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More than Milk Cartons (Head Start Alumni Spotlight)

Aida Conroy, a Head Start alum, is currently a 2013 Teach For America corps member teaching at Casa Infantil, a Head Start center of Casa Central in her family’s neighborhood in Chicago.

Twenty milk cartons arrive in my Head Start classroom for breakfast, lunch, and snack each day. For petite, clumsy fingers, still building fine motor skills, these cartons are quite difficult to open. All my students know the milk carton rule: in our classroom we attempt to open our cartons independently at least once. My children try any new way they can cook up! Only after trying can a student ask a friend or teacher for assistance.

Because they face this challenge three times each day, my students have come up with ingenious strategies to open these cartons--far more interesting than my own pinch and pull method. There is “the pinky-pull,” where my students dig their tiniest finger to create a hole before ripping the opening; there is the brute force approach, when students use both hands to push up on the carton; and my personal favorite is when students pull off all four tabs to create square cups.

It is one of my favorite parts of the day, watching them think through new techniques as their fumbling fingers push and pull at the carton openings. This reminds me of when I conquered the same task.

The accomplishment of opening my milk carton for the first time by myself is one of my earliest memories. It happened at Head Start when I was in preschool. I used one hand to grip the bottom of the carton while my thumb and index finger pushed and pulled the tabs. I shrieked with delight when I was able to pull out the spout. Just like my students, I had tried and failed to open my milk carton each day, three times a day for months. The pleasure of this accomplishment made my chocolate milk seem as if it had never tasted so good.

This little moment from my classroom illuminates for me how my own experience attending Head Start as a child influences my hopes and dreams for the Head Start students I teach today. While many of us can recall the delight in motor-skill mastery, it’s the so-called ‘soft’-skills I particularly enjoy teaching. I attempt to equip my students with the most crucial skills for life--the ability to give and receive love, to respect others, to speak from the heart, to listen intently, to explore and discover, to fail and always to try again. Teaching these social emotional skills makes me most proud to be a Head Start teacher.

For these are the skills I used to succeed in elementary school, high school, and college. These are the skills I use to be a good teacher, a good friend, and a good daughter. These skills lay the foundation to live a fulfilling life and prepare my Head Start students for academic success.

While these seem like traits that can’t be taught, I now realize that I learned them in my Head Start preschool classroom at the tender age of three. An early memory of my own Head Start teacher reading a book called Elmer stands out to me, and helps me now connect with my current Head Start students to inculcate lifelong skills and mindsets. I remember how I was moved by the moral of the story, and for that reason I choose to read Elmer to my children today.

Elmer is a patchwork-colored elephant. Elmer doesn’t look like the rest of his herd, who are all colored grey. Elmer is sad because he doesn’t look like them. But he won’t tell the others the sadness in his heart. Quite the opposite, he is a jokester, making all the other elephants laugh constantly. To fit in he covers himself in grey berry juice. He returns to his herd unnoticed and discovers he’s unhappy being somebody else. At the same time, he discovers his herd loves him just the way he is when he overhears other elephants missing him. Finally, a rainstorm comes and his disguise washes away. That’s when Elmer and the other elephants rejoice when they realize the old Elmer has returned.

The tension between speaking from the heart and holding one’s tongue is a struggle every person can identify with – including my students. The first time I encountered this dilemma was in Elmer in 1994, when my Head Start teacher read the book to me. I still have a copy of this book today. When I read this story to my Head Start students I ask them, “Have you ever tried to hide who you are, only to discover people liked you just the way you are?” Like Elmer, I want my students to embrace what makes them different. I owe part of my own journey to the teachers who challenged and supported me to be bold enough to open my milk carton my own way.



In honor of Head Start’s 50th Anniversary and Head Start Awareness Month, the National Head Start Association will be highlighting Head Start alumni each weekday in October. We will begin the month with Head Start’s youngest learners and conclude the celebration with the Head Start Class of 1965. As the month progresses, these alumni stories will exemplify the short-term and long-term benefits Head Start has provided for our nation’s most vulnerable children and families for the past 50 years.  

Are you or anyone you know a Head Start alum? Share this story and sign up at!