International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 5; Weighted Grades

You’re reading a post by a high school drop out.

pbs.org

pbs.org

In a manner of speaking. I more or less stopped going to high school half way through my senior (final) year. I wasn’t a vagrant (I wasn’t a “flunky”) nor was I brilliant (a savant heading off to MIT on scholarship.) It’s just that I’d turned 16, and according to the basic requirements of my school, I was done anyway. So I took only one academic course (AP English) while spending the rest of my time involved in student government, (elected positions of leadership.) Busy with non-core courses until June, I then donned the synthetic gown, the shiny mortar board, and walked up to get my diploma. Easy.

huffingtonpost

huffingtonpost

What classes did I take to fill my time? Student government, symphony orchestra, special string ensembles, A Capella choir, debate, public speaking, released time for religious instruction and an hour-long lunch break. I spent much of my time in rehearsals for drama and musical productions. With other students, I traveled regularly and regionally for orchestra, theater and competitive speech competitions. I got “A’s.”

And I took Driver’s Education.  I got an “A” in that class by mastering parallel parking on a couple of acres adjacent to the school, a swath of asphalt decorated with fluorescent safety cones like oversized candy corn decorating a gray cake. Cruising that parking lot was like visiting an amusement park. This meant that at the same time I got that high school diploma,  I also got a newly-minted US driver’s license.  When I tell this to my non-American friends, they just can’t fathom it. They also squint at me, and nod at why I’m such a weak mathematician. 

do something

do something

In many places outside of the US, getting secondary education degrees, like getting driver’s licenses, is designed without much amusement (or fun) in mind. Instead, it’s the great sifter.  It’s designed to be rigorous, even ruinous.  Just ask the woman who stood in front of me in the line in Singapore where we were filing in to take the written exam to qualify for that country’s driver’s license.  “My sixth time,” she whispered while sweat shimmered on her forehead and she rocked on her heels a bit, arms clenched against her belly as if she was birthing an alien.

Or ask the South Korean, Polish, and Finnish high school-aged students profiled by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. (I will return to this book and the linked article in my upcoming posts. Thanks to Janina, one of our readers here, who sent me the link. Provocative reading!)

the smartes kids

This year, US colleges will receive more applicants than ever before. What’s more, these applicants will come from more diverse secondary schooling systems than any previous year. Some will probably come from South Korea, Poland and Finland. I get dizzy (and for a moment just the slightest bit anxious) learning about what other cultures deem as “best and bright,” and when I skim the statistics about other US college applicants.  Thank goodness I do so only for these posts on education; normally, I’m not a rabid follower of such graphs and predictors. I’m no way a Tiger Mom. In our home, whenever we speak the word “Ivy” it’s about leaves, not League. 

But my kids are heading to college. Two already have, two will yet. And the younger ones are facing an even more competitive college application scenario than the oldest two did, just 5 and 8 years ago. It is impossible to escape the roiling undercurrent of competition in today’s college entrance process, or the fact that the admissions process, complicated and unreliable as it is, depends primarily on numerical indicators to sift through the thousands of profiles piling up this very hour. Those numerical indicators seem to favor (who’s surprised by this?) numerical or quantitative skills!  Many colleges don’t even consider the written part of the SAT, a major disappointment for someone like our children, whose strengths (and who’s surprised by this?) lie in languages, critical thinking and verbal/written expression.

This all colors one’s GPA, of course. GPA is, for most if not all universities, the first numerical benchmark to determine a student’s ranking. But the problem with GPA is that while some post-secondary institutions have manpower and time to consider the nuances of such numbers, many do not. Certain classes, like instructors, like high schools, like countries – will produce widely varying grades. I pointed to this in my last post.  Not all these differences can be justly weighed.

Stop and think for just a moment: You and I know, while peacefully reading this post, that an “A” given for Driver’s Education (or student government or cheerleading) in an average US public high school is lightweight – featherweight – an easy “A”. We understand it’s nowhere on the same weight scale as a 7 (A+) given to a Full IB Diploma student in a HL (Higher Level) Chemistry course in a college prep school. The problem is that many colleges do not make the distinction between heavy, welter or featherweight.

(Should they first distinguish that driving or cheering not be part of any high school’s academic curriculum? That such grades not be included in the GPA in the first place?)

To simplify the process, college admissions personnel are looking first at the cumulative GPA and test scores.  A high number on either can be a foot-in the admissions door. When heavy (rigorous, college-level, mercilessly graded) courses combine for a lower GPA, that can mean the admissions door is summarily closed. The fundamental problem, I believe, is that weighting grades (or courses or instructors or overall high school or even country reputations) is too nuanced and subjective an undertaking to be carried out fairly. 

So what can one do? The response I hear often is to counterbalance a “weak” (below 3.5) GPA by building a portfolio of leadership and extra-curricular strengths. Design solar powered homes in Costa Rica, they say. Start a soup kitchen in Detroit. Run for office. Discover a planet. Whatever you do, you’d better stockpile your extra-curriculars. Theater. Speech. Orchestra. Cheerleading. Driver’s Ed.

And you see we’re back where we started.

pbs.org

pbs.org

Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Of joy.

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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.

DSC_5857

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…

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A French bilingual preschool…

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An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

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.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

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.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

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.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

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.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

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.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

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.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

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.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

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.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

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.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

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.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

DSC_5388DSC_5352

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

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.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

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?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

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.

**

Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

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?

Global Mom: French School, A Scream

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Scooting Through Paris”)

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Sometimes, Randall took the Vespa to the office because his work was just across the street from Dalton’s school. The two would head off together, helmeted and wearing biking gear, Dalton holding around his Dad from the back. They could drive right up to the gilded gates of the Parc Monceau where inside was the splendid converted mansion that housed l’École Active Bilingue. Here, Dalton spent his days and earned his French stripes.

parc monceau

The Parc Monceau is about as far from Norwegian barnepark as you can get. In fact, it’s much closer to a Japanese Zen garden, only without bonsai trees, a stone replica of Mount Fuji, and bamboo rakes for everyone to comb the sand. And because it’s French, it is sumptuous but just about as ornamental. This elegant park is where Dalton, and then Luc when he joined the same school a year later, spent their recré, or recess periods every day. Dressed in navy and white uniforms, they stood in packs – boys here, girls there – for their thimble-full of outdoor time. Half an hour of a nine-hour day.

Parc Monceau through the eye of Claude Monet

Parc Monceau through the eyes of Claude Monet

Under the shade of huge old sycamores, the children huddled to play a rousing set of billes, marbles.  They sometimes drummed up a modest round of tag or ran after one another’s Yugio cards, very popular that year.  But that was the extent of their movement for the day. “Your boys should participate in one or two sports outside of class,” the diréctrice of the school had advised me in our first private consultation. “Swimming, soccer, tennis, anything you can find to energize them will help them metabolize all they’re learning.” She was a small boned woman with a strong brow and imposing presence, flawless Parisian French, and always a gold insignia ring on her left pinkie finger.  For someone so no-nonsense, she sure wore delicious perfume.

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

“This is why we have the open Wednesday afternoons,” she continued. “The children are encouraged to do all their sport then. I suggest you sign them up. Vite, vite!”

After the requisite bureaucracy for which I was braced this time around, we did sign them up: swimming, chess, choir, tae kwan do and then finally because we were in France, we of course signed up both boys for escrime.

fencing 3

fencing 1

That’s pronounced  eh-scream, which should have made me nervous, but somehow didn’t.  That is until I saw that the boys’ fencing instructor had no right ear. It was a detail that inspired in me both confidence (hey, this guy really fences!) and worry (hey, but, uh. . . .?) The gymnasium full of twenty young fencers in tight white unitards and mesh-fronted helmets looked like an audition hall for Star Wars Stormtroopers wielding swords instead of lasers. For months and months they swung fearlessly, my two youngest did, while mincing and shuffling back and forth, arms raised just so, feet poised just so, an exhausting and beautiful discipline cum sport cum art. Fully French.

fencing 2

Global Mom: Our Daughter With The French Name

From Global Mom: A Memoir

The following I wrote in my journal:

The hardest moment was in our bedroom tonight. We’d already told P by himself, which was a good move. We knew he’d be ecstatic. But C just finished doing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” and just last week we promised her a dog. Finally, the dog she’s waited a decade for. For D and L, we would just announce the choice when we’d make it, not discuss it, so we didn’t involve them at first.

Claire as Marian

Claire as Marian

Claire living her dream: horses

Claire living her dream: horses

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Piano teacher down the street

Piano teacher down the street

Big yellow American school bus also down the street...and a 6 minute drive to school

Big yellow American school bus also down the street…and a 6 minute drive to school

Free range living

Free range living

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

...Or for a little brother?

…Or for a little brother?

P and C were sitting on our sofa. We told them we had big news but wanted to discuss it. This isn’t final, kids, we said. Want to get your reactions. And when we told C, she immediately glazed over then her eyes welled up. P put his arm around her, and she just started crying, crying. “I don’t want to go back to that hard life. This is easy, good, perfect. I want to be here. I want to STAY HERE!” And she fell into P’s arms, bawling. I think I gave R an evil look, and I know I lipped to him, “This means no go.”

We kept trying to reassure her. We haven’t said yes to a thing, we said. We’ve just been asked if we could and we are free to say no, we said. We’ll never do something that makes all of us miserable and that Heavenly Father does not encourage us to do. We walked around and around the back yard, C between us, our arms wrapped around her shoulders, listening as she cried out all the reasons why this was all bad, all wrong. “All bad, all wrong,” she kept crying, stopping to catch her breath, to bend over and then shake herself upright. It broke my heart. I wanted to weep, too, but held it in. I was believing her.

I felt how selfish it would be to pluck them out of such bounty and ease, and I had just hung red geraniums on the wrap around porch, gorgeous! Why would we ever head to where things were, as Claire knew, much harder. The edges, harder. The expectations, harder. The language, harder. The traffic and school and rules and sky and air and everything, she said, HARDER.

Inseparable, these two

Inseparable, these two

What happened when Claire went alone into her room is something Randall and I didn’t ask or hope for. We sat, nauseated and sweaty, conflicted and brokenhearted, hands between knees, rocking back and forth on the edge of our bed. So what? we said to each other, if the company has an “acute” and “special” need? So what if that need is, as they assert, “tailor made” to be filled with Randall’s expertise? So what if this would only be “a couple of years” and then we could come right back to the home and the huge yard and the cul de sac on the hill and corporate headquarters where Randall, having done this, overseeing his function in the company’s largest subsidiary outside the U.S., would be “very well-positioned”, as he was told, to take on the job that his whole career had been grooming him for, the top and final level.

So what? I said.

So what? he said.

So what?

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And Claire knocked on our door.

She wanted to talk. She came with news that became a turning point and a landmark to which our whole family would refer for years to come. She sat with us on the bed and told us she’d run while holding back tears to her girlfriend down the road. That friend, whose parents were in the middle of a horrible divorce, reassured and comforted Claire, and listened as her new friend cried. Claire had then come back home to kneel at her bed and pray. Not for an answer — to move or not to move, that was not the question — but simple comfort in this hurting moment. It was then that she felt warmth and heat wrap around her twelve-year-old shoulders and a voice (she felt it, she didn’t hear it), told her clearly that though this would be really hard at the beginning, over the long run it would be the best thing for the family.

Yes, she should, we should, move to Paris.

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Global Mom: Home Sweat Home

From Global Mom: A Memoir

As we parents were easing ourselves into the American Way, our children were doing what they’d done elsewhere: watching, observing, mimicking the locals to blend in, picking up the language (or accent), and figuring out the jumble of norms and nuances as they went along.

It went on like this for months and for all of us. Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing T.V. lingo or T.V. personages or T.V. jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it in each our individual way.

The Yellow American School Bus

The Yellow American School Bus

Parker became a gangsta.

Dalton got frustrated with himself and too easily with others.

Claire buckled down and took the lead in the school musical.

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Randall buried himself at headquarters.

Luc gave me another round of debilitating back spasms.

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To be fair, it was not Luc alone but the house renovations that gave me the back spasms. You see, with everything pointing to the probability of our staying in this place forever, we decided to dig in deeply as if this was it. This is where we will belong.

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This meant buying a home, the first and the only one we’d ever owned – and who knew if we’d ever own one again? – which home became the project into which I invested my energies. That is, when I wasn’t sitting in conferences with teachers trying to help ease along whichever child was struggling with the adjustment that week. I invested myself into making this home just right for our family, invested myself the way I threw myself into just about everything else. Like a windtunnel full of pepper spray.

This meant a total overhaul from replaced floors to painted walls to added closets and woodwork. It meant a split rail fence around the entire property. A Hansel and Gretel cottage on the back of the property. A copper weather vane.

Can you see that weather vane?

Can you see that weather vane?

And Gretel and. . .?

And Gretel and. . .?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

It also meant jack-hammering out the whole kitchen and putting in a new one. It was eight consecutive months of consuming work that spanned the dead of winter when we had to heat up pizza in a microwave rigged in the meat locker of a garage. And, yes, it was expensive work, work for which we’d been saving up parsimoniously for over nine years assuming that one day we would, with a mortgage and window boxes, pin ourselves permanently on a map somewhere.

We had vowed, Randall and I, to pass no judgments on this new life until these renovations had run their course. In the meantime, I found myself hunting in grocery store lines and around the edges of the local soccer pitch for a hint — any hint anywhere — of a foreign accent. Otherwise, we felt strangely out-of-place, unable to share a great part of ourselves with others.

One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling like an immigrant in what’s supposed to be one’s home country? At times, our new existence felt more foreign than anything. I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from local vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one really seemed to want to hear that much about.

This no-man’s-land feeling we tried to counteract by accepting volunteer positions in our church; Randall in the three-member leadership of our 450-member congregation, I in the regional presidency of the organization for all the teenaged girls. We connected with kind, enterprising, talented and patriotic fellow-Americans, whose friendship would accompany us into the years ahead.

But first came March. For ten days we’d been functioning in our new kitchen. I stood in the middle of it and took it all in: hammered copper farm sink and mustardy-sepia granite counter tops and our few select pieces of Provençal and Italian pottery. Norwegian touches. French touches. An antique Swiss cow bell holding back the traditional Scandinavian linen drapes. Modest but tasteful and most importantly, it bore our international imprint.

And the beautiful room made me ache. Relentlessly and acutely, I longed in my bones for France, for Europe in general, for my friends from the world over, for my children’s friends who understood them. What’s more, I was sniffing for the musty smell of a tiny corner market run by a Moroccan, for pungent cheeses sold by someone I knew by name in a shop that closed every day at noon for lunch and every Sunday. But beyond that, I ached for a place where we could be who we all had been individually and as a family, for that special roughness and refinement of a vibrantly textured international setting, and I missed — till-my-throat-constricted, missed — hearing and speaking French.

But that was all over and out. So I was trying to focus on all that was instead of what was not; the great ease and comfort that homogeneity offers, the undeniable traction that a societal system has when there are ample funds and loads of optimism. America’s abundant pluses, including her tremendous energy and enterprising people, the head-spinning convenience and collective casualness, they were not lost on me.

What is there not to love about this?

What is there not to love about this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

All that, in spite of my anxiety attack the first time I visited a place called Costco, or the first time I saw a $5.99 burger the size and weight of a French subcompact, which sight gave me heart palpitations and sent me running for cover. Otherwise, I was calmly, steadily fighting to come to terms.

So what do you do when you’re fighting to come to terms? You suit up in chocolate.

I was making chocolate brownies (the first brownies I’d ever made, I borrowed the recipe) for a school function, as I remember. And Randall called.

“Hon, can you meet me at the bottom of the hill? I’m almost home. Come alone.”

And I came alone. . .

And you can bet I came alone. . .

Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Harvard Business Review on Global Leaders

I was recently forwarded this article written in the HBR and knew instantly you’d have something to say about it.  Up to now I’ve done most of the talking here, and I’m getting the feeling you might be tired of sitting in your chair hearing me drone on.  You’ve fidgeted, I’ve seen it, and your eyelids were droopy that one time at 4:00 a.m.. And I know, I know, I haven’t even let you go to the bathroom.  Since May.

Because when Melissa’s got the floor, folks, she’s really got the floor.

Since I’m aching for more dialogue here, please speak up.  Please read. Digest. Reflect. Discuss. And then respond. Frankly. Fearlessly. And remember we are all friends.

Respond to any of these questions or make up your own question and plug it in here. Because, again, we’re friends:

1) How have you experienced cultural empathy or the lack of it?

2) What do you think author Bronwyn Fryer means by “egolessness” with regards to cultural empathy? And do you have experiences that illustrate your position? (And if you have an ego, no problem, everyone does, so you’re in great company.)

3) What has learning another language done to your empathy, brain, spirit, world view?

4) Fryer points to a specific “huge hole” in the American educational system.  What do you make of her assertion?

5) How do you react to Fryer’s quote from USA Today, describing other countries’ view of Americans as “uncouth and obnoxious”? (Whuh?)

6) Tell us all what you’re doing to be culturally empathetic and, if you have children, to raise them so that they are.

Now. . .Please, relaaaax. This is NOT A TEST. But you will get a free neon yellow smiley Emoticon if you leave a comment 🙂

**
From Harvard Business Review:

. . .For C-Level leaders in global organizations, one single characteristic — “sensitivity to culture” (so-called “cultural empathy”) — ranks at the very top of the requirement list. This rare quality can’t be “taught,” or injected simply by working in an overseas office.

Cultural empathy requires a degree of egolessness, because you have to surrender the notion that your country, or language, or point of view is best. Cultural empathy means that you have to not just see through the eyes of someone who is different, but you have to think through that person’s brain. True cultural empathy springs from personality, early nurturing, curiosity, and appreciation of diversity.


But, very importantly, it also springs from deep exposure to more than one language. And this is where American executives fall short.
Americans are seriously lagging when it comes to learning foreign languages (http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2011/01/04/language/) . Only 19.7 percent of those surveyed speak a language other than English in their households. Contrast this with Europe, where 56 percent of Europeans speak a language other than their mother tongue (http://ec.europa.eu/languages/languages-of-europe/eurobarometer- survey_en.htm), and 28 percent speak two foreign languages.


As anyone who has ever learned to speak a foreign language fluently notices how each language shifts one’s consciousness. One day, you wake up and you realize you have been dreaming in the new language. Eventually you realize you are thinking in that language. And when you shift back and forth between, say, your native tongue and the acquired language, you feel like you are driving a car with a stick-shift; you are more involved and engaged in the experience. You take in more; you hear more. And you literally feel different; you are “more than yourself.”
This is because, on a physical level, your brain is processing things differently than it does when you are operating in only one language. Recent scientific research has shown that learning another language sharpens cognitive abilities and can even ward off some of the effects of dementia (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3794479.stm) .

Babies who grow up in bilingual homes are more able to switch their attention and focus on the properties of both languages at the same time. And these babies grow into more focused adults: bilingual people are better at filtering out “background noise.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17892521)
These findings, combined with those of the experts in global leadership, point to a huge hole in the American educational system — one which has been growing since the 1980s, when educational values began shifting away from the arts and humanities and emphasizing the “hard”-skill stuff — math, science, and, yes, business. Increasingly, the subjects that give students a healthy appreciation for listening (music), global complexity (the humanities) and cultural empathy (languages) have been starved, if not cut off altogether in all but the wealthiest public schools.


Meanwhile, business majors — who now account more than 20 percent of undergraduate degrees (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/education/edlife/edl-17business-t.html?pagewanted=all) — don’t need to study the arts, the humanities or languages. To graduate, they have to pass basic, lower-division English composition and a social science course, but that’s more or less the extent of it. And since every business professional around the world has (happily for them) been taught to communicate well in English, American business students simply — and arrogantly — assume that they don’t need to bother with learning Spanish, or French, or German, or Mandarin, or what have you. (And in a pinch, they can always lazily rely on Google Translate (http://translate.google.com/) .)


Clearly, in an increasingly globalized world, all this is a huge mistake. No wonder that it’s hard to find talented global leaders, particularly in America, a country in which only 30 percent of the population holds a passport (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-04/travel/americans.travel.domestically_1_western-hemisphere-travel-initiative- passports-tourism-industries?_s=PM:TRAVEL) . No wonder people in other countries perceive Americans to be “uncouth and obnoxious (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/travel/2007-08-23-faux-pas_N.htm) .”

No wonder that when list-makers name America’s best leaders, they consistently point to PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi (http://www.usnews.com/news/best-leaders/articles/2008/11/19/americas-best-leaders-indra-nooyi-pepsico-ceo), a multilingual Indian woman.


The U.S. has built its economic success on being a place where people around the world come to do business — just riding the New York City subway is evidence enough of that. But in a multipolar world, America can no longer count on everyone doing business its way. If Americans want to continue to lead global companies, they will have to become better global leaders.

Why America Lacks Global Leaders – Bronwyn Fryer – Our Editors – Harvard Business R…            Page 1 of 2

http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2012/08/why_america_lacks_global_leade.html            8/27/2012

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Le Crash

To their credit, the two oldest absorbed new information quickly, flooring and softening everyone.  They worked hard.  I’ll never forget their drive.  Dalton’s month in a cast somehow dried up his spitting complex. And at subsequent parent-teacher conferences, there were far fewer concerns about their academic abilities or social adjustment. In fact, at mid-semester progress reports, Claire had hopped over her reading group, and skills along with confidence and independence had improved.  Parker’s semester report described him as “conscientious and talented”, his music teacher described him as “gifted,” and his home room teacher wrote in red pen that he was “exemplary.” Dalton, the spitting teetotaler, won himself a girlfriend named Marie-Celestine.  And though these three children were always energetic and outspoken, and although the two oldest still used Norwegian idioms translated awkwardly into English, and the younger for a while made up French words like “zee cozee peellow” and “zee grand scoop d’ice cr-r-reem”,  they ended up being strong, even delightful, students.

That first autumn, then, we’d had three children enter new school systems, one in French, which meant learning a new language, and two in English, which meant relearning an old language.  We’d had a fire ant infestation that left all the children with visible welts on their bodies, a flood in our basement, (and three more that I  just don’t have the heart to write about.)  Our heater had broken down during an unseasonably early October freeze, we still had no closets, we had no personal parking places for our two cars, we all got the flu — all of the Île de France got the flu— we had a bat problem (I forgot to mention that?), I had back problems (I forgot to mention the spasms and bed confinement?), we had one broken foot that kept one child from school for a month, and we had been warned that if our oldest two didn’t “get up to speed”, they’d be expelled from their school — the only one in the entire Île de France in which we had secured places — post haste.

In the midst of all this, we’d figured out banking, basketball, baguettes, BCG. We’d found all new doctors, plumbers, fishmongers, dry cleaners.  New ways of walking, greeting, shopping, running in the gardens but not running in the streets and certainly not running into the baker’s shop, new ways of dressing, eating, breathing, existing.

It almost felt like the worst of The New was behind us.

Then winter, the dead season, started early.  Streets were slippery.  And one Sunday morning on my way to conduct meetings at church (I’d accepted an appointment in the presidency of the women’s organization of our congregation) something horrible happened. I nearly killed my children.  I’d buckled them in their seats before dashing to pick up a young American girl living as an au pair with a French family in Versailles.  She’d slept through her alarm and was calling last minute for a ride to church.  One moment of poor judgment and poor visibility, a frosted-over no left turn sign, a left turn, speed on ice, another motorist whipping up the opposing road while going over the speed limit, and the sound of metal against metal and glass splintering like a galactic trash compactor.

Our small car spun around twice, then punched its nose into a parked car.

We’d been struck broad side.  The other driver was uninjured though he’d been coming at over 50km.  My children were flung around violently in the car, Parker’s head hit the passenger side window shattering it, everyone had cuts and lacerations, and the au pair had chipped teeth, a gouged tongue and whiplash.

And me?  I only had a cold metal pole of terror and guilt punched cleanly through my abdomen.  The instant we’d hit, I’d known I was at fault. I was completely my fault. Everything (the pole started twisting) was completely my fault.

“Two weeks earlier,” the mustached police officer whispered to me in a French that was oddly crystal clear above the blur of sirens and a crowd of Sunday morning bath-robed onlookers on the street, “Just two weeks, Madame, at this very corner and at this very hour, another driver did the same as you. And he was not as lucky.”

So I was lucky?

I felt toxic, lethal. The Wormwood totem.

Emotionally, it took a while to climb out of that whole jumbled period which, in my mind, seems to lurch and grope and flash in hot, streaked colors, faster and faster, until it culminates with the hollow ice-encrusted wail of those Sunday morning ambulances behind those Versaillais onlookers in their bathrobes and leather house slippers shivering and huddling and kindly but awkwardly stroking the hair of my daughter who had red splattered down her new French church dress.

My mind slows and settles on a dark-suited line of French policemen, politely questioning my somehow stoic and suddenly French-speaking nine-year-old son. There are gashes on his forehead where he’s hit the window.  The blood drizzles into his right eye.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Il Crache/Il Crash

La langue means the tongue, which tongue, in this context, means the French one.  And that’s exactly the part of me that was tied in a sailor’s knot when I sat staring into the large liquid brown eyes of Madame M.

Il Crache

She had called a special conference with me after school hours.  I’d spruced up, throwing on pearls, ironing a seam down the front of my pantyhose and brandishing killer heels. I came quickly, mincingly.

“Your son, Madame,” said Madame M., “Il crache aux enfants.”

He certainly LOOKS innocent enough. . .

Although the heat between us told me right off this was serious, I had no idea what “crache” meant.  So I took a stab (which you should never do in French unless you’re fencing), and guessed it meant the obvious: my child was crashing into the other children. Head butting.  My three-year-old, toe-headed fullback.

Il. . . crache?” I asked in falsetto.

“Oui, Madame,” she dropped her eyes, pain wrinkling her forehead.  It was very touching.

“Aux enfants?” I winced, burying my chin in my chest, my shoulders drawing up to my ear lobes.

“Oui, Madame.”  She exhaled audibly. “Aux enfants.”

. . .Well-mannered, legs crossed. He even wears a hat. . .

We sat for ten seconds in silence. She stared into her lap.  I stared at the part down the middle of her hair.

Vraiment?” I said, double-checking if this was true, since Dalton really wasn’t a violent boy at all. “Il—”, and I made a head-butting, fullback movement. Crashing. Into imaginary other children. “Il crache?”

Madame M. looked up at me, perplexed. Then like floodlights flipping on over a soccer pitch, she said, “Oh, non, non, non. Madame Bradford!” Then she laughed.I laughed, too, relieved. Thank heavens my son wasn’t doing something as coarse and crude as head-butting.

Non, Madame, non, non!” She then cleared her throat and straightened her skirt. “Il. . . crache!” said lovely Madame M., as she drew herself together to demonstrate what was meant with the words.

And with that she spat.

She spat left, right, and right at me, her eyes widening, nostrils flared, bottom lip glazed with spit. “Il “ (spit, spit, spit) “crache aux enfants!”

“Oh. Voilà,” I said, as a slight tide of nausea swept over my torso.

OK. So there might be a tendency toward exuberance, maybe. But. . .?

“When the children try to speak to him, he backs into a corner,” this kind pedagogue said, “And when he backs into the corner, the children try to coax him out. It is all meant in fun, I am sure.  But the closer they get, the more he refuses, and when they get close enough, Madame—“

I interrupted here by spitting, my brows drawn up, questioning if I got it right.

Dalton, my crach-ing son.

Dalton  testing the efficacy of the gates of the Château de Versailles. Generally, though, we kept him far from sharp objects.

What I needed to do, I decided, was expose my little boy to more French environments besides just his preschool. Take him out with me on errands, let him meet people who don’t corner him or poke colored pencils into his tummy when he can’t respond with the right verb conjugation. We were in Versailles, after all, which means every corner was a mini culture capsule manned by authentic locals with whom I could certainly try to speak my baby French.  And my baby would of course follow suit.  Ease in.  Quit the spit. I had a great plan.

So I started next day at the grocery store.

Il Crash

It was noontime on a day other than Monday, when Dalton otherwise would have stayed all day at maternelle to dine in the cafeteria, and so my husky three-year-old was with me at a mid-sized alimentation, helping me stock up on essentials, which now included a flotilla of bottled water, endives, fennel, radishes, only two cans of ravioli, eight types of cheese, and an artillery of yogurts in parfums that for some reason made me think of Christian Dior working a butter churn.

With my back turned on him for a split second, Dalton tried to scale the outside of the full cart, and it flipped over on him right in the middle of the frozen hors d’oeuvres aisle. The echoing crash drew a crowd of women, all in their sixties and seventies. They flocked near us, encircling the momentarily winded, saucer-eyed boy clobbered by an impressive heap of Evian and produce. Dalton lay motionless on the tiles. The Roquefort and Gruyère lay smushed quite definitively under his splayed arms.

Heads bobbing, the ladies discussed this évenément between themselves, then offered me their conseil.  Madame should not move il pauvre (the poor guy) because the blow might have damaged his spine. Madame should knock him a sound one on his derriere for having smashed such fine endives as Madame had selected. Madame should rescue her Roquefort from underneath the tins of petit pois and, by all means, get the dairy products home before they spoil. Madame should take a taxi to an emergency room because Madame cannot drive with the invalid in her arms and as it was noon, none of the eight doctors’ offices surrounding the market would be open for three more hours.  Ah, oui.  The inevitable and interminable lunch break.

. . .Domesticated him. . .

Mumbling whatever few French responses I could muster, I gathered the bruised bundle of child (not radishes) in my arms, and left my monument to la gastronomie in an indecent sprawl, the women shoppers gawking and pecking at it, at each other, at the mother and child genuflecting their way out the sliding glass doors.  My handbag shoulder strap creeping down my arm, and sweat dripping down my front, I headed straight for the closest hospital, Hôpital Mignot, Dalton’s human siren accompanying us all the way.

The doctors at the emergency room, after searching for internal injuries with an ultrasound, found none.  (Then I told them to check my son.) They discovered that the grocery avalanche had broken my boy’s foot.  My Viking, they told me, was finally going to get his armor: a knee-high cast. The kid was going to be cobbled.  And Madame la maman? She was instructed to keep her invalid completely sedentary. For the next month.

Could Monsieur le docteur write a prescription for traction? Tee-hee-hee?

Not even a smile.

After one week, Dalton was wielding that cast like a judo instructor, and by the end of the month-long chrysalis, we had it chiseled off with butter knives because it was so battered, it and his leg were decomposing. During that whole time, of course, he couldn’t attend maternelle since according to Madame M., his cast would give the other children even more reason to cajole, and Dalton more reason to crache.

The Bradfords, a visiting friend, and the cast

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: From the Garden of Eden to Les Jardins de Versailles

Moving from Norway to France meant trading in one splendid extreme for another equally splendid, but strikingly antithetical one. It was a move from north to south. . .

From Nordic to Latin; from a calm island to the bustling Île de France. . .

From the tundra to the Tuileries; from craggy fjords to the sleek Seine. . .

From the untamed spirituality of Brønnøya. . .

to the crafted symmetry of the Jardins de Versailles;

From the Land of the Midnight Sun. . .

To the Land of the Sun King. . .

From stark homogeneity. . .

To vibrating variety; from two kinds of cheese to 378+; from hot dogs and dried fish. . .

To haute cuisine and patisseries. . .

From IKEA to Louis XVI; from the comfy lilt of the economic Norwegian tongue to the highly stylized lavishness of le Français; from cooperation to competition. . .

From the community to the moi; from rigorous obedience to la Révolution; from no-nonsense androgyny. . .

To the religion called la Beauté; from muddy park dress. . .

To starched parochial uniforms; from Birkenstock sandals to Charles Jourdan stiletto pumps.

From innocence. . .

To experience. . .

From Eden. . .

To the World. . .

Or more specifically, to the old world, since we began our French years in Versailles.

**

You know of Versailles.  I had known, too. I thought.  But I had not known that for the French, “Versailles” is as much a concept as it is a city or a château. When the French refer to Versailles, they are referring to la vieille France—the old France—and all that implies; nobility, Catholicism, traditions, and families who today live in the same home their ancestors built back when the Place Hoche had a guillotine for public executions.  “Versailles” as concept means both the extravagantly gilded and velvet-heavy furnishing (things overwrought yet serious about it are très Versaillais), and so are the five or six children dressed in navy skirts or knickers and white knee socks, trailing a mother with a practical chin-length bob locked in place by a navy hair band.  That phenomenon is also what my neighbor, in a whisper, called très Catho, or übercatholic.  Versaillais implies le patrimoine, which has much to do with the preservation of historic France as it has to do with lineage, which is signaled by the family names beginning with “du”.  The city’s slogan, if you asked me to come up with one, would be, “What was, is.”  As commoner newcomers to the kings’ court, we were about to learn what “was” was.

Around the corner from the rive droite train station, was a renovated turn-of-the-century home with a white stucco facade and an oval window smack dab on its front. If you opened up the navy blue double front door, you could look directly through the depth of the house (it was one room deep) into an enclosed backyard with four small round bushes placed like thumb tacks in each corner of a table cloth of green.  The house had a bright white interior with emerald green trim throughout and tasteful tiles in all its four bathrooms, a kitchen with glossy yellow walls that reminded of Provence, a side view straight onto the dome of the Église de Sainte Jean d’Arc, and a back view onto the local synagogue.

  It was a fifteen-minute walk to the Place du Marché where the bi-weekly open market had stood since the thirteenth century. And only a fifteen-minute jog down Boulevard de la Reine, crossing Boulevard du Roi, and through the gilded gates of the sprawling Château de Versailles and its even sprawlinger Jardins du Château de Versailles.

Like a movie set. Except for the hoards of white-athletic-shoed tourists who could have been extras out of costume in an otherwise period film.  They came directly from the train station or in enormous buses that parked in what used to be the Royal Horse Stables.

With time, everything in Versailles turned out to be a former “royal.”

The home was also directly across the street from the private Catholic (or catho, if you insist) École Hulst.  From all appearances, this was the most prim and trafficked preschool in toute la France. Fascinated, I peered through my kitchen window, gulping and plotting, rubbing my hands together guardedly, hidden behind my kitchen window the way I’d been hidden behind the steering wheel of my car looking over Blakstad barnepark.  I applied my same methods of observation, wanting to be part of it all and could have sent little Dalton there, until I learned I would have had to have put his name on the waiting list the hour I thought that maybe I might want to get pregnant with him.

Okay, so Hulst was in demand.

But it was also demanding. At least for a loosey-goosey fresh-from-barnepark mother and child duo like us.  Watching the children scooting in and out every morning, I could have sworn they all came from the same navy blue gene pool.  Dalton, in contrast, (and myself, for that matter), seemed to lack that certain oui-oui chromosome needed to slip in without causing a tide change.

Granted, that could have all been in my perception.  But to be honest, I was too intimidated by what I observed as the school’s “was-ness” — its exacting French A-lines, the one boy in a blazer and burgundy velvet knickers, all that crispness  — to enroll my son. Not without at least a few months in a preliminary crisper.

I went around the corner and down the Rue Remilly to l’École Maternelle Richard Mique, which was public, ecumenical, and visibly less crisp — comfortably wilted, let’s say — and set my sights on enrolling Dalton there.  Following my barnepark method of attack, I stalked the Richard Mique premises in off hours. I then loitered at corners during drop-off and pick-up, noting the habits of local adults.  I listed the children’s gear, shoe styles, hair cuts, behavior.  I then made eye contact, greeted mothers and fathers, took Dalton there by the hand twice, just to practice the trek. And to build nerve.

Eventually, I dared approaching a real person on the street to question her about the school.  I’d selected her, actually, over a few days scoping for The Most Open Face in Versailles. Her name was Rita. She was wonderful. She became a friend.  With four young children herself and relatively new to Versailles, too, she could instruct me in Annie Sullivan French about applying a month late to the school, as I was doing.  And wouldn’t you know it? Like Johanne from Norway, Rita told me to go directly to the main office the next day and request a place for Dalton.  “Mais vite, vite”—but hurry!—her wide eyes insisted.

There was no chain link fence around Richard Mique as had been around Blakstad barnepark. But there were serious-looking walls and gates that were padlocked at all hours but the 15 minute intervals at morning drop-off, lunchtime pick-up and drop -ff, and afternoon pick-up.  Timing it precisely, I was able to enter and find the directrice’s office, where I was greeted by a brunette woman who resembled in no way but hair color our dear tante Britt.  There was no snow-blown look or red  front-zip barnepark jumpsuit.  No thermos of coffee.  No messy hair and ruddy cheeks.  Instead, this delicate woman wore perfume. And pearls.  And a fitted skirt.  And heels.  And she sat behind a large desk sipping a porcelain cup of tea.  I felt myself suck in my gusto and make myself as absolutely  French as physically possible without turning a shade of puce, and approached her with soft, alluring steps.  She was not ready, I’ll bet, for the slaughter I made of French, but she was genteel and was used to working with people a tenth her age, so when she spoke at me with single syllable words and those large semaphore movements, I was able to discern just enough to know what she told me.

Rendez-vouz.  Need of one.  Speak with school director.  Come back  with another faith.

(Whuh?)

Oh. Right.  Come back another time.

To this day I still wonder if those red cowboy boots might have grabbed her attention, upped my chances somehow of getting a slot right off.

As it was, I smiled, thanked Madame profusely, scooted spritely on my way, and went home to re-wax my legs and knuckles, starch even my underclothing, and prepare my speech and posture for the next morning’s private audience with Madame directrice.
**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.