Right about when the ’70’s were warping into the ’80’s, when TV shows like “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Happy Days” made up the popularized school template, and when, according to observers of the US educational system, grade inflation was just puffing its bellows, sending the hot air balloon of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” into the clouds, I graduated from a US public high school. I’d just turned 16. I had solid enough grades. And, hello world? I was done.
But was I educated?
On paper I was. I had a GPA that merited entrance into a solid university. But what did that GPA mean? From the broad palette of course offerings in my school, I’d chosen classes in which I knew I could get an “A.” Symphony orchestra. Student government. String ensemble. Debate and competitive speech. Theater Arts. And a favorite: Driver’s Education. In these classes, an “A” was doled out to all the squarely solid students, folks who showed up and did the course requirements. A “C” was the same as failing. A “B” was saggy. Given that I showed up, I didn’t sag too much.
I passed high school without much sweat. I could have taken more challenging classes, but one AP English course was enough for me. The system didn’t demand that I be extra academically inclined or even terribly hard-working. It was designed, I’ve come to conclude, to give me choices, including the choice to pass. As such, it meant I could pick courses that matched my natural gifts, and I’m quite sure I rode the crest of grade inflation. Part of the logic of that early grade inflation, as I have come to understand it, is that the US had lots of babies from our post WWII Baby Boom, and we had to get them through the system. Scholastic standards softened then sunk. People like 16-year-old me waltzed through the diploma line, but not necessarily with the world’s most rigorous education under our belts.
I knew kids in high school who, when they didn’t get an “A,” (the top grade in the US system) plea-bargained. They would actually approach an instructor. With cookies. And negotiate. I didn’t do this as a high school student (I lacked the nerve, not to mention the baking skills) but I experienced this on the other side of the equation when I taught on the university level and later instructed at a college on the eastern seaboard of the US. Students came to me every week, it seemed, contesting grades. Their pluck (and illogic) struck me. In European universities, as I’d witnessed it, professors rarely if ever even spoke privately with students. Contesting grades? There were none to contest: you received exactly one for the course, and that was for the final exam. Negotiations, like addressing a professor without her or his full title (Herr Doktor Professor Spinkelfürstenmeyer)? Never.
Now the US finds itself in a different phase from that of Vinnie Barbarino and Richie Cunningham. With the “globalization” of the world (the speed and ubiquity of technology and concurrent political shifts) and with the precipitous economic rise of the four Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea) plus the emergence of the fifth Tiger (India), the worldwide market is a far more competitive place. US high school students are not only competing for slots in college, they are in a race against the whole developed world for jobs.
What’s happening now in the US high school system in terms of rigor/ease? In terms of grading procedures and weighting of performance? In terms of that (darned almighty) GPA? In a 21st century which has some kids white-knuckling it through high school, others groveling for college admissions, many fearful that there will not be employment at the end of the tunnel of formal education, is there another kind of grade inflation going on?
Two recent conversations come to mind.
The first, was last week’s lunch with Irina and one of Irina’s three adult sons, Nicolas. Irina is Bulgarian-Czech-Russian-Swiss, and all her sons are a handsome composite of the same, with a big dose of English and Italian thrown in. The younger two boys attended, for some time, an American international school in Paris, which is where I first met them all. Having known a broad variety of educational approaches, they are able to make comparisons. Irina, for instance, at 18 and freshly arrived from eastern Europe, enrolled at the Sorbonne. Later in life, both she and her oldest son instructed in international schools.
“This full IB track is so intense,” I launched in, hoping for sympathy, “and it feels more intense here, I’m finding, in a Swiss context than it has been elsewhere like France and Germany. There’s no breathing room at all. And not quite as much support as I’ve seen elsewhere.”
“But that makes total sense,” Nico said, “It’s Swiss. You’re supposed to manage solo. But you want to see really ruthless? Try the Swiss Maturité,” Nico went on. “Twelve killer classes. High level proficiency in three languages. Loads and loads of memorization. That’s why it takes a whole extra year beyond the IB to even finish the basic coursework of the infamous Maturité.”
At which point I didn’t bother describing to them my own high school days.
Another talk was just this morning with Valérie. Raised and schooled in central Europe (Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland) and in Vermont, she is now a teacher at the international bilingual school where my two youngest are enrolled.
“I got to Vermont,” said Valérie as we strolled with her daughters around a local lake, “and it looked just like here. Gorgeous. Pines. Mountains. All that nature. I thought, ‘No brainer, I can slip right in here.’ But I struggled at figuring out how things worked with grades in high school. Where I’d come from, a ‘C’ was a totally respectable grade. It meant you were faring well, meeting course expectations. Where I’d just been in central Europe, a B or an A [or their European equivalents] were rare, reserved for ‘extreme’ students. When I got a ‘C’ in one of my classes and didn’t totally flip out, it was my American classmates who flipped out. ‘You mean you’re okay with that?! A. . .a ‘C’?'”
Irina, Nico and Valérie know that what merits a top grade in one system, country, or course won’t necessarily do the same in another. On the other hand, they also know that “hard” or “ruthless” or “overload” doesn’t always equate with a healthy education. All of them, having experienced it, appreciated the sports, arts and leadership opportunities afforded by a system which, one could perhaps argue, can be comparatively “soft” on the “hard” subjects.
But let’s pretend we take identically “hard” courses and administer them as equally as possible. When it comes to grading procedures, they are subject to cultural influences as well. Here is another conversation, this time with my husband, based on research gleaned from the business world:
One measurement of corporate effectiveness relies on country-wide employee engagement surveys. You take the managers from individual countries (let’s say Mexico, Japan, the UK and the US) and ask them to “grade” a recent corporate initiative. From purely quantitative scoring (let’s say a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the high end) which country do you think tends to score highest on such surveys? Which lowest? Which in the top quartile? Which always toward the bottom?
History has shown that in these surveys, respondents from Mexico nearly always give the highest numerical scores. Qué bueno!
Japan nearly always rates at the very bottom. A 44% for the Japanese might be considered, in their eyes, generous, even complimentary.
In contrast, a 78% in Mexico would be considered a low or unsatisfactory score.
The UK is quite exigent, as is Japan. Interpreted, the British like the Japanese are not easily impressed, are temperate in their judgment, slow to score something off the charts. Reserved.
And the US always scores (wait for it) in the uppermost quartile. What could that mean? Does something in the water feed an inflated expression of satisfaction? Or do Americans by nature lean towards optimism, cheerleading, exuberance. Even faith?
I’m not saying that either mentality is inherently bad or good. What I’m saying, (with caution, because I hate to paint in sweeping strokes) is that when you get a panel of Japanese, British, Mexican and American teachers together, they might very well grade according to certain cultural norms. Some will give you a well-deserved C. Some, for the same work, will give you a well-deserved A.
And now. . . for my final “conversation” with Heather, one of my readers who has commented in a pervious thread here on the blog. In her 7th year raising children as expatriates, and going through the IB, she notes some basic concerns I have felt:
One frustration we have is that my daughter is competing, on paper, with US students who might have the same GPA as she has, but don’t nearly have the same academic intensity. Some universities weight the more rigorous classes, some don’t. Yes, they want to see core classes on report cards, but comparing an IB SL* class with a US AP can be tricky. I have a niece in an AP English class in Utah. Her teacher sends her out for donuts at least once a week. Whenever she feels like it, she asks her teacher if she can skip to work on her student government job or to go home to nap. She gets an “A” in that class. How do you weigh that “A” against my IB HL* English daughter’s “A” with all the IA’s*, orals and World Lit papers? Some university admissions are sensitive to the differences between schools, but some are just looking at the numbers. What’s ironic is that she qualifies for the best universities in the UK, including Oxford, St. Andrews and Kings College University of London because of her predicted IB scores, but US universities don’t care about her predicted test scores! These are tricky things about the IB that international school students deal with that US based students don’t.
What have your experiences been, if any, moving from school system to school system?
What does it take to be well-educated in today’s world? And what does a “hard” education have that a “soft” does not?
How has your own education differed from the education you are providing for your children?
What is your personal philosophy regarding “intelligence”? What is it? How does one gain/increase/apply it? What is its value?
Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries. These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public. In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public. This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats. And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.
That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins. I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives. In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.
You might say we have come to the mount.
Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)
My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts. I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size, I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.
In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.
Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe. But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.
In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.
Time and Stress Management
Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc, often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.
Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time. They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.
But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.
I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?
(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)
My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?
(I’ll let you know in a few months. In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)
Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?
Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?
Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?
Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?
A typical scene in our home lately:
Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed. His eyes are gloopy and glazed. He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00. Courses started near 8:00. One 30-minute lunch break.
“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”
“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”
He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.
Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.
“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”
“You’ll have to do whatever you can,” another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”
Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)
It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that. Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you. So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”
“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.
(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)
What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic. There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB Survival.com.” But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.
Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.
In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.
So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.
Ute Limacher-Riebold has a profile that makes one’s eyes pop, glaze over, wink twice, then close with reflection and a bit of – oh, I don’t know – Global Mom reverence. I’ve quietly followed her blog for a while, then recently dared to drum up an offline connection. Ever since, I have been greatly enriched by our cross-cultural interaction. One of those times where I am indeed grateful for the power of social media.
Let me introduce Ute before you click over to her blog, where she has (voluntarily, without my request or prompting!) written a thoughtful and thorough review of my recently published book.
Born in Switzerland, she spent her childhood in northern Italy, attended university in Switzerland (completing a PhD in French medieval literature), worked there in the Department of Romance Studies, scooted down to Florence for professional reasons (and had a baby son there), scooted back up to the Netherlands (where her twin daughters were born), and now maintains a rich treasure of a blog, Expatsincebirth.
Yes, as you guessed, Ute is a polyglot. She masters German, Italian, English and French, and in turn considers herself a comfortable coalescence of all of these cultures. No doubt her Dutch is nearly as impeccable by now, and she, her husband and her children (all multilingual, as well) are flavored by the Dutch language and culture, too. Her life experiences offer a strong model for the kind of nomadic, borderless living that is becoming more and more common.
I’ll be returning in future posts to Ute and similar writers and mothers. Their global outlook and multicultural life experiences will surely inspire a holistic view of how to navigate this fascinatingly diverse and ever-shrinking world.
Do you know families like this, who move between countries, cultures and languages?
Are you one? Tell us about it.
What do you imagine the costs are for such fluidity?
If you happen to live a more localized life, what things would be hardest to sacrifice to have such global experiences?
And what about localized living would you not mind giving up?
The following is an excerpt from the recently published interview with Neylan McBaine of Mormon Women’s Project. To view the full interview in its original, and to read other intriguing interviews with women of my faith from around the world, go here.
MWP: Would you please describe the trajectory of the story that you’ve written in your recently published memoir?
MDB: The book begins when we had been married for seven years, Randall and I, and we were living in the New York City area. It was my husband’s first job and at that point we had two little children, Parker and Claire. I had been, as I describe in the book, busy following a few different career trajectories: I was a full time mother; I was teaching writing part time at a local college; and I was launching a career as a musical theater actress. And it was right in the middle of a musical that I was in that my husband received an offer pretty much out of the blue for us to move to Scandinavia for two or three years. As it turned out, that move ended up lasting a couple of decades. . .
We were in Norway for just under five years, time to have our third child, Dalton, and then we moved to Versailles, a medium-sized city which lies just fifteen minutes outside of Paris. We were there for four years, just enough time to have our fourth child, Luc. . .We moved to the heart of Paris, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We enrolled our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, in French schools. Our two oldest attended an international school, and we were there for a little over four years.
We lived in Munich for three years, and then went to Singapore, where we were supposed to stay for many years, if not until the end of Randall’s career. But there was a sudden restructuring and the entire international component of the multinational company he was working for was dispersed and his position was moved to Geneva. That’s where we live now. .
MWP: Tell me a little bit about the honest costs to you personally and to your family.
MDB: I will tell you what a couple of them are. The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family. When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, parenting while your partner is half a world away and for over half the month, and when there are whirlpools . . . Oh, I didn’t think I would come to that metaphor, but I tend to always come back to water and drowning metaphors. . .
For more of this extended interview about global living, traumatic loss, the journey with grief, and how to help someone who is hurting deeply, please click HERE.
Everything , it seems, but sleep.
Unless you count last week when I spent several nights in a tent in the Swiss mountains, trying to sleep for two-hours-at-a-stretch maximum, while surrounded by 40 teenaged girls.
As volunteer president of the teenaged girls’ organization of our church in and around the Geneva, Switzerland region, I’m regularly visiting the eight congregations that make up our regional church body, teaching lessons on Sundays or sometimes midweek, speaking at youth conferences, inviting special guest speakers for multiregional firesides and conducting those events, and getting to know local leaders and all their young women.
I also got to attend the annual 3 1/2 day regional Young Women’s Camp held at a site overlooking the medieval village of Romainmôtier with its historic Benedictine Abbey and splendid hiking trails all around.
As fate would have it, Le Camp des Jeunes Filles happened to be scheduled just as I was nostril-deep in Pre-Book Launch mania.
Eh. . . bien. Tant mieux, (all the better), we say.
Because for me, it’s vital right now to get out of cramped little head upholstered with All Things Book and enter fully into nature and into the heart of others’ lives. It gave me much, this camp, including dearly-needed fresh perspective. And 17 mosquito bites. On my shins alone.
From Wednesday until late Saturday afternoon, I was able/forced to unplug completely from this laptop and all other devices and concerns about this woman named Global Mom. I spent the days truly getting to know all these girls and their local leaders (from Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, England).
I awoke to the sound of cowbells (and Harley Davidsons) on the slopes surrounding our camp site. I fell asleep (in a loose manner of speaking) to the giggles and screams of all our girls in the adjacent tents. I made the rounds in the middle of the night, making sure every tent was zip-locked and everyone was accounted for. I watched for critters.
I chatted with Sœur Madeleine, one of the local nuns. I observed growth. I learned critical truths. I grew in gratitude.
I cleaned toilets, table tops, garbage cans and wounds. I set up and took down (how many?) tents. I got every name.
I did not shower.
I did not write.
And on Saturday, after every last girl and flip-flop and hair band and pocket knife and tent spike was accounted for. . .
I drove home to my village by Lake Geneva. I kissed my husband, checked my email and accumulating deadlines, packed my bag, showered (yes, in that order), slept five hours, and boarded a plane.
(No, I did not sleep then, either, unless letting my eyes close and my head bob a few times during my flight from Geneva to Paris to Salt Lake City, Utah counts. I wrote until my laptop battery was drained dry and the recharging apparatus didn’t work. But I stayed awake.)
Hours later — luggage lost, toe sprained, hair still smelling of Swiss campfire, every last mosquito bite well-covered — I was sitting in a TV studio in Salt Lake City, Utah, doing a live morning talk show. Before cameras rolled, I reached down to scratch a mosquito bite, and in that instant felt so grateful for all 17 of them, for my 40 girls back home in Switzerland, for my 2 boys with me in Utah, my 1 daughter far away in Italy, and for my eldest, who has been with me all along this crazy trail, trying to be a Global Mom.
This year it hit me broadside.
Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.
Pain. Pain for my children.
I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life. What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure. It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of ballast. Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.
Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.
It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.
Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.
T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.
A TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.
That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.
Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another. They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.
What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.) It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.
Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.
What might those costs be?
Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.
Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior. In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…
A French bilingual preschool…
An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…
I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.
Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.
So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life?
1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.
2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times. This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same. They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.
3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum. When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.
4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.
5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International? Who am I? I don’t know the first thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue. Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)
6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra. I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.
7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university. She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all. After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.
8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)
9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding. But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.
10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now. When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath. This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.
It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are. I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death. I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight. I felt fuzzy and nauseated. Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold. I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?
Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?
Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.
It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know. I took a breath. I put them away. And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.
I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.
TICK Mom: A Confession
What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?
What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?
What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?
Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?
In my recent post about How To Raise A Multilingual Child, I described a bit of our family’s 20 years of living in many different countries where, for the sake of survival as well as for integration (which is ever my goal; I always want to be mistaken for a native), we have learned to speak a number of languages.
This is no big deal. At all. Hardly worth licking your lips at when you’re a European or Asian or African. My friends from those cultures just nod (and yawn) as I tick off what few tongues we’ve learned to speak. Why? Because they’re all speaking four or five as a matter of course.
(My dearest Indonesian friend back in Singapore speaks Bahasa and six other distinct Indonesian dialects. She also makes her way through in Mandarin. And Hokkien. To boot, our relationship is in English.)
In such a broad world context, there’s simply no getting snooty about speaking a couple of languages. In truth, these friends of mine from all over the place wonder out loud why my Mandarin isn’t a whole lot better.
Disclaimer: I’m finding it hard to keep encircled by a Mandarin-speaking community while living here in French-speaking Switzerland. And while in Singapore, I never lived in full Mandarin immersion. Yeah. That’s right. I have this whole long fancy list of excuses!
While I whip up some more posts on the pluses and minuses of multilingualism and nomadic multicultural living, you might want to stop in at Ute’s lovely blog
If you are serious about investigating expatriate life and learning what its foundational demands and rewards are; if you are a parent who longs to offer a broad world view to your children; if you just want to dialogue with someone who is a seasoned world citizen, then I suggest you stop in and chat with Ute.
Otherwise, there’s me. I love your visits, too!
As I said, lots of people are talking about languages, and doing so in different languages.
My last post (which seems to have struck a chord with a few of you), was referenced in this following excellent post. And so here’s a reblog for you.
Thank you, Loving Language!
Ten: English, French, High German, Swiss German, Norwegian, Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish. Oh. And Urdu.