Sunday, August 30, 2009

On the Brink

It’s Sunday. A day to go to the market, a day to cook, to buy good wine, to stretch out the day under the shade of the trees and to eat ripe fruit. We have visitors this weekend, Jess and Nick, wonderful friends from home. They are smart and funny and kind, and bring with them everything that is great about home, and they still know more about French, more about food, and a hell of a lot more about technology and wine than we will learn all year. PLUS they brought their sweet dogs, Graham and Winnie, pure therapy for all four of us.

Jessica, Bill and I became friends when we sang together last year in my living room in Park Slope, old Bluestockings tunes that she re-arranged for SATB. Our singing project, named after the Amherst College area code, attempted to connect Bill's sawing bass up through my own flutey whistle with kickass Amherst-grad altos and 1st street neighbors singing the tenor and bass lines in the middle range. Jess is also a lower and middle school language teacher who worked some with our girls and even agreed to come over for dinners where we would do our best only to speak French. Jessica is a great traveling partner, as I realized on my way to and from Amherst this May. J’adore Jess. She and her equally excellent husband Nick are here enroute from Milan to Paris, where she will continue her Middlebury Master's degree, and Nick will continue to learn everything there is to know (and then some) about wine as he joins the Beaujolais harvest as it begins next week. They're a dose of Park Slope, Amherst College, and the Adirondacks all in one, as Nick hails from Plattsburg, and we can share stories of our upstate childhoods.

It's going to be another great day. Mostly, I can't wait to see what we will eat at the two huge meals we have planned to share.

Yet, because I am me, I also have a little drama cooking in the back of my mind. I realize that this break from the world we knew has not only allowed me to forget the clock, but even has encouraged me at times to forget the number of the date. But we now have an obvious countdown to when the girls start school. If today is Sunday, and school starts on Thursday, the days are fewer than the fingers on my hand, and there is no way to ignore it any longer.

On French talk radio, the drumbeat continues. La Rentreé. Back to School. It's time. The whole country is in a funk. And here is my strange and paradoxical drama: I am trying to decide whether or not I am as worried as the situation warrants. If actual French people, who live here and all speak French are all talking about this, why am I leaving positively everything up to chance, feeling so blithe and so free when so much is at stake?

I am sending my two children into a totally unknown situation without adequate language skills. They worked with Jessica a good number of times, but our crazy Brooklyn schedules never allowed us to get them together as seriously as we should have. Nearly everyone we know has expressed concern about our kids and their fates, particularly those who have reason to know better, like people whose children have actually lived overseas, or actually learned a second language. The books we have read about being a family abroad have told us, in great detail, that what we are doing is going to be valuable in the long term for our kids, but will be extremely difficult in the short term. The books instructed us to hire tutors, to be familiar with the curriculum and figure out, ahead of time, what they should wear, and in what sort of paper they should wrap their textbooks.

We did no such thing. I know only that they probably should speak a lot more French. Instead of attaining this goal, we spent the summer seeing friends, lying in the grass, watching old TV on our ipods, and jumping in and out of bodies of water from the Great Lakes to Vermont to the Mediterranean sea. On the ice cream tour of New England and Europe, we discovered boulles in many remarkable flavors. But we still cannot read in the language they will need all year.

Almost no French. No friends. Their teachers may be saints or monsters. They can ask to go to the bathroom, but we have no idea if this is even a question that French children ask. The school in Aups looks fine from the outside, but we've never been in. I don't know the class size. I don't know the math curriculum. I hope, but don't know for sure, that at least part of their day will be required English lessons, the one time of the day when they will be superstars. The nice woman who registered them at the Mairie told us all would be well; they need only to bring a pencil case and a backpack.

I already know that we have let them down in the language department, even as I am confident that we gave them what we thought they needed in lots of other ways.

We have fortified them emotionally, with ice creams and downtime and baguettes and lots of dunks in the pool. And love. Lots and lots of the best kinds of love we’ve got.

And thus I am strangely sanguine.

I am sanguine in part because we have only three goals for the girls. First, we want them to learn to speak a second language while they are here, and learn simply how to be in French school. There is no magic to French. It is not obviously useful, like Arabic or Spanish or Mandarin. But it seems a worthy end in itself to speak something else, and to learn to be in a new place. To see, and to truly hear, that the world does not run in only one way. We want them to sustain themselves in the face of not knowing, and thus to become stronger and more confident people. This is also, of course, the goal I have set for myself. And it seems that the only, and best, way to achieve this goal is actually to be someplace where there is no other choice.

Second, I want each of them to make at least one friend. Of course, there are many, many things I could have done to make this more likely. Finding children to force on them would have been the most obvious. However, that would be me making them a friend, rather than letting them make their own. And, as Bill discovered once during his own family trip overseas when his very loving father graciously offered to pay another child to play with him, it’s probably best to find a friend yourself. Once again, the best way for them to achieve this goal is to go in cold and see what happens.

As an educator, I know quite well where they stand relative to the curriculum back home, and I won’t let them fall behind. We will read and write in English at home, and I will be sure keep their math skills in decent shape. So my third goal, which I don’t worry over too much, is merely to keep them on track in math. They are smart little girls, and their academic development will keep pace.

Thus I have just three goals, the last one of which I will be sure to carry out myself. But the other two are things that they must do on their own. Anything that happens above and beyond those three goals we will see as nicely herbal Provençal gravy.

I realize now that I have gone from knowing absolutely everything about their school experience, actually running their school, to knowing absolutely nothing. Back home, even before they would walk in the doors in September, I knew more about their teachers, the curriculum, and the ins and outs of the lives of the other children in their classes than the most eagerly over-involved parent could ever fully process.

Then, I still had the same child-rearing philosophy as I have today: hands off. Trust the school, and leave education to the professionals, who care about it more deeply and more subtly than parents can know. In that vein, I only got concerned when the teachers specifically asked me to do so (as I may have mentioned, ours are not the simplest and most straightforward of children.) But I never for a minute was concerned that the curriculum, the teacher, the other children, the classroom, or the anything at all wasn't just as it should be. Or, even when I knew that something wasn't exactly fine, I was confident that my strong and capable girls would, could, and should find their way.

Knowing everything that I did about their school, my challenge then was to do what I could to stay out of the way. I never achieved this goal quite as well as I might have liked (just ask the kids’ teachers, who will likely tell you all ways that I meddled because I couldn’t help myself. I always trusted the girls' teachers to more than make up for my errors and meddling, and they invariably did.)

But what we are up to this year is perhaps the ultimate experiment in hands-off parenting, in let-them-learn-it-themselves. The die is cast. The kids are registered at school. We live here, we don't live there anymore. We know nothing. We have done less than we should have to prepare them. But our kids are going to be better than OK. They are going to thrive. And here is how I know.

First, I learned a lesson from my own Mom and Dad. When we were kids -- a whole generation of us, now functional adults -- our parents did not worry themselves about school. They put us on the bus in the morning, a situation as close to a Hobbsean state of nature as we would ever find again. They either picked us up, if they had to, or let us walk home from school alone. They asked us to do our homework, but no self-respecting adult I knew in the 70’s or 80’s would have done homework for a child, much less meddled overmuch at school.

When things went wrong there, they typically gave us the excellent advice to listen and show respect to our teachers. They were properly chagrined when we got in trouble, and properly outraged when some other kid was mean to us. If somebody gave somebody else a bloody nose, for example, there would definitely be a phone call, maybe even a talking to. That generation of parents let us be, and we came out all the better for it.

I also know the kids will be fine, because I watch my girls carefully these days, and I am eternally amazed by what they can do. This morning, Nick, Jess and Bill went off to the market in Salernes to gather up things for us to eat and drink later under the trees. As soon as they walked out the door, their little pumpkin-colored spaniel Graham began to whine and cry. He was inconsolable, rushing back and forth between their bedroom and the door, trying to shove his little body under the door to follow Nick and Jess wherever they had gone.

The girls instantly rallied. They picked the dogs up, they held them on their laps. They found the best places to rub Graham's tummy, and they cooed away his fears. They realized that if they put their faces very close to his, he would lick them and in this way stop crying. Gradually, his eyes calmed. His little body calmed. He settled into their warm, confident arms and let himself relax and stop squealing for a few minutes at a time. They put them in their little dog crate in Jess and Nick’s room, recognizing that when you’re feeling lost, the best thing to do is to snuggle Mom’s pillow in a safe place. Then they went back to their individual pursuits, confident that they had done well by the pups. I was so proud of them. If they can help someone else, even if that someone is a little auburn-headed dog, they have the compassion and sensitivity they need – alongside their more obvious toughness – to survive and to thrive in such a new and unknown place.

So for now, I’m going (or trying to go) with a verdict of Not Worried. It won’t last. By this time next week, mark my words, I may be miserable and self-doubting and wondering what in the hell we’ve gotten our children into. But for now, I trust the French teachers and the educational system they have devised. I trust the myself and the kids. They are strong. They are tough and willful and smart and generous, and they can learn what they need to know. Bring on your rentreé. Let’s see what you’ve got.

1 comment:

  1. Be proud - the girls learned that little doggie comforting trick from you guys - nobody knows how to give better straight up, down home comfort therapy then your fam. And I admire that you are all adept at the art of self-adminstering it (which too many of us are reluctant to do).