Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Like Coming Up for Air, Occasionally

Learning another language -- or being the midst of understanding it half-assedly -- is like trying to listen to a conversation while swimming. (Since we have the pool now, you can bet many of my metaphors will be about swimming...) Even if you're keeping your head above water and not dipping below the surface, you'll only catch about half of what's going on.

That can get you into trouble, say, when you enlist someone to buy you a few groceries and tell them you expect change -- but they instead spend all the money on even more food. Or when you tell someone you want to talk to their boss and they think they're suddenly in trouble -- so you know you've committed some lingual faux pas. Oops.

Much like i've done in years past in my own country, tonight i went to the meeting of the PTA at my daughter's school. Here it is called "Padres y Profes," though since only one father showed up in a sea of madres, it should be more accurately called "Madres y Profes y un Padre." But even when there is one male in the room, you must submit to calling the group "padres." The nuances of a male-oriented language...

Anyway. The school my daughter is attending is a tiny international school not far from our house. There are five kids in her class, and a combination of grades four and five at that. I chose it -- and this city -- because it offers a curriculum that is much like what she had at her bilingual school back home. Half the day in English, half in Spanish. Activities like Halloween and crazy hair day, and kids who are mostly locals or of foreign-born parents who live here full-time but still have a grasp of Norteamericano culture. I had no objection to public school, but this seemed to be the best fit.

While my understanding of what other parents said tonight was like swimming with your head only occasionally peeking above the surface of the water, what i got was that public school is a far, far cry from what our international school offers.

One mother talked about her child being bullied by other kids and even teachers at her public school. Another talked about the public schools' laissez-faire attitude toward student success, and how a student could repeat the same grade over and over with really no consequences. True, i've already met 12-year-olds who are in 3rd or 4th grade. My daughter has a 10-year-old friend who is in 1st, and we already know countless kids who don't seem to go to school at all -- even in spite of free public education for all.

It's things like this that make me want to cry out and to ask more questions, but i am at the same time swimming, swimming, barely afloat. Catching a verb and unpacking it slowly to find out whether it was past tense or future. Digging deep to remember this noun or that adjective. Feeling hot sweat when asked to share my own feelings, in Spanish, among a group of native speakers. Now i truly understand why the PTA at our school in Portland had a recap, in Spanish, of what happened at the last PTA meeting for the non-native speakers. Keeping up in the moment can make you feel like you're drowning.

Maybe in the future i will get to ask deeper questions that reach to the heart of what's happening in the public schools here. For now, i tread water and send more gratitude to the universe that my daughter has so much support in keeping her afloat...

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