If anyone asks our 5-year-old how she likes her new school in Spain, she answers, “It’s alright. They have pescado in the comedor, and I don’t like that.” I tend to agree with her that cafeteria fish is never a good idea, but for her, pescado has become a symbol of everything that is wrong, strange, and different about her new school. Some of these strange things are inevitable cross-cultural learning moments; some are the painful result of political policies and budget cuts that clearly don’t have the best interests of children in mind. If you get her past the fish, she will tell you that her favorite teacher left, and I will explain that she is on her third teacher in two months. At the start of the school year, the permanent teacher was on maternity leave, and the Ministry of Education had not hired any replacements until the first day, so the replacement teacher didn’t start until the third day of school. (This, we learned, was a cost-cutting measure so the Ministry of Education didn’t have to pay summer salaries.) She might tell you that there was a strike because teachers don’t get paid enough, and her teacher went to the protest, but we didn’t see her there because there were too many people. She will tell you that she doesn’t know how to write cursive, and I will tell you that it shocks me how little her teachers understand that children in other countries learn to write differently. “She’s behind,” they say about the cursive, as if it were a developmental milestone. (The indignant mother in me thinking, She is not behind! She knows how to write a different way! Realizing that I am echoing countless immigrant parents around the world who have been wrongly told that their children are deficient.)
She probably won’t tell you that morning drop-off is still traumatic, and that she holds back tears every day. So I will tell you that it is still traumatic for me, because parents aren’t allowed in the school building. We say good-bye to our children in the vestibule, and watch them walk alone up the stairs and down the hallway to find their class. Which wouldn’t be so bad if your child knew where she was going and who was going to greet her there. But when you have a rotating cast of teachers and it’s anybody’s guess who will be at the head of the line, who can blame a child for not wanting to go in alone? On two occasions last week I broke the rule and entered the building holding her by the hand—first to say good-bye to her teacher who was leaving, and the second time to introduce myself and her to the new teacher whom she had never met (the rest of her class had this teacher last year, but new kids had not). On both occasions I was intercepted by the front door staff and vigorously challenged. These guys are like trained linebackers, or prison wardens. On the second time, when I explained that my daughter had a new teacher and I was going to introduce her to her new teacher, the door guard said he would have to take me to the principal’s office. I argued with him until another teacher spotted us and came to tell him it was okay, I could come in. By then the 5-year-old was in tears and I was struggling to hold it together. I must have looked quite a sight when I was introduced to the new teacher. Not a good time to try to explain to her my daughter’s needs and abilities, or to convince her of my fully bilingual professional self!
As anyone who has ever been to a new school knows, patio (recess) is hard too, and for a long time my daughter stood with her teacher, the favorite one who left, because she didn’t know anyone and didn’t understand the children’s games. Language was an issue only in the very beginning, but long after fluent Spanish spouted from her mouth the feeling of cultural outsider persisted. And even in a supposedly “bilingual” school (it’s not, but they do have 45 minutes of daily English instruction), she says some kids make fun of her for speaking English. As I write this, I fear the relief of some readers saying, “Whew! Thank God I never subjected my kids to that!” And I confess, I have felt some guilt on the worst days, worrying that I might be causing my daughter some irreparable harm. But as far as I know, such worries are not restricted to parents who move their children overseas. And there are so many moments when the wonder and amazement at how much she is growing and learning overwhelm me, whether it is her creative, beautiful, and perfect assimilation of new Spanish vocabulary, her astute cultural observations, or her poignant and penetrating questions. The tears? They’re the growing pains, as she evolves into a conscious and reflective border-crosser. Like all border crossers, she may always be on the margins, but she will have the capacity to penetrate multiple worlds. I had this realization strongly the other night when I read her The Upside Down Boy for her bed-time story. The Upside Down Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera is a beautiful rendering of a Mexican migrant boy’s experiences starting school in English. “Will my tongue turn into a rock?” he asks. She was riveted.
When I jump up
When I sit
all the kids swing through the air.
My feet float through the clouds
when all I want is to touch the earth.
I am the upside down boy.
I asked her if she felt that way sometimes at school, and she nodded sadly. I hugged her and said, “You’re my upside down girl!” Then she smiled broadly and said, “No, mami, I’m sideways,” motioning her hand to show herself sideways, flat, parallel to the earth: “I’m más o menos.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.