My Daughter the Wolf

By Marianna Edmunds | Dec 23, 2010

It was graduation day from pre-school, Santa Monica, May 1997.

Eliza, my five-year-old, was graduating.

Eager parents, precious but interesting kids, creative teachers. A preschool where many movie people wanted to enroll their children. I had managed to get Eliza in because we weren’t in the movies; we brought in some diversity. And there was the other more obvious element: Eliza was darker than most, she was little and she was cute. People were drawn to her, wherever we went.

We were living in California where I was teaching journalism. Two years earlier. in 1995. I had decided to stop being a freelance filmmaker, and, with my four-year-old in tow, go for stability, a professional job in one place. After writing off to a dozen colleges and universities, and receiving a number of interested inquiries back, I took the first firm offer – the University of Southern California.

In less than two months we were in Los Angeles, living on 6th Street in Santa Monica. Ten years earlier I had worked on a story about Santa Monica for 60 Minutes, and the once cozy and funky bungalow town just west of L.A. on southern California’s Pacific coast, was far different today. But it was nonetheless familiar and appealing, especially for newly transplanted easterners overwhelmed by L.A. sprawl and desirous of a small town community. The ocean was near, the air was good, the schools weren’t bad, and my closest friend from Peace Corps days, also Eliza’s godfather, lived nearby on 22nd Street. Just down the block from Frank Gehry. How cool. We had landed alright, I thought.

Back to the preschool graduation: The audience of enthusiastic and perhaps somewhat anxious parents sat in rows of folding chairs in this preschool classroom in the back building of an old church, First Presbyterian, on the corner of Second and Arizona streets. Every inch of the classroom filled with the creative projects of four and five-year olds, from paper cutouts of their bodies to clumps of clay pots, which may or may not hold tea, to a menagerie of creatures along the sunny window sill facing south. This was graduation day. These kids were leaving here and going out into the big world of... kindergarten.

For the last year or even before, many of the parents had been preoccupied with where their child was going next, to which kindergarten, jockeying for places in the sought-after private schools in the area. Only a few schools existed, and they received many more applications than they could accommodate. As for us, Santa Monica’s public elementary school, Roosevelt, just around the corner and two blocks up, was perfect. And I would have the dream job of walking my child to school. Plus, Roosevelt was lovely with its had blue-canopied picnic tables, vegetable gardens, and huge playground with trees, not blacktops. And you could see the ocean, only a stone’s throw away.

The classes at Roosevelt were small, 16 to 20, by California edict. Eliza’s future kindergarten teacher was a spry Mrs. Betty Mackenzie with bright glowing red cheeks and dimples, perfectly round bright blue eyes ringed with laugh lines and wisdom. The day we visited the school, Mrs Mackenzie was in a red polka-dotted dress with a wide flared skirt and black patent leather cinch belt comfortably accenting what looked like a perfect 24-inch waist. Most impressive was her pace, her movement. Around the room she sped as if on ice skates, smooth and light footed. Mrs. Mackenzie was easily in her mid 60s. After decades of kindergarten teaching, she was still madly in love with her work, hardly ready to retire. When she glided over to the painted white upright piano, and began to play a jaunty tune, all the prospective new kindergartners were drawn like a magnet to sit at her feet while she invited them to sing along. She would love Eliza, I felt. And Eliza would love her, it was to be a good combination, a grand combination. I had nothing to worry about with this choice of school.

But today at the graduation of First Pres preschoolers, on this morning in late May the children were waiting for to be presented. Each student had been interviewed by a teacher about their ‘future’, their dreams, and who they were. The interview went like this: What do you like to do? What do you want to do? What do you want to be now, or when you grow up, why? What would you like to say about yourself? A black and white photograph of each child was put on a poster board, above their printed interview, and below was the child’s self portrait drawing and signature. Eliza was in pigtails the day her photograph was taken. Her right forefinger sat coyly on her lower lip. She looked innocent and impish at the same time. Her signature was distinctive, the ‘E’ was much bigger than the other letters with a huge curl at the top, the ‘Z’ was like the mark of a wizard, and the final ‘A’ had a swishy tale as a grand finale.

The children here at First Pres were sons and daughters of professionals, mostly in the entertainment world, writers, actors, producers, agents, and lawyers, a few teachers. They were kids who had dreams of being dancers, actors, doctors, basketball players, in the movies, or on the stage. Theirs were big dreams. Excitement, anticipation, maybe even anxiety was in the air, as each child got up, and was presented. After each presentation, the room filled with cheers and applause.

But when it came to Eliza, there was a difference. When this audience heard her words, there was a gasp, and a pall seemed to fall over the room, was it in disbelief, surprise, shock, or just a puzzled reaction of what do we say? Her dreams were different.

When I heard her message, I wanted to shout “that’s my girl!” from the rooftops across this southwestern desert city, and out into the vast Pacific ocean, and up as high as those deep blue cloud-studded California skies as it could go. I wanted to high-five the world with the pride that Eliza knew who she was, and wanted to be something wild and wonderful, something deep and soaring, something authentic and in tune with her being, her quirky imaginative personality, so original and out there. It was nothing that anyone had told her, coached, instructed, or in any way asked her to be. What caused people to take a deep breath, step back with a small sense of awe, or just simple amazement on that preschool graduation day was her vision of herself in the world, and the innocence and honesty to know it and say it.

So here’s what produced that silence, that pause, those raised eyebrows, those exchanged glances indicating a cross between patronizing humor or shock, on that early morning in May from one little five-year-old who has always known who she is, and danced only to the beat of her own drum:

My name is Eliza.

I can do stuff on the monkey bars.

Like swinging upside down and hanging upside down.

I would like to be a wolf.

They can hunt in the snow.

I have magic in me, it can turn me into anything I want.

I’m going to be an artist when I grow up.

I look like a magic person.

My face looks black and brown with white on the bottom.

I have long black hair.


Marianna Edmunds has been a documentary journalist since 1981, working at CBS' "60 Minutes," PBS and the Discovery Network. She has also taught at the Maine Media Workshops for 22 summers and recently moved from Tucson to Rockport with her daughter Eliza. Today she is excited to make her stories visual through the art (craft) of writing.




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