Thursday, November 29, 2007

I’ll sue you!

Marc was struggling with his French homework. I went to see the French directrice to say that Marc was not able to read the French book and do the review because he had so much American homework. I also felt he was being ‘punished’ and that reading should be a pleasure, especially since he had hours of American homework. Not so, she replied. Marc’s teacher tells with me that he is lazy and this is normal in America. The teacher had said that Marc had obviously never really worked before in Kuala Lumpur. (This stunned me and I had no idea what to say to her)

‘You were warned’ she reminded me and showed me a letter about the school that she had faxed to Jacques. It said, in French, that parents must be prepared to support their child at home too. I had seen that as been positive towards French, having French books, dvd’s etc. in the home and helping with the homework, but not doing it, surely.

The directrice ended the discussion with the message ‘Get a tutor if you can’t cope!’ A tutor? Pay 20 $ an hour for extra help after we were already paying 3,000 a year for EFAC! Never! Plus I was a trained teacher myself, surely I could help my own children? I wasn’t even working and yet still it was just TOO MUCH!

A few days later Marc came to talk to Jacques and me in private. Marc was unusually worried. It appeared that the teacher had been insulting him, and his previous ‘lazy’ school in front of the other kids. The teacher had made some threatening remarks too. Jacques was on the case immediately, like a ton of bricks, writing a formal ‘I’ll sue you if you touch or verbally insult my son…’ letter, and making an appointment to see the directrice for the next day. The directrice listened, talked to the teacher, who denied it all, and the matter was put aside. Marc reported that the teacher had stopped picking on him.

We felt a mixture of sadness that the bilingual school, that seemed so good on paper, was turning out so bad, and anger that the teacher was belittling our son. I won’t dispute that Marc has a lazy day-dreaming side, as do many kids, but he is bright and interested. The worst aspect was that he had no choice in which school he was sent to, so should he not be punished for our choices. We began truly thinking that we should move the children as soon as possible since both Marc and Nina would have the same teacher next school year....

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Louisa May Alcott and her school.

I found sweetly-named Louisa May Alcott School (named after the author of Little Women, which which had just tearfully watched on DVD) on the map and it was just three ‘blocks’ away as the Americans say. I called to ask about a place for Gabriel. The school was just a few blocks away. I knew it was late but it was worth a try. The secretary asked me immediately where I lived, to which I politely replied ‘Geneva Terrace.’ and she shouted, ‘Call Lincoln, that’s your school’ and hung up. I knew each school had a strict catchment area, but before age five you could choose, simply because you paid for pre-school education. I had always thought Americans did good customer service, but this was the tenth in a line of grumpy and unhelpful telephone, gas and bank people in a week. I tried again and again and finally screamed at her ‘I have two kids at Lincoln, it’s for the third one who is only three years old!!!’ ‘Oh’ she said ‘I’ll connect you to Room 111’ she would not apologize, but at least I got through.

When I visited I had to hide my surprise at the tiny classroom, with beds for naptime squeezed between the tables and chairs, although it seemed quite jolly and organized. The fees were horrific - at 7,000$ for the year, it made an English Montessori look cheap. At least breakfast and lunch was included in the price. But I signed Gabriel on, I had no other choice and he was truly bored being at home with me all day unpacking boxes.

His first week was a success. There was another French new girl called Maylis, starting the same week and three children in the pre-school who had siblings in the Lincoln school. We soon started walking together after dropping off the big ones at Lincoln, and kissing our little ones goodbye at 8.30am. Before long we were going straight round the corner to Einstein’s Bagels or Starbucks or Caribou coffeeshops for more chat and a late breakfast. It was a relief to have found friends, and Elisabeth, Leaticia and Sybille were good company.

They had all lived in America before, and were making the most of their time in America. They had all had full-time jobs before and we enjoying their time as stay-at-home-moms. We shared notes on where to find things, complaints about EFAC, the lack of time to play outside (10 mins only) and the awful school menu of pizza, hotdog or hamburgers. At 3.10 we gathered by the tree outside the school to chat about our day, and if the sun shone we would spend some time in the school park letting the kids run off their energy. I began to think things were looking up…

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Get Organized!!!

Paperwork was a daily deluge at the Lincoln school. Previous schools had only sent general info with the oldest child or sent an email – here we had everything twice and numerous ‘Urgent!’ emails from the Class Mom. The PTA was very active with a monthly agenda already set up, while the Class Moms organized the school trips, indoor lunchtime activities and sent memos from the teachers. I declined to join them.

Marc was told to ‘get organized’ and set up a desk for his homework. The teacher called me in to explain the class books, so I would know whether Marc had the right one (he rarely did). There were at least 6 classbooks that ferried back and forth every night for homework. It seemed be asking a lot of a nine-year-old. Class meetings were held with impressive targets, aims and goals. To my horror I discovered the American system is three 12-week semesters with no breaks in between, give or take the odd long holiday weekend. The year ends in mid-June, with an excessively long 10-week summer vacation. Where were all the nice half-term holidays for short family trips and having visitors? How would we survive?

From Week 1 homework was a challenge. Big chunks of science chapters to copy or learn, a book to read and a review per week, grammar that made me think twice and tricky math worksheets often with no answers (mean for parents!). On top of that there was a monthly ‘speech’ contest, where Marc was marked for presentation and style.

At first I thought it was just that Marc and Nina’s English was weak and they would soon catch up. But as the hours of homework stretched to three or more each night I was as weepy and tired as them. We were not finished sometimes until 10pm. Plus I had no maid now and Gabriel must be entertained till Jacques came in, and dinner needed to be cooked…and when could they play or get some fresh air?

A few weeks into the first semester the 4th Grade parents called a meeting to protest about the high workload, so it wasn’t just me. I had not dared mention my personal struggles to any other parents. Parents loudly complained of ‘reading burn-out’, depression, kids faking sicknesses, over-tiredness and insomnia and suchlike. The teachers listened impassively. At the end of all the moans the Principal tersely told us that this was a Top SATS scoring school, and the children must work at home to complete the curriculum. The message was if you don’t like it go someplace else….so the parents backed down and shut up. But why not stay at school till 5pm if there was so much work to be done? Why ask so much of the parents? What would become of these burned-out pre-adolescents when they finally got to university and had no-one to help them with their work?

Monday, November 26, 2007

The EFAC families.

EFAC organized a Saturday picnic for the first weekend in a local park where we finally could get to meet the two teachers and the other parents and hopefully find some soulmates. I mentally sorted the parents into three groups:

• French mother married to American chap, trying to keep French going even though they will never live in France (there were a few French divorcees in this group too…)

• French-French couples who loved America, had green card (or were applying) who wanted children to be bilingual for heritage or future education/job…

• French expats in USA for short-term usually first time, wanting child to go to local school, but still keeping up French for return to France in few years…

The French mamans married to Americans were friendly with me; we had the shared connection of being married to a foreigner. A mother of a boy in Marc’s class, Pascale, who lived nearby gave me her number and told me it would be hard in the beginning. The French expats were chatty and keen to compare experiences of finding accommodation and where to go at the weekend. We met Elisabeth and Laeticia, and their families, and discovered they had pre-school age children attending a nearby school called Alcott. I made a note to call the next day for Gabriel. I also met Sylvie, a German married to a Frenchman with a girl in Nina’s EFAC class. She had lived in Chicago four years ago and knew a lot about EFAC and the city. I hope the two girls would form a friendship, Nina looked very sad these days.

How did we fit it? None of the above, although I felt closer to the temporary French expats more than the others, knowing that we would not stay long and also needed the French simply for future French education. But already we were calculating how long we would have to stay….Marc would be 11 in 2008 and would start secondary education, if we stayed in Chicago he would have to study by correspondence, which we didn’t want. Or we could transfer him and/or Nina to the Lycee Francais, but that cost 12,000$ a year…and then there was the problem of Gabriel who could not attend EFAC until he was five, two school years away, and needed private pre-schooling. The maths was frustrating and there was no easy solution. We would just have to take it year by year and see how it went.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The First Day…

We took a bus to school the first day, leaving at 7.30 am for the 8am start, that only the EFAC kids had. As we arrived sportily dressed American moms were prepping coffee and pastries outside on tables for the start of their new semester at 9am. EFAC had nothing.

Madame Tranchevant, Directrice of EFAC welcomed us briefly and ticked off our names, she seemed in a rush to get classes going. The French parents and children were chatting loudly and were in no hurry to start the day or introduce themselves either. To my dismay Marc was in a tiny dark old-fashioned room with about 30 children and a male teacher. I had been told classes were limited to 9 students. Nina was in a basement room. There were also three classes of about 9 students and a female teacher. It looked more like a crèche than a class. But apparently this was just for the first hour, and after that the children would return in small year groups. I hoped Marc and Nina would find their way from American classroom to French classroom…they had no idea where 203 or 207 was.

I left a tearful Nina and serious-looking Marc, and went back to the hotel with Gabriel. The day was long and we were glad to meet them at precisely 3.23 (that was when the bell rang). It was a sunny day and the pavement in front of the school was packed with mothers and fathers straining to see their child. A man on a bike sold ice-creams from a cooler box. When the bell rang about three hundred kids poured out the building, more than I had expected, and quite frightening en masse and all at the same time.

I felt suddenly very very lonely, I knew nobody and had no-one to share a smile or to say hello to. The American mothers stressed me out, rudely shouting greetings over my head like I was invisble, and snapping photos of their child posing on the steps for the scrapbook of their First Day At School. Nina looked very lost and out of place and her classmates practically pushed her down the stairs. ‘Well how was your first day? I asked ‘Pas bien’ she answered.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hey they have twin towers here too!!!

Chicago seemed strangely small. I was expecting New York size and found it was remarkably compact and easy to navigate. The architecture was stunning and we walked around heads in the clouds admiring the black staggered skyscrapers, even though they were not as amazing as the KL ones. Taxis, buses and trains were cheap and our hotel was just off the Magnificent Mile of shops and restaurants so we were well placed.

I wanted Marc and Nina to fit in physically in their new school, so we shopped in Gap for Marc (it took me a few weeks to discover the cheaper but similar styled Old Navy…)Nina chose an all-black outfit from an expensive department store for her important first day. What seemed like a bargain was not so much when at the till they added 9% sales tax…

After a couple of days waking at 6am with reverse jetlag, and overdosing on oversized blueberry pancakes or watching the American flatscreen tv in the hotel we went to visit our future home and school. The Abraham Lincoln (he came from Illinois we would later discover) Elementary School was the home of EFAC, or the French bilingual program we had chosen and we must register with the school as local residents. The suburb was leafy and beautiful, rather English looking, like Richmond or Fulham with lots of upscale coffee shops and gift shops. Our house-to be was a grey shingled semi-detached and Victorian style, spacious and just renovated, but our furniture was still blocked and we would have to start school from the hotel.

There was no-one to welcome us from EFAC. The American main school office was open and we had a file of papers to fill out. ‘Nina will be in 203 and Marc 207’ the secretary said, although it meant nothing to me. A few teachers popped into the office and one young Asian heritage woman shook hands with Marc and said she would be his teacher. Class lists of required items were handed out as was the summer’s homework.

Back at the hotel I began to panic, Marc should have read and reviewed a whole book by now. We dashed out to Borders bookshop and bought the book, but it was too long and set in America, with lots of different vocabulary which I needed to explain to him. I ended up speed-reading it to him over the next three days and doing the review for him.

Then there was the list of supplies to get ready. We hired a car and drove to a huge shop called Target, and in a crowd of pushing and grabbing parents searched for the school items required. A Sharpie pen, what the hell was that? An erasable pen? Did that exist yet (it does! Thanks Papermate!), a book stand (I didn’t know them that the books would be so heavy they had to supported..), a bottle of hand sanitizer and several Composition books and three-subject books which came in a variety of lines and sizes. We also stocked up on the mysterious fabric book covers that everyone else was buying…

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Security overload.

I could not feel any kind of excitement about going to Chicago in September, it seemed like a dream and we would find ourselves back on the Malaysian Airlines flight with the sweet girls in saris and the pilot announcing ‘Point Point!!’ (I think it translated as Ladies and Gentlemen!) and we would wake up in the balmy twilight with palm trees and mosquitos around us…and our condo and our wonderful maid, Aimee, waiting for us…

But in reality we were booked on the 31st August day flight to Chicago, right in the middle of a major security alert involving, by some nasty twist of fate, England and America. Security was on bright red and before our bags were even looked at, we had to empty out any non-essentials before check-in. That included kids toys, extra clothes (what if they are sick or spill something?), make-up, deodorant and of course the bottle of water the suspect was planning to blow up the bomb with.

It was tense at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and the kids were twitchy and over-excited at all the fuss. Nina cried and I screamed at her. In the departure lounge I was pulled over and body searched just as we boarded the plane, with my heart beating that I might be left behind while Jacques and the children left without me…

The flight was awful. The American Airlines attendants were grumpy, furious that Gabriel ran about with his socks on (he might cut his feet? On what? I asked nastily Did you drop something?). Rules and regulations were everywhere and I felt threatened and nervous. Getting into Chicago was as difficult as getting onto the plane, more security checks, pointless thumbprinting (what do they do with all those prints?) and a search for a taxi big enough for us and all our luggage.

Our house was not ready yet, and our furniture was somewhere between New York and Chicago in a container, so we went to a hotel in the city…we had four days to get over the jet-lag and acclimatize before school and our new life really started…..

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Changes in Caunay

We arrived in Paris from KL totally jet-lagged. We somehow managed to get on a TGV and were picked up by my sister-in-law, Laure at the station in Poitiers. Laure drove us directly to the house in Caunay, not to my parents-in-law's house, as we usually did. On arrival my parents-in-law ushered us in, along with my other sister-in-law, Nora and two cousins. Lunch was waiting for us on the beautifully set table. I was stunned, last time I had been here the house was simply a storage area. It was so peculiar to see furniture from three years ago I blinked. And who were the babies? Two big fat plump babies sat on the sofa? Nora and Laure’s I realized, remembering that we had missed their births and now they were nearly a year old. My mother-in-law had had an aneurysm in May and nearly died and we had missed all of that. I felt like I’d been to the moon and back. It was a sobering thought.

When they left I unpacked madly, it was like a drug, one more box and I’m done, no just one more, where are those knives and forks? Oh look the school work from Marc’s class…and so I spent my first week with the nights unpacking and the days sleeping off the jetlag.

The first week a storm hit and water poured through a hole in the roof, I was terrified and ran around looking for jugs and bowls to stem the flow. The electricity would fuse every time I used two machines at the same time, and we had to co-ordinate the microwave with the washing machine (or tv). I couldn’t find anything and all our linens smelt mouldy and disgusting. I wanted to wash everything.

I saw a lot of Gaelle, and we swapped children every few days. Nora on holiday too, without her husband, in her summer house. One of the best bits was cooking, I loved the shopping, everything seemed so much fresher and easier to find than in Malaysia and the cousins, who were always hungry, praised my simple cooking. Where in England would you find a ten-year-old child who asked his aunt ‘So how did you make this sauce then?’

My mother-in-law had taken the cousins away for the last few years and we all assumed that she would cancel after being so ill. She had planned to go for three weeks with six cousins. None of us dared say no although we all wanted to, for the first time in ages I did not trust her. What happens if she drops into a coma while on holiday I asked Jacques. As a compromise she reduced it to just one week with the four oldest cousins, Francois, Marc, Nina and Manon. But in the stressful run-up to the holiday I told the children: ‘Enjoy it, it’s your last year with grandmere, she’s getting too old for this kind of thing…’ Naturally this message filtered through to Odile and she telephoned Gaelle and me in tears, only to be told, yes it’s true, it is the last time. It was a tense moment as Gaelle and I stuck to our refusal to continue as before. We had to make a stand or she would walk all over us.

I had hoped for a joyful reunion with my mother-in-law after our 2005 conflict, and her near-death in May, but it was not to be. Gaelle and Nora each had their own stories to add to the bubbling soup of gossip, it seemed like I was the not only one being criticized, in fact my greivences with her were nothing compared some other things she had done or said… When Jacques arrived at the end of August my mother-in-law complained to him about me but he just ignored it. She sulked and refused to attend his birthday party. I did it without her. I knew she was a sociable character who hated missing out on things so she would be furious at being out of the loop. It worked and she came over at 9am on the last Sunday asking to talk to me in private, and we had a heated discussion over her KL behaviour and my summer of ignoring her. When it was all over I felt better and we hugged and laughed like we had done before.

I went back to England too, it was my mum’s 65th birthday and we organized a party for her. Although I still could not get over the events of last year we managed to remain civil and the party was a success, Jayne and I each cooked two courses and bought a shared gift together. I realized how much my children enjoyed being with their grandparents and that they didn’t need me around, and we tentatively planned that next year the children would have holidays on their own, using the summer house as a base we could see each other without causing too much friction.

No one came to visit me in Caunay, I didn’t want to have any visitors except the French family, we were all in a state of cultural shock and I was mentally exhausted after leaving Malaysia for good, and we knew we had to recharge our batteries for the next part of our life in the USA…