worried about that, she shakes her head. For children, Basta said, "there's just too much glee at living."
That is something Buchenholz firmly believes and tries to drum into the parents at her school--especially those who fret about putting their child on the right track to reach the proper college.
What she wants to tell those parents, Buchenholz said, is that they should "have a real existential feeling about a child, because what's there today isn't going to be there tomorrow."
"And I think that's what I meant when I said, I don't know who that kid Shira is, but she's taught us that there really is enough life for a lifetime in every day. And that's what's precious, not constantly preparing a child for the future and losing today."