This summer, before we left New Hampshire, Bill had a near-religious musical experience. It happened at a street fair in Hanover, his hometown, as he listened to a blues band made up of aging hippies “on tour from Norwich,” the Vermont town just over the bridge.
Blues music is one of the truest gifts of American civilization to the rest of our tilted little planet. Just below its apparently simple lyrics you hear a familiar progression of chords that build expectation and satisfy it, again and again. And underneath that pattern of desire built and fulfilled, you feel a syncopated thump of beats. Beats just flexible enough to establish a soulful groove, and just regular enough to be the heartbeat of the world.
Bill came back to the house that day literally raving about one of the songs he had heard. Like most blues songs, the song that he heard was ostensibly about love, but could be taken to apply to all of our human endeavors. And, like most blues songs, it used the most prosaic language to get to the core of a truth you might have known, but never were able to articulate quite so clearly.
On that August day in New England, these bearded white guys sang out a chorus that Bill brought home for me, and which has become a sort of motto for our family ever since:
If it’s not good, it’s bad.
If it’s not right, it’s wrong.
From this song, Bill came to understand a truth that had escaped both of us during our collective twenty years as thirty-somethings: instead of asking us to try to make do, to make it work, to adapt, to convince ourselves of things, this song seeks to embolden its listeners to make a call, and make a change.
“It” can be a lot of things – a kiss, a song, a meal, a home, a job, a place. But if it’s not good, it probably doesn’t deserve all the hijinks you put into trying to convince yourself that it is. Instead, this song tells you to call it what it is: it’s bad. Bill took this to mean that we should not be spending our precious energy on this planet trying to twist things that are not right into a shape we can live with.
For many reasons, this song has been rattling around the back corners of my little brain as I have tried to figure out how to remake our lives since leaving the U.S. I have heard it most clearly while trying to figure out what to do about the fact that we keep sending Grace to school in tears, and she keeps coming home quietly but unmistakably miserable.
Monday morning, it took me literally eight minutes of shaking Grace, yelling in her ear, and even dropping her own slack, sleepy hand onto her face in order to wake her up. Although I did my level best not to panic unduly, she seemed hardly alive at all: what people call “dead asleep.” Try as I did, I couldn’t rouse her. Sure, we had been up a little late on our way home from a weekend in Paris, and sure, it was 7:00 AM, and still pretty dark here in Provence, but I couldn’t believe that anybody could truly sleep through my super-cheery GOOD MORNINGs at full volume. How could she sleep so hard?
Once she finally opened her eyes, I force-marched her through the steps of getting ready for school, force-fed her oatmeal and her yummy vegetable and vitamin pep-up juice from the homeopath, and even forced socks on her little feet. But as soon as I turned my back, she was back in bed, burying herself under the covers, and refusing to respond when I called.
This wasn’t just your ordinary sleepy, or your ordinary Monday morning brattiness. This was full-on civil disobedience. Thoreau, Ghandi, and King, looking down from Heaven on our little girl here below, would have been truly impressed with her sense of commitment. School was too scary, too confusing, too unfriendly. Simply too much. This girl was simply not going.
And, after two straight months of trying, on a daily basis, I was not going to make her. We had pussyfooted around the idea too damn long, and it was time to change gears, hard and fast.
If it’s not good, it’s bad.
If it’s not right, it’s wrong.
Since spilling out my indecision online about all of our difficulties with getting our kids to adjust to this little small town French school, I’ve received a lot of intensely felt responses from people I love and trust. Anyone out there with criticism to offer has very nicely kept any I-told-you-so’s to themselves, sending us only kind and generous advice as we’ve pondered our options.
I wrote those options down a few weeks ago on a piece of paper, just so I could count and weigh them a little better. I organized them into an order of least to most drastic:
Stay put and help the kids deal
Move within France
Move within Europe
Move elsewhere in the U.S.
Some trusted friends wrote that we should have started keeping her home over a month ago. Others (and here I may or may not be referring to some of her grandparents) have been advocating the stiff upper lip approach – reminding us that things that do not kill her will make her stronger. And several other people have just written to point out that nobody’s forcing us to stay here: just move home, why don’tcha?
I think that the problem has been that ALL of these approaches were of course correct, leading to our total indecision. Yes, school had turned out to be essentially intolerable for her. And yes, persisting through difficulty makes you a stronger person. And yes, there was no clear reason for us to be here. All of these things being the case, what were we to do?
There are no clear paths for parents like us – massively over-thinking parents who find we can never seem to find the conventional way to do anything, and who are doubly blessed with a uniquely unconventional child. (One might say that all children are unique. I say, with good reason, and enormous pride, mine is just that much moreso, bless her awesome and perfect little heart.)
To put it more briefly, whatever is most obvious is least likely to work for our family. If this were a blues song, I’d have to sing you this line:
The straight road don’t get me there, nohow.
So as it turned out, for us to make a definitive decision, Bill’s and my tolerance for sending Grace to school had to find its end. Parents can make kids do just about anything – as long as they (the parents) are willing to endure the consequences. But Monday, at 8:24 AM, the scales tipped – suddenly and definitively. She has been exhausted for two months, and asking in a million and one ways for a change. But suddenly I was tired of seeing my kid wrung out by school. I was tired of watching her zest for learning crushed. And I was also ready to take on the bureaucracy and the challenge of keeping Grace home, occupied, and actually learning rather than suffering through her days.
I changed in part because this weekend I saw the flip side of the failure of French school for her: the success of actual France. For this weekend, we lucky four of us took the TGV to Paris. This time around, we all got to sit in seats, and nobody had any panic attacks. We again stayed with our extremely lovely friends, and found ourselves overjoyed to be in a city with great public transportation, incredibly beautiful architecture, and a decent number of perfectly serviceable Indian restaurants. (Of all the things you would think I could miss from Brooklyn, aside from my friends, it is Indian takeout that I miss most of all, the comfort food I most crave: samosa, pakora, korma, biryani, raita, and naan.)
Sorry, enough about food: this is about learning, and how I came to know good from bad, and right from wrong. There we were in Paris on Saturday morning, wearing our typically Parisian scarves, enjoying the typically Parisian gunmetal grey sky. The girls were pulling out cute little French words and phrases to insert into our conversation as we ambled from our friends’ apartment in the 5th across the Seine to the Louvre.
When we arrived at our destination, both Grace and Abigail were transported and transformed. In Louvre-world, both girls were so engaged and curious and entranced that they actually stopped whining and complaining long enough to truly want to learn something.
They loved the glass pyramid entrance, and the neon-and-stone temporary art installation that serves to transport museum visitors from the present into the past. Grace loved the lined-up Sarcophagi, the Egyptian bronzework, the mummy with one hand open and the other hand curled closed. Abigail loved Hammurabi’s code, carved into a huge black stone; and the Iranian tile lions; and most particularly the enormous grand crystal chandeliers in Napoleon’s apartments.
Unprompted, both girls started searching out the little explanatory cards, written in English and several other languages, available in most of the galleries. They asked great questions, totally on point and from the heart. Instead of begging for candy and complaining that their feet hurt too badly to move, they paid attention.
Both of them were paying attention at the same time.
Perhaps it was this glimpse of good that reminded me that what has been going on at home just ain’t been that. Seeing them happy and engaged reminded me that there is a different way of learning than we have thus far afforded the girls. Both of them, when in the right environment, can be spontaneously curious. They pick up the weird small details and the larger esoteric meanings -- Abigail specializing in the former, and Grace mystically intuiting the latter. They care. They want to learn. They choose to learn.
And so, once we were back in Aups Monday morning, and it was time to go to school, and Grace was once again dragging her feet and dragging my heart, I realized that more than anything, I wanted that little girl in the Louvre to come back.
I am enough of a realist to know that sometimes you just have to make kids do things they don’t like. They have eaten their vegetables so many times that they now actually do so on an elective basis.
But I am also enough of an idealist to believe that human beings really do learn differently from one another, and that all students deserve to be inspired and encouraged and helped to learn, not left to their own devices to sink or swim, to thrive or to fall through the cracks. We had tried that approach: Abigail was swimming hard and strong, while Grace was sinking slowly, day by day.
As a teacher, I also know that with a lot of hard work, a good teacher can actually make sure that every single kid in the room learns. I also know how few and far between good teachers are – and what happens to kids whose style of learning doesn’t match up with a mediocre teacher’s view of What Children Should Do. Because often, those kids start simply to believe that they are in the wrong.
Which means that when it comes to school, if it isn’t good, even for one child, it's bad.
In contrast, a good teacher finds ways to see the divine in each child, and to bring forth their best efforts, no matter what they are. And you don’t have to be Helen Keller to realize that every minute you spend in a classroom is a minute you are given the honor of being a small-g god to the children in your care. You can withhold the sunshine, or you can let it fill the room. You can make your teaching all about you, or you can remember it’s all about them. You can parse out the worksheets and make the time creep by in nauseating boredom, or you can give away every moment in the fullest way possible.
As you may have realized, I have some strong feelings about teaching. And school. And learning. Particularly when it comes to my children. And it looks like it might be time to apply those in a different way than I have before now.
So there we were, just before 8:30 Monday morning. Bill and Abigail left the house. Grace was still curled up on her bed. She must have heard Bill calling to her as he left, but she laid still, and they left without her. Nobody forced her to make the embarrassing walk to school, crying the whole way. All was quiet and calm as we waited in different rooms of the house. It was time for school to begin.