Monday, October 19, 2009

Balance Regained

So there they are, outside on the stone terrace, giggling like crazy. They (Grace and Bill) are playing "floor pong," a game invented by Bill to take advantage of what we have (a floor, a few ping-pong paddles, and a single ball) and to ignore all the things we don't. No table? No net? No idea of the rules? No problem. The ball goes ricocheting under the chaise lounge, in and out of the enormous potted plants, just above the wall dividing courtyard from pool. And Grace keeps giggling.

This is Grace's fifth or sixth fit of full-body giggles since Thursday, the day she finally returned to school and things finally got better after several weeks of her weeping, shivering, sulking and avoiding school as hard as she could.

Last Thursday morning, we had to nearly pry her from the house to get her to school. She was crying, we were pleading, asking her to give the school, and its kids, another chance. We hadn't told her about Bill's conversation with the principal, but now it seemed like we would have to. The principal had promised, we said, that things would get better. And if they didn't, we would change something.

We remained a little vague on what that change might be -- in part because we didn't want to promise something we couldn't follow through on, and in part because we weren't sure what we actually would do if things didn't improve.

We were clear on just one thing: it was our job to fix things for her. We didn't come to France to make our kid a miserable, helpless eraser-target for French hillbillies. We didn't choose this year to put her through panic and fear.

We had brought her thousands of miles, away from everything she knows, with only vague plans for how things might work out. Based on Bill's thirty-year old stories about his social and academic successes back in England, she imagined that in France she would be popular. She would learn the language almost without a second thought. She would make up funny lies about America, and the hapless French kids would believe them: In America, the cats walk upsidedown on the ceiling! We pour cereal on our milk instead of the other way around! This would make her a smashing social success.

So much for fantasy. Here was reality, a lot more complicated and messy, and she couldn't say "ceiling" or "cereal," or even "cats." And we had been the ones to set her here. Therefore, it was up to us to give her what she needed to adapt and thrive, whether that would mean somehow being about to help her fix things at school, or bringing her back to school at home, bollocks to the consequences.

But we could not lightly make a call that would put us in the bad graces of the French school system (and possibly the French office of immigration, as we had sworn when getting our Visas that we would keep both girls in school.) So for practical reasons as well as pedagogical ones, we needed to give school another solid try. It was time for Grace to re-mount the horse that had thrown her so hard. But this time, I was back home from being away, the principal was on her side, and the little eraser-throwers had been put on notice. When we dropped her off at school, Grace was anything but convinced, but two minutes after walking through the portail on her own steam, she had already been encouraged into playing a (half-hearted) game of hopscotch. I mean, hopscotch is no floor pong, but it might do.

We picked her up at lunch, then again in the afternoon, and she was all smiles. Not only had nobody been mean, but the girls had actually decided to be friendly and include her in their games.

Who knows why. Children (like the adults they vaguely resemble) generally act ethically and kindly only in their self-interest, as hidden as that interest may be, and only as long as it continues to suit their purposes. But for some reason, it had suddenly (and at least for the moment) become a lot more exciting to be friendly to the foreign girl than it was to ignore her and give her the big arm-crossed finger-waggling blowoff. I wasn't sure whether to be more grateful to the principal or to the ten-year-old girl who had first decided that Grace was worth her while.

Then, this weekend, while we were in Paris, we all had the opportunity to be around people we knew could not fail to expand and enrich her horizons. Hot chocolate on the Rue Rivoli across from the Louvre with fairy godparents Jessica and Nick. Buying cool tall boots and holding hands with little two-year-old Stella, daughter of Hillary, a college friend who has lived in Paris for years. Grace and her sister got a pony ride in the Tuileries, and shared their own cup of Paris morning full-caffeinated coffee. It was at Starbucks, I'm sorry to say. (Ssshhh! Don't tell anybody, but we're actually Americans!)

Grace also had lots of time to try out her slowly gelling French with Oriana, a girl slightly older and about a hundred miles more mature. One morning, we took Oriana and our own girls to the old-school zoo in the Jardin Des Plantes, enjoying the opportunity to get to see snow leopards and orangutangs and camels up close without all that new-fangled zoo architecture between us and them. Nothing like a good small cage to shove those animals right up close (and pacing insanely) where you can actually see them. While we watched the girls play tag and lag behind us, we noted (with pride that we could barely contain) that Grace was pulling out all kinds of French when she really wanted to communicate. It was all I could do to just keep eavesdropping and not jump up and down in excitement.

But perhaps the most magical and restorative experience of the weekend for Grace was hearing her very first classical music concert -- a stunning tour-de-force recital by pianist Bruno Fontaine. Jean-Claude, Oriana's father and our impossibly kind and welcoming Parisian friend, had not only bought us all tickets but also had managed to reserve seats in the very front row.

When we arrived at the concert hall on the outskirts of Paris, it was already twenty-one o'clock, way past her usual bedtime. She had gotten to bed late the night before, had traveled all over Paris on foot and Metro and car and ponyback. She had eaten with three different sets of our friends, and listened to Bill and me switch back and forth between languages all day long. She leaned heavily on me as we stood in the noisy, crowded entrance hall, staring blankly into space in that way that hoplessly exhausted people sometimes do. I assumed that she would find her seat, close her eyes, and be out cold in minutes. We sat down (in the very front, in the very middle, mind you) and I just hoped that the pianist would be that sort of understanding person who doesn't mind if someone just falls dead asleep front and center while he's playing his heart out.

But it was not to be. The lights fell, the crowd quieted, and she opened her eyes a little wider. When Fontaine walked out on the stage, she sat up straighter with anticipation. He then played an evening of French composers, heavy on the Debussy. His touch on the piano was remarkably subtle and varied, and he had the ability to make notes ring or whisper or slide imperceptibly into other notes. He played with control, measure, and tact, even at his most passionate and fluid. And the longer she played, the more and more awake Grace became. By his encore at nearly eleven PM (believe it or not, a deconstructed, then reconstructed version of "Yesterday," that had me in grateful, joyful tears) she was alive and alert and happy as all get out.

She is her parents' daughter. For her, like us, music -- perhaps even more than color or line or smell or taste -- organizes her feelings and her experiences in a profound way. Following these remarkable experiences, even the terrors of the return TGV didn't seem to vex her as much. This time we had real seats, on the top floor of the train, and mine and Grace's even faced forward. She insisted on holding my hand for the first half hour, until she realized that despite the fact that we were moving faster than anything on land has a right to, she was OK.

By the time we got back to Aups last night, she was a different person. Or, to be more accurate, she had returned to herself.

Last week I concluded my sad and regretful post with a fistful of defensiveness, daring readers to ready their sharp-pointed arrows of told-you-so's. Needless to say I received nothing of the sort. My family, my friends, and even far-flung facebook folks all wrote to tell me to stay the course, or change the course -- but to do it without regret or fear or disappointment. I received heartening stories from dedicated homeschoolers, and it's-good-for-them-to-tough-it-out reminders.

One good friend even suggested more candy. I'm not sure why she didn't imagine I haven't already tried it. As a child who was potty trained by being rewarded with M & M's, I've never really shied away from bribery and straightforward conditioning, Alfie Kohn be damned.

But now I guess perhaps I should just issue my own I-told-me-so's. And then when my kids flip-flop from miserable to fine to ecstatic, then back again, I can just tell my own darn self so.

See? I can tell myself. I knew they would be all right. You just have to trust your kids. They are wiser and sturdier than you can imagine, and school is good for them, even when it's hard. But it's not that hard anymore. I told you so.

And then, SEE? I KNEW this would never work. We've got to get them out of this ridiculous situation of attending school in a foreign tongue and hearing blah blah all day long while the erasers whiz around their ears. It's just not fair. I told you so, Launa. I told you so.

As my own worst critic, I'm particularly good at this see-saw. Grace and Abigail need each other to smash each other down to the ground while they play Kill Farmer Brown. I can smash myself to bits of guilt and regret all on my lonesome, with only the tiniest bit of help from my bigger and better half.

But I also have to admit that -- perhaps despite ourselves -- Bill and I came up with some pretty good medicine for what ailed our little girl. We called in the reinforcements from our magic store of friends. We made sure there would be extra treats. We said yes to the ponies and the pastries and even the magic of a late-night concert of astonishing chords and melody. We said yes to trying again, and yes maybe someday to homeschool.

Bill invented floor pong, and I just kept up the hugs and the deep breathing and (when I could muster it) the patience. And Bill even went to the pet store today to get them each a gerbil. "Mouse" and "Gerbil to be named later" can't quite live up to everything Samson has been for us, but for now, they made the kids awfully happy.

So thanks for the well-wishes, the advice, the encouragement and perspective, but most of all the love. It's easier to keep it flowing out like a fountain when it is flowing your way through a great big cyber aqueduct.

1 comment:

  1. I was potty-trained with m&m's, too! Dr. Spock? That was about the last candy I saw for my whole childhood.