It felt like I was constantly running, constantly having to gear up for the daily basics. There were a million daily inconveniences — not just broken feet, flooded basements, fire ant invasions, bat bombings and the like, but countless other picayune demands like connecting the phone, getting a French driver’s license, buying nine bags of government-approved schools supplies, filling the house’s subterranean fuel tank, all that I had to execute, 1) in French, which I could not possibly learn fast enough, 2) with a child lugging a plaster leg perched on my hip and, 3) alone.
Randall was traveling from Monday to Friday to places I had to look up on the map, and so I had no on-site back up. No reprieve. When Randall was in the country, (which was less than 20% of the time), we were in and out of conferences — for Parker and Claire on a weekly basis over three months, trying to help them adapt to a new language and school system: American. For Dalton we were in just as frequently, but to help him adapt to these things in French. When Randall was away (the whole month of October he was hopping between three continents and eight time zones and dropping in at home for five dinners only), I had the rich task of single-handedly getting my kids speedily up to American and French speed. I was sleeping three hours a night, eating three real meals a week, going gray in hair and skin, my eyes and clothing were sagging.
It only became clear to me, at the end of one especially long evening of tutoring and coaching, how little our two eldest knew about things their American teachers and you, Anglophone reader, probably take for granted. I’d gone through some simple math problems with Parker and had left him on his own at the far end of our long table to finish the rest. Meanwhile, I was singing for Claire a bunch of stock American nursery rhymes (“Ring Around The Rosie”, “Humpty Dumpty”), for a writing project she had to do, since she only knew Norwegian equivalents like songs about wild mushrooms and ditties about trolls. From the other end of the table, Parker was showing signs of tetchiness:
“I can’t do this one, Mom. I just don’t get it,” he grunted. “How am I supposed to do this? It’s impossible to understand.”
“Just. . .please. . .just finish it up,” I said, head in hands and eyes closed. I was fighting a headache and I felt something like what I imagined an ulcer must feel like forming under my belt. “And please, please just quit grumbling. Okay Claire, let’s try this one more time from the top: Here we go loopty loo, here we go loopty lie. ..”
I was so worn out and threadbare, you could hear my soul through the shredded fabric of my voice. Claire had her forehead in her hands, singing monotone to the table top; “”Loopty lie, loopty — this is such a dumb song.”
A minute later, my son’s head-shaking visible in my peripherals, I perked up in my best answering machine voice:
“Don’t keep telling yourself you cannot do it, Parker. You’re smart, honey. You can.” I extended a hand to touch his shoulder, rub the nape of his neck, “I just know you can.”
“Yeah, Parker. You can do it,” Claire backed me up, although her voice was flat and she was still staring at the table.
He shook off my hand and snapped, “I can not!!” then slammed his pencil down on the table so hard, it went flying off into the far wall. “I don’t even know what they’re talking about in this stooopid math book!!”
His pencil rolled along the floor as he sat there, huffing, looking straight ahead, not at me. I looked at that round nose, nostrils so small but flaring. His chin, puckering and twitching while he ground his teeth.
I just stared at him. I’d totally run out of options. Why in moments like these did I feel resentment skitter across the floor of my brain like a greasy rat? It wasn’t resentment at my children, but resentment at Randall. Absent Randall. I chased it out sometimes, that skittering rat, with a brusque clearing of my throat. But there were times when that rat hovered, flicking his scrawny paws in a dark corner, squeaking in a faint rat voice that That Husband of Mine, well, he should be here helping me. And as soon as I’d paid even that much attention to the squeak, the rat began gnawing at the dry wall of my brain. Squeak: He’s probably in a four-star restaurant somewhere right now. Squeak-squeak: Or he’s in an airplane reading to his heart’s content. There were times I had to whack my hands together or stamp my feet to scare that rat out of my mind.
After all, I knew it was just a rat.
And I knew Randall. He wasn’t one.
Parker was now making steady, moist, bull snort sounds. I looked down the table to Claire. She gave me the eye and the sh-h-h sign.
Then Parker’s hoarse voice came from behind his fisted hands covering his mouth: “So. . .what are deem-ahs . . . and kwahr-tairs. . . anyway?”
He looked down at his workbook lying open on the table. With one finger poking up from a fist, he signaled a general place on one of the pages. “Deem-ahs,” he dropped his head, fist on forehead and mumbled,“and kwahr-tairs.”
“Let me see this thing,” and I dragged the manual over to where I sat. I looked at the page. I swallowed. I closed my eyes and shook my head.
I looked back up at my glaring, nostril-flaring, confused son. I looked back at the book and re-crossed my legs in my son’s direction.
Then I scootched much, much closer to him and put my hand on his arm.
Deem-ahs are what you get when you are Norwegian and read the English word dime.
Kwahr-tairs is what you get when you read quarter.
Back then, when we’d first come to France, my nine-year-old had never dealt with American currency. How was he supposed to figure out a math word problem based on U.S. coinage?
“Hey, sweetie. So, does your teacher know you don’t know what these words mean?”
“No. I haven’t told her all the things I don’t understand.”
So guess what. I did. I went back into the school and tried to make it clear to that teacher and to the others who worked with him that we were building from ground up. I even brought the math workbook and pronounced the whole problem as if reading it as a Norwegian child would with no idea of English phonetics or coinage. From all of them, except for one administrator, I got nods of recognition and kind encouragement. That was enough to keep me this side of nutso for a while.
When not doing read-a thons and math-a thons in English to help Parker and Claire integrate, we were doing the same in French, to help Dalton do the same. There was an evening (I could have really used you there) when I had one child chanting, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”; another child worried sick about a boy named Jack who’s broken his crown; another belting “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”
In between them all, my soul was pushed on its knees in a pray-a-thon, begging for all the heavenly intervention I knew without which our whole family would most certainly be deported.
© 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.