Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
kids_at_work
~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.


Feb 9 2014

When She Wants

I waited for her just inside the courtyard gate, watching the other kids find their parents or nannies, one by one. Buddy-roo walked out of the school dragging her feet, her heavy backpack a huge weight over her shoulders to blue_kidmatch her heavy heart. She’s a fine actress: not that she covers up her feelings but rather she can dramatize them to the fullest when it serves her purpose.

I offered an upbeat greeting, a big smile and how was your morning? in an attempt not to succumb to the gloom I knew she wanted me to see. As soon as we left the school courtyard and made it around the corner, she burst into tears.

“Today was the worstest day of my life!” She recounted, between sobs, how she’d been punished for something she didn’t know was wrong: playing games on the tablet in the media center (aka the library) when she was supposed to be using it to read a book. And that last week she had forgotten (neglected) to write down two important assignments in her agenda – two poems she had to memorize, one in French and one in Catalan – both she’d have to recite the next day. This is her biggest challenge at school, either she doesn’t pay attention when the assignments are given, or she doesn’t remember to write them down, or she doesn’t remember to do them. (Or all of the above.)

“I’ve really been trying hard to keep up with my homework but now I’ve ruined it all” she said, “and now I’m going to look stupid in front of everyone.”

She clamped her arms around me and buried her head in my coat.

“I didn’t want to move here,” she said, “Our life was just fine in Paris. The school there understood how I like to be taught. I never got yelled at. I’ve been yelled at four times already this year. And I never had so many things to memorize at once.”

“Sounds like you had a rough day,” I said, already dreading the afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day of the week she gets out of school early, so she had enough time to catch up on her homework, but I knew she’d want and need my help and I had other things I’d hoped to accomplish. Plus I’d purchased tickets for the two of us to attend the Custo show as part of Barcelona’s fashion week. She was thrilled when I surprised her with the tickets, it would be a mother-daughter outing and a special treat for her because she loves all things fashion. But if she didn’t finish the assignment, I couldn’t really justify the night out, on a school night no less. I had to be parental (I hate that).

Since Buddy-roo gets out of school just before lunch on Wednesdays, we’ve made it a ritual to stop at a favorite neighborhood cafè known for its frankfurters. This is also the moment each week that I allow her a Coca-cola. It’s always a prized moment for her: lunch alone with her mom, a hot-dog and a coke. I reminded her that this was ahead, on our way home, yellow_red_barstoolshoping it would buoy her spirits. It did help to abate her tears, and a slight spring returned to her step as we walked toward the café.

“You know,” I said, once she was halfway through her hot-dog, “you’ll need to memorize both those poems before we go to the fashion show tonight.” I braced myself for her push-back: the usual resistance accompanied by complaints about having homework and being hounded to do it.

“I know,” she said.

What? No barrage of excuses or reasons not to? Could it be that she’s starting to accept responsibility for her work? Is little Buddy-roo growing up?

Later at home I let her lollygag for fifteen minutes before pressing her to start. I know sometimes I need to fuss a bit before I plunge in to my work; a few minutes of clicking on Facebook links and reading favorite blogs stirs my brain until I am warmed up. I gave her the 5-minutes-til homework warning, anticipating again her resistance but instead she walked into my office carrying her backpack, setting it down without any exaggerated sighs or even a hint of whining and retrieved from it the books she needed. We made a list of what she had to complete by six o’clock, the time we needed to walk out the door to arrive at the event on time.

“I’m really looking forward to the fashion show tonight,” I told her, “so I hope you can finish everything so we can still go.” I saw this as a gentle threat and hoped it would make clear the ultimatum, using a more positive tactic to avoid negative finger pointing, but still drawing the line.

She did a few short written assignments first, easy tasks but this permitted her to check some things off the list quickly. She attacked her work with an unusual efficiency. I’ve seen her spend an hour on a grammar exercise with only five phrases to fix, but now she was humming right along. When she started in on her poetry, I stared at my own to-do list, wondering how I would concentrate on it with her sitting on the floor behind me, reading her lines out loud. But she was taking such initiative that I didn’t want to spoil her momentum. What I wanted to write could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I’d clean out some of the emails in my inbox, something that didn’t require full concentration. pink_elephant

If you’ve ever listened to a 10-year old memorize a poem, you know it’s a humbling moment for any of us with even the mildest aphasia. My steel-trap memory disintegrated during the production of my children’s placentas, and has never been fully recuperated. Hard facts I could once recall rapid-fire often sputter out or elude me all together. My reliance on Google search to look up things I already know is maddening. The other day I was telling De-facto about feminists I admired, and I could not for the life of me summon the name of the author of The Feminine Mystique. Only an iPhone search delivered Betty Friedan. Of course, I knew that. At a certain age, I suppose, there is a widening difference between knowing and remembering.

She started with the French poem, reading two lines out loud twice. Then she put the paper down and recited them. Two more lines, twice, and then the next. Within 20 minutes she could recite the whole poem by heart, without looking. The Catalan poem posed more of problem; she didn’t really understand what it meant, so she was mostly memorizing sounds. But her accent was impeccable, or it least it sounded sharp and confident to me. She learned the second poem almost as quickly. It wasn’t flawless, she had to peek once in a while, or ask for a one-word prompt to remember the line that followed. More important than reciting the poems perfectly – both were still a little bit bumpy – was the way she’d attacked them: vigorously and without getting distracted. It’s rare that she works so diligently. She must have really wanted to go to that fashion show.

We had quasi-VIP passes. We met my Spanish teacher – this excursion was part of a culture and language program – in front of the Mercat del Born, an old covered market that, during a renovation had revealed a tract of Roman ruins. Construction was halted and the the building was turned into an archeological museum and library. This was the location of Barcelona’s fashion week events, with a catwalk that wrapped around the dugout of ruins. We first went for some tapas at a nearby café, to go over some Spanish vocabulary pertaining to the world of la moda, fashion. When we returned, we were skirted to the front of the long line snaking outside the market, and ushered to our seats, a few rows back from the catwalk. Buddy-roo delighted at the flashing lights and the pulsing music, the models sashaying by, sporting next year’s collection. And Custo happens to be a catwalk_girlsfavorite brand of mine, even before I moved to Spain. There was a Custo store on our street in Paris; its merchandise fit well my bohemian chic taste in clothing and occupied a large part of my closet until that store closed a few years ago. Fashion savvy Buddy-roo assessed each model as she strutted by, rating each outfit by its originality and style, and of course, whether or not she’d wear it. At the end of the show, when all the models paraded by, followed by the designer himself, she turned to me with the look of supreme satisfaction.

After, the fashionista crowd gathered in a tent outside the venue. I wouldn’t have minded to stay and quench my thirst, but the next day was a school day so Buddy-roo and I made our way through the throngs of well dressed people out to the street to find our taxi home. We flagged one down and slid into its back seat together. Buddy-roo threw her arms around me and gave me a fierce hug.

“This was the bestest night of my life. I’ll never forget it!”

My father used to offer me a particular piece of unsolicited advice: how I should tone down the highs and bring up the lows, just to try to take life a bit more evenly. I never appreciated his suggestion. I liked the thrill of elation too much and was prepared to pay for it with the pendulum swing of emotions. Of course now I can understand his advice, guiding Buddy-roo through the worst day and the best night of her life, but I know better than to offer it to her.

“It was a great night, wasn’t it?” I said. “Thanks for learning your poems so we could go out.”

Right then and there, in the back of the taxi whizzing through the Barcelona streets, she recited both poems for me, flawlessly. She truly has a brilliant memory, when she wants.


Dec 22 2013

Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the ubiquitous commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.


Oct 20 2013

Real Life Tests

I wish I could say that Buddy-roo was getting better about doing her homework, now that she’s older and in the final year of primary school. It’s never been her thing, and the battles to get her to do it are as fierce as ever. It’s especially hard to wage a battle when you don’t believe fully in the cause. I’d argue that keeping work to school hours and giving kids free time to play after school is better for their brains. Unfortunately, due to our current choice of schools, homework seems to be a regular part of the plan.

I hate the no-longer-subtle and ever-present parenting pressure of our times: if you don’t help your kids perform well in school, even at a tender age, they won’t have the optimal educational and career opportunities later in their life. We don’t want to program them like machines, but if we don’t press them there’s the nagging worry that they be outliers, destined to bepencil_graffiti slackers the rest of their lives. My parents, in no uncertain terms, expected a certain academic performance from me and I understood that meeting their standards would take me to a brighter future with lots of choices. I’m not convinced this is the truth anymore, and even if it were, nothing I tell Buddy-roo would make her believe it.

Every day after school it’s the same grind: we look at the upcoming assignments in her agenda and she spends five minutes longing for her old school. Last year’s teacher handed out a sheet of paper with the assignments, a week at a time, and Buddy-roo and her classmates would glue (French school = paper + glue stick) this into their agendas. She could anticipate upcoming tests and get ahead on homework during the weekend so the weeknights weren’t crammed with work. It didn’t make her love the work she had to do at home, but it helped her to manage it. This year – new school and new teacher – assignments are handed out more randomly, sometimes in advance, sometimes for the next day. The teacher is probably preparing her for middle school, when work piles on from every teacher without regard for the other assignments from other teachers.

“It’s like real life,” I told her. “Things get thrown at you and you figure out how to do them.”

“I don’t like real life,” she said.

During an after school inquiry last week, Buddy-roo admitted that she had a test the following day but she couldn’t remember for which subject; she hadn’t written it down. We scanned her emploi de temps, and through the process of elimination determined it was for history. Of course she hadn’t brought the history book home with her. Last year, her teacher used to write on the board a list of books to take home each night, but, to Buddy-roo’s consternation, this year’s teacher expects the kids to check their agendas and sort it out themselves. Buddy-roo also couldn’t recall the topic they’d been most recently discussing, so I started prompting her with different milestones in European history. It didn’t take long to get to the French Revolution.

“That’s it!” She started jumping up and down.

A Google search yielded several history websites for kids, we settled on one and took turns reading the text out loud. This also reinforced a pet practice: I urge the girls to study in English to prepare for their French projects, and mariannein French for their English ones, forcing them to synthesize what they’ve learn and translate it. It is my hope this will help them avoid plagiarizing in the future. We’ll see.

Little by little, we made it through what I had to guess might be covered on the test: the three estates, the Estates-General, the tennis court oath, the storming of the Bastille. After each paragraph we’d stop to talk, and put the already plain language explanations into even more colloquial terms, or to give her context she could grasp.

“Oh, like in the movie Marie Antoinette?” she said, referring to one of her favorite DVDs. Buddy-roo’s favorite scene shows the queen selecting dozens of elegant shoes, having lavish dresses made and being fitted with an enormous and elaborate wig, all to the tune of 1980’s pop-band Bow Wow Wow hit, I want Candy. “She spent all the money on whatever she wanted, and that made the people mad.”

Later, at dinner, I pop-quizzed her and she got the dates and players mostly right. The next morning on our walk to school, I asked her to tell me everything she knew about the French Revolution and she spun the story more or less accurately.

I asked her why this revolution was so important. She might flunk the test if she doesn’t remember the dates and details, but if she can answer that question, at least she’ll have gleaned some context from the exercise. She stumbled through her answer, eventually spitting out something about overthrowing a monarchy and creating a modern form of government where the common man had rights, too. The victory of democracy over tyranny. Then I tossed out a bonus question: in what ways did the U.S. Revolution contribute to the French Revolution?

We’d talked about this the night before, too, and she’d seemed to get it: the irony of how the U.S. Revolution might have inspired the French people to revolt, and yet at the same time, France’s financial aide to the rebel colonies was a contributing factor to the debt that caused the king to want to tax his subjects even more, leading to a tipping point that set off the revolution.

“That’s not going to be on the test,” Buddy-roo said. “We didn’t talk about that in class.”
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I tried to explain that school wasn’t just about learning enough to pass the test. Understanding the meaning of the French and U.S. Revolutions gives perspective to our day-to-day lives. We take for granted that we live in a democracy and can vote for things that shape our destiny. But it wasn’t always that way. Not that there isn’t a certain amount of tyranny in the U.S. democracy these days, given the recent shut-down charade, and not that governments are free from corruption.

Remember the Mahna Mahna skit from Sesame Street, where the really hip monster starts to scat and gets carried away and the back-up singers stop and stare at him like he’s lost it? Buddy-roo gave me that same kind of glare and I realized this was too much real-life talk for someone who purports not to like real life. I went back to quizzing her on the names and dates, and I threw in a few times-tables for good measure before we reached the school, where, after bending over for a good-bye kiss, I sent her into the courtyard, watching her disappear into the mob of noisy children, wishing I could go with her and take that test, too.


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
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“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
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Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
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You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

At the school drop-off, mothers and fathers congregate outside on the sidewalk. Faces look drawn, fatigued from the routine of the school year. We’ve had it with the up-in-the-morning rush to get the kids to school on time, the homework battles after school, the tests, the rushed trips to the bookstore to get that book that’s needed for tomorrow, the exposés that require parental assistance. We’re all dreaming of summer holidays, those mornings when we can sleep in, let the children rise whenever they happen jantzen_swimmerto wake up, get their own breakfast and play by themselves. Those lazy summer afternoons without lessons and classes and all the extracurricular appointments that require enthusiastic schlepping to and fro. Within reach, now, the joys of summer camp, grandparents taking over, and long holidays in the country where the children can fend for themselves.

There is, of course, another side to summer: children underfoot without the reliable 8-hour pause button known as school. At the rentrée in September, we greet each other in front the school considerably more rested, but nonetheless aggravated by the 24/7 company of our children for at least some part, if not all, of the summer. By then, we can’t wait for school to start again.

But now, we’re in June, the month of end-of-scholastic-year madness. June, with all its rites of passage: all the closing concerts, recitals, spectacles, field trips, picnics, parties, and of course the kermesse, an excruciating day of home-made carnival games, face-painting and raffles. June, when after-school commitments seem to double with the final preparations for these closing events. Nearly every evening and weekend day taken with some function, be it an extra rehearsal, a performance, a celebration or a parent-teacher meeting. Thank goodness Paris is at a latitude that enjoys long hours of daylight around the summer solstice, because the days feel endless and we need those extra hours of sunlight to fit it all in.

In the last month I have attended every kind of event: a rock’n’roll show, a dance spectacle, theater performances, several different orchestra concerts orchestra_playsand recitals. In the audience watching my offspring shine (and struggle), I’d wave back when I saw Short-pants or Buddy-roo searching for me in the crowd of parents. It made me think of the charismatically stoic look on my father’s face as he sat with arms folded, cramped in a row of uncomfortable folding chairs in a school cafeteria-turned-auditorium, my mother beside him with her perpetually-expectant smile, waiting for a one of my concerts to start. I don’t think they missed a single performance, a long tour of duty spanning the twenty years between my older brother’s first piano recital and – I’m the youngest – my last orchestra concert.

So as I complain about the burden of all these squeaky, semi-synchronized performances, I look upward – because that’s what you do when your parents are both gone – and imagine my mother and father smiling down at me with the same expressions they wore so bravely through every single recital, play or concert that they had to endure, and I think about how you never truly appreciate your own parents until you become one yourself.

It all seems a bit more intense this year because I’ve had to navigate through June as a solo parent. De-facto slyly scheduled multiple work projects that required his presence in the US and in Canada – too far to skip home for a few days and give me any relief – and so I have been wearing all the hats of valet, cook, nurse, maid, tutor, coach, stylist, chaperone, schlepper and wild applauder.
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I cannot begrudge him these deplacements, three weeks straight of travel for legitimate business and to collaborate with creative colleagues. Though he is too much a gentleman to count the days that he has had to operate as a single parent while I’ve traveled for work or to walk the Camino, or to attend the fiesta, I am very aware of the responsibility he shoulders when I get to escape. Indeed, turnabout is fair play. But did he have to pick June to be out of town for nearly the whole month?

September won’t be much easier. The effort required of parents to line up and sign up for classes and extra-curricular courses, to buy books and supplies, to fill out forms in duplicate, to sort out the new routine and get the kids back into the groove of school is nearly, though not quite, as rigorous as the grind of June. It helps if both parents are present, and perhaps De-facto and I should just simply declare a moratorium on travel for the both of us in the months of September and June. That way we’d share the grief and the groans. But also, we’d witness, together, these rites of passage, the beginnings and endings of the chapters in the lives of our not-so-little-anymore girls. Their childhood is screaming by (as everybody warned me), month-by-month, year-to-year, summer-after-summer. I shouldn’t mind the heavy itinerary of June performances – deep down inside you know I’ve relished every bow stroke and dance step – but I’m readier than ever for the summer break. If I can just survive the last days of June.


Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.


Sep 22 2012

The Devoir

I pressed my knees together and wedged them under the tiny desk, perfectly sized for a nine-year old but more than a tight squeeze for me. The other parents, their long legs jutting out into the aisle and chairs pushed back to accommodate adult-sized thighs and bottoms, looked just as uncomfortable. I suppose hosting the parent-teacher meeting in the children’s classroom gives us a sense of their day-to-day environment, but it does put parents at a disadvantage. Hunched over and stuffed into hobbit-sized furniture, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in school, cowering under the teacher’s strict supervision.

I remember in grade school, every year, on a night in early autumn, my parents would go to school after dinner for a meeting with my new teacher. During the day, we’d have been given a few minutes to arrange our books in our desks and we’d all work to tidy up the classroom. My father would always return from these meetings shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “Your desk was a terrible mess!” he’d say. The next day, I’d find my notebooks and papers turned sideways and mixed around, the handiwork of my father. Somehow I can’t picture his long legs bent under my primary school desk – I think it was more of a standing around, open-house kind of meeting – but I can picture the smile on his face while he was making mischief inside my desk to complete what was his very predictable annual prank.

These school meetings are important because you actually get to see and hear the teacher. French schools are very much drop-your-kids-at-the-door-and-stay-out-of-our-way. Last year, aside from the initial school meetings, Short-pants’ teacher never once spoke to me, and Buddy-roo’s rather humorless teacher and I had only a handful of exchanges, mostly about logistics. At these meetings you also get data that you might not otherwise pick-up, like how that sheet of paper that you thought was scrap and almost threw out is actually the assignment to research and prepare an oral presentation on Vikings, due next Monday. And with some assurance, you get to see that the other parents – even the fully French ones – are just as overwhelmed by it all as you are.

As the teacher described the work that would be required for each subject, I sank lower and lower in Buddy-roo’s already low-to-the-ground chair. The school meeting is like the door to summer slamming shut behind you. Gone are the blissful evenings of after-dinner walks for ice-cream and a family game of Mille Borne. Now our nights will be spent conjugating verbs, memorizing math tables and reading about Merovingians and Carolingians. The curious what-do-you-feel-like-doing-tonight? is replaced with the commanding fait tes devoirs. The word devoir means to have to, an auxiliary verb that means must or ought. When used as a noun, it can signify an obligation or a duty, or, as in this case, homework. Plenty of it, despite everyone’s complaints and the feeble call to ban it.

So far Buddy-roo’s devoir has been rather reasonable. But supervision is still required. Not so much on the three math problems due for tomorrow, but on the tricky “look-ahead” assignments: the test for next Wednesday which requires more than Tuesday night’s review, or the poetry every other week, which takes several evenings of practice to be able to recite by heart. It is still beyond the capacity of my 9-year-old to take responsibility for anticipating the due dates of these longer-terms assignments. As far as she’s concerned, next week is ages away.

Every evening, then, after a compact day of anticipating my own deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time, I find myself having to anticipate their deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time. I must survey Buddy-roo’s agenda and manage her homework, pressing her to start memorizing earlier rather than later, to cement her appreciation of Clovis and Pepin the Short and Charlemagne and to place them via historic timeline and accomplishment tonight, even though the test isn’t until next week.

Short-pants is more self-reliant, but she still needs nudging. Her speech on someone she admires wouldn’t have been completed in time had I not elbowed her, twice, to get started on the script. Her science report, identifying and describing the three types of tree leaves she was asked to collect, requires a decent amount of research and it was at my behest that she got started early. I get to be the raised eyebrow behind them both, with my new mantra, “I know it’s not due until next week, but you need to do a little every night…”

Some of the assignments seem, to me, beyond Buddy-roo’s capacity to be finished independently. Then it really starts to feel like homework for me. Maybe I should leave her alone, and let her sputter through and suffer the consequences of failing, but that’s not going to teach her how to do the assignment or help her learn the content. So I give in and help, always starting out as the facilitator, “Why don’t you read those paragraphs and then tell me how you’d summarize it in your own language?” Two hours later, I end up not-so-gently suggesting the answer so we can just get on with it and go to bed.

My greatest concern, beyond the burden this puts on me or De-facto, is the lack of time and freedom for them to imagine, invent and play. I remember coming home from school when I was in 4th grade and going for walks in the woods, playing with neighbors, making up stories and games, reading for pleasure. I rarely had homework at that age, unless it was a special report or project. My mother was happy to help because it happened once a month, not every night. My daughters, in contrast, sit at desks and work all day long, and then are compelled to use their evenings to do the same – and my evenings too.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Buddy-roo’s new teacher exudes warmth and compassion – a welcome change after the last year – and I think her classroom is going to be a much friendlier learning environment. But there are still a lot of musts that come along with the rules of a French classroom, so even though I considered re-arranging the books in Buddy-roo’s desk, just to mess the order up a bit and follow a family tradition, I decided, for her sake, I really musn’t.


Sep 13 2012

What’s His Name

“I have to tell you something,” Short-pants said. “It’s about my life.”

She’d been waiting for hours for me to get home and she could hardly contain herself. I promised to give her my undivided attention – something about her life deserved at least that – if she could wait for me to set my big yellow bag down, put my keys on the shelf and take off my shoes. Her eyes remained fixed on my every move.

“Upstairs,” she said, lifting her chin upwards, towards her room.

I followed her up the narrow, curving stairway and sat beside her on the edge of her bed.

We’ve had a lot of talks these last few days; Short-pants is mindful of the gravity of her passage from primary school to collège – middle school – and she’s been expressing her enthusiasm and her trepidation in equal measure.

“There’s a boy. In my class. We hung out together a lot today,” she said. “I think he likes me.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

She looked at me, surprised. She shrugged.

“Well,” I said, trying to let her off the hook. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

She went on to tell me the context of their conversations, and how he’d asked her to have lunch with him, what they’d talked about and how his friend told her later, “I think there’s some dragging going on.”

I noticed her cheekbones seemed higher, more pronounced. Her eyebrows have started to frame her gray-blue eyes in a kind of glamorous way. It’s like her body had assumed a different stance, the poise of someone who is admired. She wasn’t the same girl I sent to school that morning.

“Do you like him?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she lied.

And so it begins.

The good news is, she wanted to tell me about it, and she claimed she’d told me more details than she told her sister. The good news is, somebody seems to like her before she likes him. The good news is, she could tell that he liked her. The bad news, well, there really isn’t any bad news, except that her indifference to boys meant one less element of drama in our household. Those days are over.

After dinner, Buddy-roo asked me if we could have a moment together, too. She keeps track of the time I spend alone with each of them, always keen to keep it even. I joined her upstairs in her little garret room, where she’d been setting up the Fisher Price dollhouse, the one that used to be mine.

“You know how I’ve been in love with…” she stopped and gestured with her hands, as though she’d been in love with Voldemort and didn’t dare to utter his name out loud.

“Well, there was this other boy in school today, a new boy,” she looked at me, straight on, “and he’s cuter.”

I can’t say I’m too disturbed that her last-year’s crush might be have run its course. I’m in no hurry for her to have a steady beau. Not that she’s had a deep relationship, let alone a formal date with the one who won’t be named. Remember these childhood romances? They’re just verbal agreements, made during recreation, to be in love. At the same time, I do want to discourage her from treating these little boys as dispensable, trading an old one in for a newer, cuter model. I tried to convey this to her but her eyes glazed over in the middle of my little lecture.

“My grandmother used to tell me that boys are like buses.” I said, trying a new tack. Buddy-roo likes family stories, and this kind of an opening gets her attention. “If you miss one, another one comes along in ten minutes.”

It’s true that my grandmother used to say this to me, rather often, though it wasn’t with a condescending or man-hating tone. She meant it in a matter-of-fact way, simply, don’t get too invested because at your age there’s a lot ahead of you. She just wanted me to keep my options open.

“But when you’re getting off the bus,” I added, “you still have to be polite.”

Buddy-roo considered this without looking at me, moving the furniture around in her dollhouse.

“And this new, cuter guy,” I said, “what’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, a little embarrassed.

“Well,” I said. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

I ought to tread carefully here, as my mental acuity isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and I have my own challenges remembering the names of people I’ve just met. It’s easy to get distracted when meeting someone new, thinking about what you want to say rather than listening and locking in on their name. I even get my own daughters wrong, calling them by each other’s names. But when I was the same age as Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I had glue between my ears. I heard and remembered everything, especially if it had to do with a boy I had a crush on. What’s up with my girls, who both seem to be infatuated with unnamed boys?

I know better than to tease them about this. It’s a surefire way to get them to stop talking to me about their burgeoning love lives. But it takes a certain amount of self-control.

On the way to school today, Buddy-roo grabbed my sleeve and pointed out the new boy.

“Oh,” I said, “That’s whats-his-name?”

She nodded.

I didn’t say it to her, but you know what? He is cuter.