Nov 30 2010

Nobody’s Perfect

Try as I may to let our upstairs be the wild and creative universe of my children, eventually I reach a point when I can no longer endure the disorder. This is usually prompted by a predictable chain of events: Buddy-roo dilly-dallies through breakfast, and the absolute last time of departure (ALTD) to get to school on time is fast approaching so I volunteer to go up to her room and select an outfit. “Pants or a dress?” I pretend this is a fun errand. Upstairs I’m appalled at the clutter that collects in just a few days since it was last in a reasonably tidy state. “It’s okay, they’re being creative,” I say to myself, closing the drawers left wide open and snatching Short-pants’ eyeglasses up off the floor, barely managing not to flatten them, instead stepping on some tiny piece of plastic, an umbrella shaped thing that came home in the favor-bag from a birthday party. It smarts, a lot. I lose it. Get up here now and pick up your rooms! All the reasoning and thoughtful discussions go out the window. So much for being the ideal parent. But sometimes it just feels good to holler.

The results of the first trimester bilans come home. Buddy-roo’s scores are all over the board. Even Short-pants, who actually enjoys doing her homework, has inconsistent grades. I smile at anything equal to or above a score of 8/10. I try not to overreact to that glaring 5/10. I ask her how she feels about it. “I’m not that strong at geography,” she says.

I’m torn. I want to inspire her to try harder, do better. Another part of me remembers a consultant I worked with in my earliest career, Don Clifton was his name, talking about how good leaders were rarely straight-A students; they only excelled in the subjects in which they had strengths or that they felt were important. In other words, they prioritized.

We talk about how to do better in geography and I try not to harp on it. A final summary sentence about how hard she’s worked and how that really paid off with her grades. “Except that one,” I say. (But not out loud.)

I don’t want to pressure my kids to get everything right all the time. But is this a question of individual strengths and preferences or is it just plain lack of trying? It might be that she just got lazy – sometimes that’s all it is – and being reminded might help her do better the next time.

On the other hand, maybe she’s just not that strong at geography.

Buddy-roo can recite by heart entire passages from the movie Hello Dolly, or sing the most obscure song from On the Town without any practice. But ask her to conjugate the verb être, even though we’ve been over it a million times, she still can’t remember the six forms of the present tense without making a mistake. I don’t want to beat her up. But I know she can do it.

What’s the right balance of supporting and challenging your children? How do I inspire them to try to perform well – and take pride in their work – without thrusting upon them the stress of being a perfectionist?

I’m sure I make things more complicated than they need to be. My parents had no apparent angst about how to respond to my report card. Good grades were expected. If you got a B, it was met with a raised eyebrow. Getting a C was grounds for a discussion; you were called in to the living room and seated at the square card table. My parents were never cruel or harsh, and yet we lived in mild fear of disappointing them, and this was what you realized you’d done if you were called in to sit at that table. Would a psychologist today find fault in the way they held us to their standards? Maybe. But they weren’t trying to be perfect parents. They were trying to be good parents.

I sit in judgment of messy bedrooms or inconsistent grades, but what about me? Do I get it all right, all the time? Consider the piles of files and papers stashed in shelves in our office, I mean to sort through them but somehow never get to it. My taxes are never turned in without at least filing for one extension. I ran a workshop yesterday and it went well, but it was far from flawless. I’ve been writing a post about procrastination – for another blog I write with my colleagues – for three months now. (This is not even ironic anymore, it’s pathetic.)

I signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November – ambitious if you’re composing a novel from scratch, but the last unfinished chapters of my novel are already outlined, which ought to make the job easier. I started with great fervor, overshooting the suggested daily goal by a few hundred words each day in anticipation of the mid-month business travel that would interrupt the daily exercise. That trip set me back several thousand words, and when I returned home I was bombarded with things not attended to in my absence. I knew I shouldn’t let it stop me, but once I was 10,000 words behind it was too overwhelming. So that novel I’ve been writing for seven years, it’s still not done.

Oh, guess what? I’m human.

As a mother, I’m compelled to fend off the idealized image of motherhood (this is the point of my unfinished book by the way), which has made us a generation of parents that over-protects and over-provides. Our children, in turn, are under pressure to be the perfect children, to have dabbled in all the right extracurricular activities, to get the best scores, to be popular and social and yet independent and self-possessed. To go to the right school, the one most likely to help you get into the next right school. This all horrifies me, having grown up in a generation that did not study for SATs – they were aptitude tests, after all – and I’m fatigued just thinking about what’s ahead for the girls as they grow into young women hoping to find their place in the world.

(And yet I hope is that they will do well – in school and in life – so that they’ll have more choices when it comes to finding their place in this world.)

There is the adage, one I’ve subscribed to in theory but perhaps not in practice, that if you’re going to do something, do it well or not at all. The inclination to cross every t and dot every i and put your best work forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing – until it becomes compulsive and restrictive. Sometimes it’s just fine to be good enough, to let them be the messy, dreamy kids that they are, and to be the mother who does her best while juggling a lot, which sometimes means raising my voice or losing my temper. Besides, sometimes it just feels good to holler.


Nov 15 2010

End Pieces

In the world of mots doux, the plot thickens as Short-pants attempts to discreetly verify the source of her mysterious love note. Last week she reported seeing the alleged scribe, Jean-luc, using a notebook with pink paper, the same paper as the little note she received last month. “He really had a pink-paged notebook?” It’s unusual, she agreed, but she’d seen it with her own eyes.

“Does this make you think he wrote the note, then?” She squinted one eye, displaying her suspicion. “First I need to see if there’s a page with the corner ripped out. Then I have to see if the handwriting matches.” She ran upstairs to her room and returned with a copy of Encyclopedia Brown, holding it up like a shingle she was about to mount above our door. “I’m in detective mode.”

I don’t bring it up too often but I want to stay plugged-in to how she’s feeling about the whole saga. Every once in a while I ask, as nonchalantly as possible, “Any further developments in the case of the pink love note?” No, she says, supplying me with the same status report as before, or musing about the stealth ways she might obtain more clues to solve the mystery. For now, she seems more engaged in the curiosity of the puzzle than the romance.

I suppose I’ve made peace with the maitresse after our appointment, and Buddy-roo’s struggles with the schoolwork seem to have (mostly) subsided. Reluctantly I must admit that it was probably just a period of adjustment for my little one, a passage in scholastic responsibility, leaving behind the days of symbolic homework and entering the world of the real deal. She seems to have accepted (sort of) the fact that there’s something (a lot) to do every night, so doing homework is no longer a three-hour procedure (usually). The defiant fits and helpless tears have diminished from nightly to weekly. Her flash-quiz scores have upped from twos and threes (out of ten) to sevens and eights. Her teacher still writes attention au soins! in red ink; it takes all the restraint I have not to write back that of course Buddy-roo’s work would be clean and neat and without messy smudges if she wasn’t required to use a fountain pen. Fortunately (for Buddy-roo) my capacity to be snarky in French is not yet fully developed.

The 10-day Toussaint vacation helped, giving her a break from the grind, and a chance to catch up. De-facto quizzed her daily on the 130 spelling words she’s been asked to memorize (so far) this fall, in anticipation of the full-on first trimester bilan – two weeks of daily tests on all the work they’ve covered since school started. It still feels like a lot of work for a second-grader to tackle, or for me to help her manage. In the end, it’s an adjustment for all of us, isn’t it?

The chilly, gray days of November have settled in and wrapped around us. There are some good aspects: it’s an R month of oysters and the approaching holiday season, though not without its drawbacks, at least offers the promise of warmth, cheer and well-spiked egg-nog. But the mornings are far too dim, night falls way before suppertime and the cold drafts slip too easily through our ancient dormer windows. The courtyard seems especially somber these days; summer’s laughter barely an echo as we hunker down for the winter, bracing ourselves for the end of another year and all the changes that a new one will bring.


Oct 15 2010

The Love Note

She handed me the small sheet of paper, torn out of a notebook. It was creased from being folded and unfolded. I tried to make out what was written, the paper was ripped in such a way that none of the phrases were complete. Was it a code of some sort? It looked like it could be a practice test or part of someone’s homework, scratched in the deliberate fashion of a schoolchild working with the obligatory stylo-plume fountain pen.

“No mama,” Short-pants instructed, “turn it over.” On the other side, more words from (apparently) the same stylo-plume, but this message was clear: proclamations of her beauty and expressions of affection. Tu est super belle and bisous d’amour. The signature, from a boy in her class – call him Jean-luc – was written in the middle of a big heart.

I remember the thrill of all my schoolgirl crushes. What’s-his-name loved me, which meant we wrote notes back and forth and maybe talked on the phone. But at the age of nine that was enough to be an official couple, even if we never saw each other outside of the confines of the school building or schedule. These torrid pre-teen relationships were mercurial, lasting sometimes only a few days before I.D. bracelets were returned and another boy was the objective of, if not my affection, at least my attention.

“It’s a love note from Jean-luc,” she preened. “Olivier, who sits at the desk next to mine, passed it over. He told me that if I asked Jean-luc about the note, he’ll deny it because he’s so shy.”

I know Jean-luc. Last year he was one of the four classmates with whom Short-pants was teamed to produce an exposé. He’s very smart, very quick, rather precocious. Shy is not a word I’d use to describe him. He is the class boy-geek, and Short-pants could be classified as the girl-geek. They do make a nice pair, if you think in stereotypes.

“Well anyway, I didn’t do anything because Melanie Martin says that you don’t tell a boy how you feel because it will embarrass him. You just have to show him.”

You gotta love Melanie Martin. She’s the heroine of With Love From Spain, a book about a family’s spring-break trip during which the mother visits old haunts from her college year abroad. This entails introducing her husband and children to an old flame, which goes over (mostly) well, especially for Melanie who develops a crush on the son of her mother’s old boyfriend. I love this book because it introduces ever-so-gently the nuances and complexities of old relationships-turned-friendships and how it all works when the past meets the present. The book, which Short-pants has read no less than a dozen times, was a gift from none other than the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who wants everyone to love Spain as much as she does. Aside from Melanie’s wisdom about show, don’t tell, it contains a number of valuable nuggets about life in another culture. Like this one: Spaniards don’t believe in bedtime; they believe in nighttime.

The next morning Short-pants brought up the love note again. “Do you think I should tell Jean-luc that I like him, too?” I gave her the standard answer-a-question-with-a-question response, “What do you think?” She paced around the kitchen island, mulling this over in an active meditation. “I could ask Olivier to tell him that I like him.”

Now I knew I was in tricky territory, I didn’t want to burst her love-bubble, but here was a chance to prepare her for one possibility: that just maybe the note wasn’t for real, that the note was a joke. On her.

“Why don’t you think it’s for real?” De-facto had asked me the night before. I explained my theory about a note on pink paper and how maybe some girls in the class don’t quite get Short-pants and this kind of a joke would be a typical response. “Yeah,” he said, after considering it, “much too crafty to be perpetuated by a male.”

Short-pants is a prime target for teasing. She’s a bit of a loner. At school, during the récré, she often rejects invitations to play with her peers. She’d rather wander around the courtyard and talk to herself. She is über-sweet, kind, empathetic, angelic. The fact that she’s so nice, to everyone, could work in her favor – so far I think it has – but I’m waiting for the day when the girls in her class are old enough to get mean, the way pre-adolescent girls can be so mean. Short-pants will be an easy one to bully.

The recent incident at Rutger’s University is an extreme case, but it’s served to raise awareness about how bullying is a real problem in our schools. Back in the day (my day) you didn’t talk about it, you certainly didn’t tell your parents, you just suffered. But I think the bullying is more severe now, and as parent, I feel compelled to watch for clues, even if it’s just the seeds of something that turns out to be a harmless prank. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But I believe there’s an important distinction between being overprotective and preparing our children so they can fend for themselves.

“I think Melanie Martin had you headed down the right track,” I told her. Bolstering my argument with her favorite literary character couldn’t hurt. Deep breath. Then I said it: “Do you think Jean-luc really wrote the note?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pondering the possibility that he hadn’t, “it looks like his writing.”

I brought up the pink paper. She admitted this was a bit of a stretch.

“You never know, though,” I softened my blow, “maybe it was some scrap paper he found.”

She studied me, taking this all in.

“Maybe it is a real love note, maybe it’s not. But if I were you, I’d wait and see before playing your hand. If you start asking around, you’re giving away too much. If it’s not real, you save face. If it is real, then Jean-luc will have to work a bit harder to get you to swoon for him.”

“Melanie Martin is right!” She marched out of the kitchen, turning back to offer a quick but heartfelt, “thanks mama.”

I grabbed the edge of the butcher-block centerpiece of our kitchen, as if to steady myself for any and all victories and heartbreaks ahead. This is just a small love story. Or if it is couple of girls having fun at her expense, it’s only a mild teasing. The thing is, I do want her to know romance and to be open to its magic. I also hope she’ll learn to be discriminating and solid on her own two feet.

Short-pants came back into the kitchen. “What does swoon mean?”

“Look it up,” I said. This one, she can figure out on her own.


Oct 9 2010

The Appointment

The fluorescent light flickered on and off in the dingy stairwell. I climbed five flights to the top floor, pushed open the heavy metal door and walked down the narrow corridor. I could see into the classroom at the end of the hallway, its rows of tiny school desks with equally scaled chairs lined up in order, like prisoners tied together in a chain gang.

Earlier that morning – I had to rally the girls to get out the door to be on time for my 8:30 am meeting with the maitresseBuddy-roo stopped on the landing just outside our apartment door and looked out the window. From the top floors of our building, you can see the courtyard and into the classrooms of her old school, a place that represents the oasis of songs, crayons, painting and games that are the first years of l’école maternelle. “Mama, look,” she said, the longing palpable in her voice, “those kids – that’s my old class!” She called out the names of her old classmates, shouting to them even though they could not hear her. She heeded reluctantly when I called her to follow me down the stairs.

I stuck my head in the classroom door, peeked around to see the teacher, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties whom I’ve viewed only from a distance each afternoon as she escorts the children through the school doors at the end of the day. Madame Deville sat motionless behind her desk. She raised her eyebrows, coolly, and twisted her lips into a smug smirk.

Asseyez-vous madame.” She pointed to a small chair, one suitable for one of her 7-year-old students, facing the desk. My footsteps awkwardly audible in the tomb-like silence of the room, I approached the chair. Slowly I lowered myself into a crouch. The chair was still lower than I expected; I fought to keep my balance as I dropped into the tiny seat. Already, the status had been established.

Je vous attends,” she said, a cruel way of saying and I’m waiting for you to start. I began to make my case as Buddy-roo’s defender and protector. She smiled and her teeth gleamed. Her short brown hair lengthened in an instant and turned into curly writhing serpents. A deep and diabolical laugh welled up from the back of her throat.

Okay, that’s not what really happened.

The day before, I had an appointment with my dermatologist for an annual look-over. It is humiliating to strip and stand exposed as she examines every mole and freckle on my body, making comparisons with the photographs she took on my first visit years ago. But after too much teenaged basking-in-the-sun-with-baby-oil, and subsequent sunning habits that I didn’t cease until the last decade, it’s a necessary medical precaution for me.

The doctor found nothing pre-cancerous but furled her brow at my hairline, which is red and flaky, a mild kind of eczema that flares up from time to time. “Stress?” she asked. I nodded. “C’est la rentrée,” she answered for me. I wonder how long can we blame the rentrée? In France, you’re allowed to say “Happy New Year” only until the end of January. Does the post-summer-start-of-school-and-work transition get to bleed into October?

I made a joke about how we’ve been terrorized by my youngest daughter’s teacher. The doctor started spewing advice, whole story about how a teacher refused to recommend her daughter for a medical-school track, a daughter who is now an accomplished doctor. “You know what’s right for your child. Change classes.” I made the mistake of trying to explain how this is easier said than done. All the Anglo-bilingual kids are in one class with a rather complex schedule to accommodate the hours of English instruction; if she changed classes, she couldn’t take English. “But why does she need to learn English at school? You speak it at home, don’t you?”

What I wanted to say was, “Hey, you’re my dermatologist, not my psychologist. Go back back to my moles.” Instead, I let her blather on, her voice morphing into the muted-horn sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher while I stared out the window. But then it all became crystal clear: I’ve been trying to buffer Buddy-roo from the angst created by Madame Deville – the false enthusiasm and remaining upbeat despite my own discouragement and frustration, trying to keep my bias in check so as not to make things even heavier for my daughter – I’ve taken it on myself. I’m absorbing the stress, and this isn’t good for anyone.

No matter what comes out of this meeting, I told myself, the most important thing I can do is to be more lighthearted about it all. Buddy-roo will pick up on that, and maybe that’s the key to helping her relax and find her stride at school. (sigh)

Leaving the dermatologist’s opinion aside, I was otherwise well-consulted as I prepared for the meeting with Madame Deville. Readers made suggestions in the comments and in private emails. Friends talked about it with their friends, and phoned with me with advice. Other mothers – some who’ve already met with the teacher and some who haven’t – empathized and advised. I realized, once again, the absolute necessity of a support network. Especially when you’re in foreign territory, it’s crucial. (Thanks everyone!)

My strategy, in the end, was to go in with an open mind and an open heart, armed with questions and ultimately to ask for her help about how I could best support Buddy-roo. I was counseled by natives not to let her bully me; if the asking questions routine didn’t produce results, they said, I should put my foot down and be firm about my concerns. For this I was prepared, too.

When I entered the classroom, Madame Deville jumped up to greet me and escorted me to a desk where we both sat together, equally uncomfortable in two child-size chairs. It was not a contentious encounter; she was warm and friendly.

I was able to convey to her our philosophy at home: how we see mistakes as opportunities to learn; how when Buddy-roo gets an answer wrong we’ll say, “Hmm, I didn’t get the same answer, let’s both try it again” rather than issuing a harsh rebuke; how we’ve tried to reinforce a growth mindset, which means we praise our children not for being smart or having talent, but for working at something and taking on a challenge. But that even though we are encouraging Buddy-roo to keep at it, she’s overwhelmed by the challenge of all this homework. I wondered if other children in the class were suffering the same way and if so would it be possible to slow down even a wee bit and give us a chance to get used to it and develop some study habits before piling on more?

Non, because there’s a big fat test, mandated by the state, at the end of the year, and already it’s a stretch to get the class prepared for it. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the teachers to make sure the kids will perform. Hmm. Now I understand the demands on her.

But you shouldn’t worry, she said. All the children at this level have a hard time adjusting. It just takes time. And they all come around. (At what price, I wonder?)

Madame Deville went on to describe Buddy-roo as an absolute delight in the classroom: jovial, enthusiastic and among the most participative students in the class. The big challenge: she’s too easily distracted by the friends around her. She’s a bavardeuse, a chatterbox, only unlike other children who can bavarder and still pay attention, Buddy-roo is entirely distracted by her secondary conversations.

She’s not telling me anything I don’t know.

At home, Buddy-roo moans and gripes about going to school, how hard it is, how she wishes she didn’t have to go. At school, she is – allegedly – jovial and participative, one of the happiest students, according to her teacher. Am I getting played here? And by whom?

When the bell rang, we put on our coats and walked down the stairway together, making our way through the wave of students coming up to their classrooms. I thought about what it must have been like for Buddy-roo and Short-pants on their very first day of school, climbing up this dimly-lit, dystopian stairway surrounded by throngs of strange children. How much we ask of them, at this young age, and how little control they have.

My last point to the teacher when we reached the bottom of the stairs: Buddy-roo has started to say things like “I’m not good at French.” I don’t want this belief to be embedded in her brain. Not that this calls for disingenuous praise (and everybody gets a medal), but I don’t want her to get discouraged. Madame Deville seemed to understand my concern. I’m just not sure if the system that supports her will allow her to give Buddy-roo the support I’m asking for.

At least I know she’s not an evil Medusa, and she’s not a witch. (She does, oddly, bear a slight physical resemblance to Christine O’Donnell, but let’s not go there.) She’s a nice lady. She seems to like my daughter very much, and wants her to do well in school. As for the posturing I heard about at the class meeting, this was not apparent during our conversation. Maybe she’s more comfortable one-on-one. Or it could be that she’s had a number of individual parent meetings in the last two weeks and little by little our appeals have softened her.

In front of the school, we shook hands and I watched her walk toward the courtyard to pick up her class. Nothing was really resolved, but I felt better. Not because of anything she said, but because at least she seemed human; she was warmer and more reasonable than I’d expected. I lingered in front of the school, talking to other parents, filling them in on the meeting. “Maman!” I heard Buddy-roo call out. She was walking in line behind her teacher, holding hands with one of her classmates. She waved at me vigorously, beaming ear-to-ear like the happiest student in the world, and disappeared into the school.


Oct 2 2010

La Maîtresse

My children go to Hogwarts. You wouldn’t think so just looking at the primary school building, a fairly nondescript 20th century construction. But just across the street, adjacent to the courtyard where children clamor uncontrollably during the récré, there’s an imposing, majestic building that houses the school’s cantine and the classrooms for the older students. Classified as historic by the city of Paris, it screams of Hogwarts. Standing before it at dusk on a blustery autumn evening, its façade is severe and intimidating; Harry Potter could easily be sweeping by you in his invisibility cloak, escaping the punitive snarl of Professor Snape.

France’s education system is known for its severe and intimidating structure, one that places academic performance above things extracurricular or social. Short-pants and Buddy-roo’s school feels particularly rigorous; they have homework every night, the book-bags that they carry home each day weigh as much as they do, they are tested often and their class ranking is public.
I have the sinking feeling that the girls have learned far too early to see mistakes as something to fear rather than to learn from. At the same time, they are getting a solid education. I’ve heard too many troubling stories about US schools passing students just to move them along. That won’t be happening here, at least not at our beloved Hogwarts.

This stern ambiance is palliated somewhat by their participation in the English section, led by two creative and ambitious teachers who also care about the learning climate and the community. They invite feedback, they ask us to help plan a Halloween party or a holiday celebration so that the kids get a feeling about the culture, not just the structure of their parents’ language. The English teachers are accessible and willing to engage easily with parents. They even use email. How modern.

This is a stark contrast to many of the French teachers in the school, in particular the new teacher assigned to Buddy-roo’s class, whom I’m call Madame Deville. She’s replacing a teacher who was a bit of a cold fish, so when we first saw that there was a new, younger teacher, many parents rejoiced. Not for long. The homework assignments those first days were barely cloaked barbs at the adults for not assembling the full complement of school supplies or turning in the paperwork in a timely fashion. The homework the next week was daunting, with explicit and rather complicated instructions about which cahier and in what order to learn twenty random words that appeared to have little in common, plus the “house of 10” multiplication table and also this week’s poem to illustrate and memorize so that it can be recited in front of the class. To a second grade child who’s all of a sudden terrified of making a mistake, this is overwhelming.

Just getting Buddy-roo to sit down and concentrate has always been a bit tricky, but now there is a particular angoisse to her procrastination. She constantly has a reason to interrupt her work; to sharpen and re-sharpen her pencil or get the right pen or re-arrange her papers or to double check the cahier for the length of the assignment or get a drink of water. I know nagging will not help and I don’t want to add to her stress, but my best efforts to remain cheerful and encouraging have already been stretched to the max. Make it fun, I keep telling myself, inventing a game to inspire her to put those words in alphabetical order. But who am I kidding? That’s not her idea of fun. Not for hours every night.

(The other night at a neighborhood bar, a friend of ours who’s son is also in Buddy-roo’s class performed an hysterical monologue demonstrating how he’s ready to hang himself after helping his 7-year-old son do homework for two hours one night. We’re not the only ones who are suffering.)

I don’t expect Buddy-roo to display a seamless scholastic-competence at the young age of seven. But I do want to help her avoid getting stereotyped in an education system where your reputation gets cemented rather early, where teachers are inclined to point out your weaknesses and hold you to them. It makes me wonder if this school is right for her, for both of them. But if not here, where? Where can they get this rich bilingual, bicultural experience and strong academics plus the social and emotional support?
Does any school offer all that? Any school we can afford, that is?

At the class meeting, Madame Deville counseled the assembled parents complaining about the homework to set their worries aside, citing a French law that states it is illegal to force school children of this age do written homework. The children won’t be graded on their homework, she assured them. But if they don’t do the homework, will they be able to keep up in class? She shrugged.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meeting – I was away on business – but I feel as if I was there because it has become the talk of the school, especially this particular moment: “Veuillez avoir de la bienveillance,” Madame Deville scolded, warning that when notes in the cahier de correspondance don’t use the formal French politesse, our “aggressive words” put her in a bad mood and she’ll it take out on our children. Stunned parents are still hashing this over as they cluster together at morning coffee klatches and the afternoon sortie d’école. One father asked me if I thought this meant that if he wasn’t polite enough it would cause the teacher to be more punitive to his son in particular, or to the class in general? In general, one hopes. But no-one is sure. Everyone is reeling from this.

De-facto, bless his soul, steps empathetically into her shoes and reminds me how much we dreaded hosting a dozen kids for not even three hours at Short-pants’ birthday party. It’s not an easy job to spend the entire day, every day, with 31 young children. If she receives a scribbled, annoyed note from even a handful of the parents on any given day, that would certainly put her in a bad mood and impact her ability to tolerate the antics of the children. He has a point, I suppose, but I don’t think it calls for a pronouncement to the parents in such a finger-wagging way.

I should go on record: not all the French teachers at Hogwarts are so persnickety. Buddy-roo’s teacher last year was absolutely lovely. At a meeting this week, Short-pants’ teacher praised the class and told us she wouldn’t test the children on their reading assignments because she wanted them to experience reading as something one does for pleasure. So they’re not all prickly.

I am attempting, against the tide of tirades about Madame Deville, to keep my mind open. I cautiously address her each time I write a note in the cahier de correspondance (she mandated the parents, at the aforementioned meeting, to use her surname; the salutation of “Madame,” without her last name was insufficient). I use all the little flowery phrases from my book about how to write French letters. It’s already a challenge for Buddy-roo to like school. She doesn’t need an overzealous schoolmarm bearing down on her because her mother is too proud to play along.

Last week I politely requested a private meeting with the Madame Deville; I have been granted a ½-hour appointment with her next Thursday morning before school starts. I’m eager to see her close up. Is she the wicked witch of Hogwarts-Paris as everyone has begun to believe? Or is she just trying to get her “I-may-be-young-but-I’m-strict” stake in the ground so she doesn’t get pushed around? That’s what I hope to find out.

Any tips on a good strategy for this meeting?


Apr 10 2010

Spelling it Out

She has more than an hour of homework every night, in French and English. There is music theory to be memorized and viola to be practiced. She has an activity after school three days out of five. This leaves little time for Short-pants to simply be a child and inhabit her imagination unhindered. Then the extra projects: in the last few weeks she wrote a short story to submit to a competition for her English class and she’s had three meetings with a small group of her classmates to prepare an exposé on the topic of the Ancient Romans. Don’t even get me started on this – it was just as tedious as last year’s assignment (read about that here and here) and designed, it seems, to test the parents’ patience as much (if not more) than to measure the students aptitude preparing a report.

So when the note came from school about a citywide English spelling bee, my first instinct was I don’t think so. It’s too much, too tough on her. But of course, we didn’t want to make an assumption, so De-facto asked her if she’d like to participate. She was jumping-up-and-down thrilled about entering.

“Okay then,” I said, attaching the application form to the refrigerator with a magnet, “we’ll sign you up.” Why not fill it out then and there and send it in right away? Probably my own inertia; a spelling bee is more work for us, time going over the list of words with her, and schlepping her someplace on a Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t that she had so much enthusiasm, but that I had none. It’s tough being a mom and having to be cheerful about all matter of things you aren’t really deeply cheerful about.

We did sign her up, and just in time. In an exceptional flash of memory, anomalous to my usual state of maternal mindlessness – it came to me while I was out of town, in the middle of a job: we’ve got to get that application in before its due date! I emailed De-facto, who insisted that he was totally aware of the looming deadline. He left a photocopy of the completed application on the fridge as proof of compliance. Later, I reviewed it approvingly, until I noticed he’d misspelled the name of her school.

“So what?” he said, until it dawned on him, the irony of it.

Let’s hope she didn’t get her DNA for spelling from him. Nor from me, since I am a handicapped speller as a result of a scholastic experiment with the International Teaching Alphabet (ITA) when I was in the first grade. My first alphabet was phonetic, with funny connected lettering that made for interesting spellings (ergo the odd-looking title of the childhood book I authored, U.D.T. Rool Book). In second grade, I had to learn the regular English alphabet and unlearn all the phonetically-spelled words I’d been taught the year before. My spelling has never fully recovered. I managed, however, to persevere, competing aggressively in my 5th grade spelling bee. I was one of four students in the final round, and I was certain I would win. Rule #1 in spelling bees (and life): never get cocky. My first reaction to the word that eliminated me was “Oh, that’s easy.” Then I went on to misspell alcohol. Yes, it’s prophetic.

De-facto’s nemesis-word was crocodile. He made the same error that I did. mistaking the middle O for an A and eliminating himself from the final round of his spelling bee, too. Will Short-pants do what every generation is supposed to do and exceed our mediocre achievements? Or is she saddled with our sloppy and cocky spelling habits?

I wonder about the pressure that is hoisted on such a young creature to perform at such a young age. I’ve mentioned the hours of homework, which follow a grueling 8-hour day at school. Tests are frequent and often a surprise event. Students are graded out loud. Class ranking is public. Everywhere they go, life is rigorous for children in France. It feels like their childhoods are robbed from them. Or am I over-sensitive? Is this all just good preparation for the future, toughening them up for real life?

It makes me think of my Uncle Buddy, a man with a generous heart and a rigorous spirit but little tolerance or sympathy for kvetching. I can picture him now, cocking his head with a mocking frown, rolling his eyes. “That’s tough,” he’d say, “spelled T-O-O, B-A-D.”

This morning De-facto accompanied her to the first round of the spelling bee. She sat with 53 other students at her age level (there are 77 signed up, total) for the written competition. The top spellers from this round become finalists in the oral contest at the end of May.

Short-pants returned from the test, beaming. I asked her how it went.

“It was great!” she said, meaning it, “Except I got two words wrong: laundry and medley.” She and her papa had gone through the list on the way home, remarkably she could recall the words she’d had to spell.

“Medley is a tough one,” I told her, remembering my own bout with alcohol.

“It’s okay,” she said, “now I’ll know it for the next time.”

She’s tougher than I think, our little speller, isn’t she?

(The painting pictured above is by Blair Bradshaw.)


Nov 23 2009

Old School

He was aloof, my taxi driver. I’d negotiated with him before we left, ¿cuánto va a costar?? to go to an address that wasn’t exactly specific – someplace near the corner of two numbered streets, somewhere in the district called Marianao, the address that my mother had given me after writing to an old friend who would remember it, of her school when she was growing up in Cuba. He seemed bothered by my task: that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, that I’d be needing him to wait.

I’d had so many nice cabbies – highly spirited drivers who gabbed away during the drive from our hotel to the city center, pointing out landmarks or making jokes about passing through a time machine to be in their country. But this guy was dour, humorless. Instead of making small talk, I stared out the window, scanning the rows of faded pastel houses and dusty buildings. I hoped we would be able to find the school, and wondered if it still was a school, if it even existed anymore.
street_colors
We took another route. Not the high road, the habitual drive along the big avenue by the ocean and into the old quarter of the city that we so often followed, but the low road, plunging into the grid of streets of a part of the city most taxi drivers assumed we did not want to see. At the designated crossroads, I asked the driver to wait. He agreed by a grunt, and I got out to hunt for the hallowed building that might be a school. I aimed my camera at a small square stone on the corner of the crumbling sidewalk, registering the intersection where I stood, to use as a marker later when I would review the photographs.

A man on the street watched me, with curiosity, as I snapped pictures of the sidewalk. He wore a careful smile and a pressed plaid shirt. He didn’t look like he was on the make, so I took the risk, in my simple Spanish, to ask him if he knew where to find the Colegio Buenavista.

He surveyed the corner to get his bearings. He pointed his long brown finger up the street. He told me he knew where it was because his brother had gone to that school, long ago. I decided to tell him that it was also the escuela de mi madre. I made a waving hand motion to the side of my head – it might be the universal signal for “a long time ago” – a visual to reinforce that I was speaking of many decades in the past. I asked him to describe the school to my taxi driver, and hoped the transmission from one local to another would be more efficient. He agreed and followed me to the car, a beat-up squared vehicle that reeked of gasoline. I heard him describe the building, and its placement further up the street. My driver shrugged his shoulders, agreeing to take me there but with a complete absence of enthusiasm.
blue_school
A few blocks later, the driver stopped the car and pointed. I stepped out of the cab before a grand edifice, colonial and ornate with a stately gate. The building looked like what an old school should look like, with a symmetrical stairway like dignified crossed arms in the front of the building, a grand gaping balcony on the second floor smiling down. The paint was fatigued and chipped, but at one time would have been a brilliant turquoise blue. It looked like a sad, old, aristocratic lady, dressed in her worn, out-of-fashion finery just to walk around the block, elegant in a faded, nostalgic way.

I climbed the staircase. At the landing on the second floor, and old couple sat in unmatched chairs. I meekly greeted them, not wanting to impose, but oh so curious to even peek inside. I explained my pilgrimage, and they responded in rapid-fire Spanish in what was clearly affirmative. “Despacio, slowly,” I begged. Yes, it was the school, though now it was divided into apartments. But it had been the Colegio Buenavista, along with the building just beside it, which remains a school to this day.
tile_floor
They opened a door, motioning for me to go in. I entered a wide school-like hallway with a vaulted ceiling, painted nearly the same blue as the building’s exterior. The colors of the tiled-floor were slightly dulled by time, but otherwise in perfect condition. Looking down a stairwell that was once filled with young students scrambling up the stairs, I saw someone’s laundry hanging in a ventilation passage. The faint smell of garlic taunted from the back of the building.

I pictured my mother standing in this hallway, holding her books, laughing with her classmates. I imagined the rushing about of young uniformed schoolgirls, and her among them. I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and how they disappear each day into the private mystery of their at-school lives, coming into their own, just as my mother made her way here, in this very place, years ago.

They suggested I visit the building next door. After lots of nodding and smiling and many muchas gracias, I made my way to the driver and motioned where I was going. There, a concierge of sorts listened to my explanation without compassion. The man I’d seen earlier – in the plaid shirt, the one who’d directed me here – appeared on the sidewalk behind me. No doubt his curiosity had kicked in, so he’d turned up to see what was unfolding. With his intervention, the woman cautiously opened the door for me. It was late afternoon and school had let out, but a few children remained and the women there – teachers, cleaners, administrators, helpers – gathered around me. Once they heard I had come from France, another woman appeared, a French teacher, and we were able to converse with full comprehension. Yes, classroomsthis had been the Colegio Buenavista. Now it operates under a different name and is a state-run school. Another woman appeared and offered to escort me around the school, a one-story building laid out like a motel, with a wide open courtyard between the long rows of doors and the covered walkway. Aqui, she pointed down an alley on the side, these were the main classrooms.

I lingered as long as I could, in broken Spanish and in better French conversing with them about the school and its students. Mindful of my waiting driver and also wanting my local visits to be discreet – for my own safety as well as theirs – I thanked them all and left, even though I wanted to stay. You can come back tomorrow, they told me, when school is in session. Yes, maybe I will, I’d said. I wanted to, really.

In the taxi I turned and watched out the rear window as the two buildings shrunk from view. I didn’t expect it to be emotional, making this little side trip to visit my mother’s old school. I saw it as a quick errand, just going to visit an old building so I could surprise her with a few photos of her past. Not until I was standing in these buildings did I feel the sense of a history – not just a general history of a place from another era, but a specific touch point in the history of someone so near to me. I didn’t expect to be so moved. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed. I didn’t expect my eyes to fill up with such wet, heavy tears.

“Hotel?” the taxi driver asked. His dark eyes in the rear view mirror softened when he saw that I was crying. By now my mouth was surely a grimace, the one that accompanies tears we try to withhold. He turned to look at me directly. He smiled, and then, in his broken English, “Where you want to go?”

Home is what I wanted to say. Home, now and fast to my mother and to her arms and her stories. Home to her to hear everything I possibly can hear while she’s still here to tell it. Home to appreciate who she was and who she became. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I said, “, to my hotel.”


Oct 2 2009

Da Capo

It’s not that I want to be the back-stage mom, nor am I so certain that my girls have special musical talent. It’s not even that I’m trying to establish a strong extra-curricular record so that they can get into an Ivy League school (I get a head-ache thinking about that). It’s that I want the sound of music in my house. I want my girls to be introduced to the world of performing arts. Whether they pursue any of these arts with passion or professional intent, that’s up to them. I’m just trying to orchestrate a little artistic exposure. Easier said than done.

At least I’m getting practiced at the art of the inscription. Regular readers of this blog may recall the debacle of last June, where I showed up early – but not early enough – for the registration at the conservatoire de musique. Given a placement of #53 on the list, my low expectations were realized when, at the end of the summer, I went to check the posting on the window to find that Buddy-roo had not been assigned to any of the initiation classes. Not for the solfège. Not for dance. Rien.

This is not a show stopper; there are other such schools in Paris, and ultimately I have managed to enroll Buddy-roo in a dance class at a nearby studio, but that’s another story.
music_stand
For an established student like Short-pants – she’s been in the conservatory system for two years so she’s guaranteed a place – the music track is a triad: theory, chorale + a musical instrument. The problem was her three classes were scheduled on three different days of the week, including a slot on Wednesday morning, which I’d indicated on all the forms I’d dutifully filled out that she had school and would not be available.

During the month of September, then, I made no less than four visits to the conservatory, each time to talk to someone in the bureau de scolarité about reorganizing the schedule. They weren’t terribly empathetic about why I wouldn’t want to schlep my daughter to the conservatoire on three separate occasions each week. I had to use my haute politesse to make a change putting two of the classes back-to-back on one day, easing our after-school travels. Once it was agreed upon, I still had to put it in writing, and then wait for the head administrator to phone me back to confirm the change.

The good news is I knew about the loophole that could get Buddy-roo started in the conservatory even if she wasn’t accepted for any of the traditional initiation classes. Last week, I had an aside with the chorale director who agreed to accept her, giving the registrar no choice but to enroll her. Once she’s in the system, it’s automatic to offer her a full-fledged space next year.

But yesterday the clincher: Short-pants’ first viola lesson. She’s chosen this lesser-known stringed instrument not because she’s so willing to play third fiddle, but because it happens to be what I played in my youth. I remember distinctly the day I asked her, very open-endedly, if she wanted to play an instrument. When she told me yes, the viola, I pressed her, “are you sure?” She beamed. So the viola it is.
alto
The teacher produced two half-sized instruments for her to try. My eyes welled up, with mushy parental pride and, admittedly, some nostalgia, when Short-pants held the shiny wooden instrument beneath her chin, and started plucking away at the strings.

“Do you have the certificate of insurance?” the teacher asked me as we packed up Short-pants’ new viola at the end of her lesson. Up until now nobody had mentioned anything about insurance. I was directed to the office of the director, who told me that I needed only to procure an insurance rider for renting a musical instrument, and then they’d hand it over.

Here’s where carrying an iPhone really comes in handy: I stepped outside, used my index finger, and quickly found my insurance agent on the phone. Not a problem, she said, I needed only to supply the make and the value. With that information, she could even have it ready for me in ten minutes. I walked back in and asked to see the director, again.

“But I do not have this information,” he said, meeting me in the lobby, refusing to invite me back into his office. He was starting to get mildly hysterical. I’d interrupted him and this is not something he could easily provide, how these rental instruments are nothing fancy, the insurance company shouldn’t need this kind of specific information.

I should mention that while all this was going on, I could hear Buddy-roo wailing in the hallway, “I changed my mind, I don’t want to go to chorale.” De-facto, who was accompanying her to her first class, attempted to calm her. Short-pants’ soothing voice was audible, too, “Don’t worry, “I’ll be in there with you.”

I noticed one of the guys at reception desk smirking into his lap, and took this is a cue to give up on the director. I knew I could call the viola teacher later, she’d get me the details I needed. Or I knew of other luthiers I could call to rent a viola on my own. I politely extracted myself from the discourse. When I turned around, the lobby was full of parents, staring at me. Could they feel my pain? I nodded around the circle of chairs, and walked outside.

Just last week, I remember thinking – rather smugly – that I’d finally organized all the school and extra-curricular details. After all the parent-teacher meetings, the trips to the conservatory, the dance studio, the doctor (health certificates needed), the messages back and forth to the teachers about schedules, acquiring the necessary books and notebooks and leotards and ballet slippers, figuring out with De-facto who picks up who and takes them where – it’d been a lot of work, sure, but I’d finally nailed it. Well, apparently not.

Who knew that being a mother meant being a personal assistant to two busy and sometimes temperamental executives?

An hour later, after a bit of fresh air and a restorative bière a la pression at a nearby café, I returned to retrieve my singing cherubs. The two of them skipped into the lobby, hand-in-hand, humming the remnants of a song they must have been singing together in the chorale.

When she saw me, Buddy-roo rushed into my arms. “I loved it!” she said, jubilant, “Can I come back next week?”

“Where’s my viola?” asked Short-pants.

Yeah, I’m working on it.


Sep 10 2009

Involved Enough

In Paris, parents are more or less locked out of school. During the maternelle years – ages 3, 4 and 5 – there’s a convivial morning ritual of accompanying young children to the classroom and returning at the end of the day to retrieve them. But once they hit the classe primaire, or CP – the equivalent of first grade – entry to the school building by parents is almost prohibited.
school_facade Children are dropped at a courtyard in the morning, and met outside the doors at the end of the day. French teachers do not make themselves particularly available to meet with parents. It’s not impossible – and when you do manage a consultation all the right things happen – but the maitresse does not go out of her way to distribute her phone numbers or email address. If you call to make a rendezvous with the school principal, getting past the gate-keeping secretary is a colossal task. A written letter is required, which is usually met with a written response. Something has to be really wrong to get an audience with the directrice.

This is to say what happens behind the school doors is a mystery.

This may have to do with the fact that the French believe that the state is responsible for educating the children of France. The state runs the school, so the school is in charge. Parents meddle as little as possible, sometimes because they believe the school administrators know best, but just as often because they know it’s futile to try and make changes. Being the squeaky wheel only threatens their child’s reputation and ends up being a waste of time.

So at the beginning of the school year, when the parent-teacher meetings are announced, we clear our schedules to attend. It’s the one time we get a peek inside that secret school world, the only time we get a hint of what really goes on in there.

I’m not your over-involved PTA type of mom (more like Harper Valley PTA) but I do harbor a slight curiosity about the curriculum and activities of my offspring. I also have a propensity for mild forms of activism and random acts of problem solving. I remember a few years ago when Short-pants was in the maternelle. The teacher – during that one, precious beginning-of-year parent meeting – lamented that a musician had approached her about working with the students, but unfortunately there was no budget for a music class.

I felt my hand rise up from my lap. I didn’t want it to. I knew it was in vain. But I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t we do some kind of a fundraising activity in the neighborhood?”

No pin was dropped. But had there been, it would have been audible. And I knew what they were all thinking: “Oh that’s the American.” I wanted to scream out at them, “Listen, I can’t believe I just said that either! But shouldn’t we at least try to do something?” Needless to say, there was no special music class that year.

I don’t mean to suggest that French parents don’t help out. They do. They bake quiches for school parties, attend special functions and performances and join the school advisory councils. Of course they care about their children’s scholastic welfare. But where American parents might be very involved in their children’s school, French parents are usually less involved, maybe just enough involved.

I imagine if we lived in the United States, I’d probably be complaining about all the meetings and activities and fundraisers I’d feel compelled to be involved in (or guilty about not attending). Here in France, I get to complain about how it’s hard to be involved in what’s happening at school – or harder to complain about what’s not quite right at school – because the school prefers that you stay out of their hair.

Yesterday, the first of three school meetings I’ll attend over the next two weeks: this one for the parents of bilingual students who take English classes in addition to the rest of their curriculum in French. The parents assembled – an eclectic group of mixed-culture marriages, or like us, English-speaking couples who’ve chosen to live in Paris – are used to volunteering to help with the English Section’s activities, like the Halloween party and the Christmas concert. Still, when the request was made soliciting a parent-liaison for each class, there was an awkward quieting in the room. Pins could be heard. Eyes were averted. Everyone wants to help, sure, but do we want to be that involved?

After the meeting, they served cocktails (yes!) on the school terrace (surnames A-M brought drinks, N-Z contributed food) and I mingled with the other Anglo parents, puzzling together some of the differences between French and Anglo schools. Everyone agrees it’s a little too rigid in France, but maybe it’s gotten bit too loose in other places like America.

Except of course when it comes to the school subject of the week: the windstorm about President Obama’s address to school children. It’s hard – sitting over here – to understand the vitriol directed at Barack Obama, a smart, even tempered, articulate man who wants to involve himself in the education of children by encouraging them to study hard and stay in school.
obama_remote
If I lived in the United States, I’d be grateful that the President wanted to talk to school-aged children. I’d have been one of the parents calling the school to plead for as much access to the speech as possible. I’d have offered to come down and facilitate a post-program debrief for the students to perpetuate a dialogue about his speech, about education, about the process of government – or maybe about the whole controversy and freedom of speech and the right for people to (intelligently) express an opposing view. I’d have been psyched.

But since I live in France, I’ll just watch the back to school speech with Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and we’ll have our own little discussion. Even on this side of the Atlantic, it’s pertinent. Obama’s message is universal.

Tonight there’s another school meeting – this time with the Buddy-roo’s main teacher, the French one. I’ll get to see the classroom. I’ll learn about the weekly schedule. I’ll get the explanation of which cahiers are for what and which colored pens are to be used for which homework assignments. I’ll be reminded about getting to school on time. Questions will be asked and answered. Chances are good there’ll be no solicitation for volunteers. I’ll leave the school still not really understanding what happens, but at least I’ll feel involved enough.


Sep 4 2009

Second Day of School

All at once, the streets are busy. Those late August mornings, tranquil and traffic-free, fade into an end-of-summer reverie. The city re-awakens and stretches her sidewalks to welcome the armies of small school-children carrying larger-than-laws-of-physics-should-allow backpacks. Their parents walk in step behind, sleepily pressing little ones along – or march brusquely in front, dragging sluggish children forward toward school courtyards that lay quiet and dormant all summer and now shriek with the collective noise of playing children. Everyone’s a little foggy, still operating on summer-speed, shaking out the cobwebs, rousing slowly to the reality of the rentrée and the routine of school and work. No matter the degree of excitement or trepidation any child might have about the return to school, the parents wax enthusiastic with proclamations of how great it will be to return to the groove of learning new things and seeing school friends. Inside, these same parents are thinking, “free at last.”

Who could imagine that after a nearly jobless (and rather agreeable) summer, an assignment would fall into my lap, a project coinciding with the advent of the first day of school? And that then at the last minute, De-facto’s assistance would be necessary too? Another nomination for negligent parents of the year award; we both missed the first day of school.

It wasn’t Short-pants we were worried about. She knows the drill, having been through more than one rentrée at this establishment. But it’s a new start for Buddy-roo, who not only changes schools this year, but gears up for the rigor of the first grade after lollygagging about in the ecole maternelle for three years. It’s the real deal for her: new school, new teacher, new classmates. The strong hand of one of her favorite adults would ease the transition, but she’d have to make do with the soft touch of her big sister.

The decision was not so difficult; De-facto and I cocked our heads to one side or another and shrugged. We do value the importance of rituals, and this is the kind of occasion that deserves to be ritualized. But when it was her real and true very – I mean very first – day of school, when she started at the maternelle, we were both there. We’ve helped her through lots of firsts. Isn’t it time she starts toughening up a little and handling her own? Aren’t we doing her a disservice by coddling her through the initiations of her life? And won’t accepting this work allow us to cover her tuition? (I think that was the clincher.)

“You tell her,” I told him.

Buddy-roo took it well. “Okay,” she said, “but will I still get a goûter?”
school_supplies
Assured that her snack would remain intact, she didn’t seem to mind. It may have helped that this all came down about the same time that I opened up the two shopping bags of school supplies to sort them between her and sister. Remember the excitement – a satisfied anticipation – of having new school supplies? Though these implements are used for schoolwork, not necessarily a favorite topic, when they’re just out of the package, unused and colorful, and the smell of a new school year rests upon them, it’s all good.

De-facto wondered why I hadn’t taken the girls with me to shop for the school supplies, speaking of rituals. Here’s why: the liste de fournitures provided by the school is so onerous, so entirely detailed and specific – down to the exact centimeter of each ruler (which must be made of transparent plastic and not metal) that it’s just plain easier to do alone. The first year I was tested in the art of buying school supplies, I took Short-pants with me and we fumbled around the paper-supply aisles of the BHV department store. “What’s this mean?” I’d ask her, but she had no more experience with French school supplies than I did. After reading the list again and again and getting nowhere, I finally nabbed a salesperson to help me decipher it. Short-pants stood by bored and restless. There’s nothing to choose. It’s all just a checklist of boring items: types and colors of pens permitted and not permitted, one of these being specific brand of fountain pen, refillable only with blue ink, notebooks made of a particular style of graph paper, paintbrushes of a stipulated size. Erasers are to be white. Blank paper sold in large pochette envelopes must be double-checked, to be sure it’s the correct centimeter size. It gives you a head-ache just to read the list, let alone to acquire its contents.

But it was all worth it when the living room floor was plastered with fresh packages of paper and colored pens and pencils, erasers, rulers, folders and books, and the girls jumped in a jubilant dance. Each time I pulled out a new item, a gasp of delight. “Wow!” marveled Buddy-roo, “I get my own glue-stick?”

Later I was busy drawing up a professional org-chart to navigate the girls from our house to school via several hand-offs – our early morning departure required Ricky and Lucy taking over the breakfast shift and then delivering the girls to the hands of other good friends in the neighborhood who have kids enrolled in the same school – the girls took inventory of their new supplies. And then one of those moments when it’s all justified, when the hassle and annoyance of being saddled with an tedious list of school supplies vanishes: “I’m so excited,” Buddy-roo said, wiggling her hips, “I’m going to school so I can learn how to read!”

That’s about as Alleluia as it gets, if you ask me.

The choreography of their first day worked flawlessly, thanks to reliable neighbors in the morning, and our trusted babysitter in the afternoon. An exuberant report that evening disclosed the details of the day: talk of old friends and new friends, who sat where and why, first assignments and new cahiers, and a whole slew of paperwork for me to fill out not once, but twice (but that’s another post) and in general we encountered a pair of enthusiastic students.

De-facto and I made up for missing the first day of school by walking them to school – the both of us, together, which is rare – on the second day.
walk_to_schoolBuddy-roo, having survived day one, knew the ropes. She fastened her shoes, hoisted her pink backpack on her shoulders, and sped down the stairs ahead of her sister. We walked along, the four of us, a family in full force, one amongst many in the army of families making the morning march to school.

Once there, we lingered, catching up with the other parents, waiting to watch the girls make their way into the building, waving back at them until the last possible moment. Then, hand in hand, De-facto and I turned and walked toward home, free at last.