Late on a Friday morning, Anita Morandi stood in a small room, across from a potato chip vending machine, at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. Her eyes scanned the room, making sure that all of the nine toddlers in her pre-school class were safe.
“You can’t do this without love. If you don’t love children, then you don’t belong here,” said Morandi, who grew up on Everett Avenue in Chelsea, and moved to Swampscott 41 years ago.
If there an expert on the North Shore on the behavior of 16-month-olds, it could be Morandi, who is wrapping up her 36th year teaching little kids. She is informally considered the dean of pre-school teachers at the JCC in Marblehead.
“You have to be kind to your friends,” she said, before excusing herself to untangle two girls who had gotten their legs intertwined.
After the girls had been separated, she noticed that one needed to have her diaper changed. She quickly located a diaper, lifted the child onto a bassinette in the corner of the room, and did one of the things that she does best.
“I change at least 12 diapers a day,” she said, moving to the opposite corner of the room, all the while smiling.
She said the job is not too complicated and requires lots of patience and positive reinforcement. She said the class helps the children learn important social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, and being kind to one another.
“They’re babies, they learn from example,” she explained. “So if we can help them do that here, and make it a great experience, they’ll feel good about themselves.”
For newcomers, parents pack blankets, stuffed animals, or a pacifier to help ease the transition. Every day, children take part in the same activities, such as painting, squishing Playdough, playing with blocks, and singing songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
“Be gentle, please,” she said to a couple of boys who were busy hugging one another as she moved to a corner to read the picture book, “David Goes to School.” For the next five minutes, the kids oohed and ahhed while she showed pictures, and told a story about a mischievous boy who always seems to get into trouble. By the end of the book, the kids giggled when she read the part about David being rewarded with a gold star by his teacher after he cleaned up his desk.
Morandi, who is 69 and prone to Yiddish adages, closed the book and said, “The End. Zai Gezunt. OK, kiddos, we’re going to rock ‘n’ roll and go outside.”
She quickly gathered the nine children, and helped instruct them on how to put on their coats. Morandi then reached for her black down jacket, dark sunglasses, and threw a blue backpack on her shoulder that was filled with wipes, tissues, and first aid gloves before she brought the kids outside to a small playground covered with soft wood chips.
Almost immediately, she came to the aid of two of her charges who had managed to squeeze into a Little Tykes plastic car and were stuck by a fence. She then looked down at a boy, and noticed that his winter jacket was a little too heavy for the balmy weather.
“Let me take that jacket off. I think you’re too warm with that,” she said. She clasped onto the parka, and as the boy ran off, Morandi kept her eyes on him, until he found another classmate in a sandbox.