|1st day of school-- September 2011|
Also because the number one question I get asked by friends and family back home is about the difference between the Dutch and American school year calendar.
OK, no, it isn't. It's whether or not the kids are speaking Dutch yet.
The short answer is: yes, and seriously people, it's super weird. The long answer is, well...the rest of this blog post. I've been working on this post for a LONG time. Or rather, I've been not working on this post for a long time-- dragging, and avoiding, and procrastinating, and generally not wanting to write about it. It finally occurred to me that I didn't want to write it because it's just not funny. Oh, I wish it was. Trust me, I would love nothing better than to entertain you with the sheer hilarity of it all. As I told a friend recently, this post is mostly about sifting through the emotional consequences of dragging your kids through an international move to fulfill your own selfish desires-- you know, comedy gold. Also, there are aspects of their education here which I'm still trying to sort how how I feel about; it's not so easy to articulate. Anyway, this is the story of our first year in Dutch schools. It goes like this:
Way back when, when we found out we were moving to Amsterdam, it didn't look like we were going to get the rockstar relocation package which, among other things, includes paid-tuition for a private international school. Mostly we were OK with this, since of our intentions in moving abroad was to fully expose our children to a new culture and language. I had scoured blogs and articles about families living "alternative" international lifestyles, and they all sung the praises of the "resiliency and flexibility" of their children who never resisted or dug-in their heels to change, and were always blissfully curious and adventure-seeking. My kids are going to be resilient and flexible too! is what I told myself. And if not, I'll force them, because that usually works.
I researched a little about schools in the Netherlands until I got overwhelmed/scared. Not because schools are bad here (the Netherlands ranks well above the US in education), but because, you know, it's in another language. It got a bit more difficult to ignore that nagging feeling that this might be hard, like really freaking hard. Best not to think about that, I told myself. Remember how resilient your children are in your imagination? Focus on that. So that is what I did when it was time to finalize the details and sign the contract. We were incredibly fortunate to have Mark's company pay for our relocation, but they couldn't foot the bill for private education, and neither could we. And so, we put our kids in public school here, mostly by choice, partly by no-choice.
Either way, in our minds, our kids were so lucky to be have to this amazing, life-altering experience of leaving everything they knew and loved, to be plucked down in a foreign land and in a school where they couldn't understand a word being said. Naturally, they were thrilled about it too!
No, sorry. That was a lie. They were positively terrified.
But I'm jumping ahead, and here's where I have to condense things a little, or this could take years. Once we arrived, we found out we had 4 days to find a school because the school term was ending, and all the school offices would close. After running around in circles trying to figure out the maddening bureaucracy of the education system here, being told constantly that schools were too full, and shedding many buckets of tears, we finally returned to one of the first schools we ever contacted, and not only were they amazingly helpful, but they had room for our kids, and had also looked into government programs for helping our kids learn Dutch.
That's how we learned about the Dutch Immersion school that Mia (9) and Sam (6) went to this year. It is offered as part of the public education system for kids who are non-native Dutch speakers above the age of 6. It is approximately a 1 year program, and the focus is on intense language acquisition. They also do some math, physical education, swimming, and cultural instruction. After 3-4 months, they start attending a regular public school once a week, and after about a year they are ready to attend regular public school full time.
So this seemed like the perfect solution: Mia and Sam would attend the immersion school, and eventually attend the local school on Fridays, until the next school year. Nate (3 at the time) was still young enough that attending a Dutch preschool was the best option to learn the language. (More on Nate in part II.)
Except the kids were terrified. And I admit, that I was too. Just a little.
They complained loudly, and often, all through August. "Why do we have to learn Dutch? Why can't we just go to an English school? When are we going back to America? You call this stuff syrup?" (Syrup here tastes a lot like molasses.)
And I would worry to myself, inaudibly, but just as often, and mostly in the middle of the night. What am I about to put my kids through? What if this scars them for life? Will they ever forgive us? Why am I turning out to be such wimp?
To give you the raw, in-the-moment feel for things, here is an excerpt from an email I wrote at the time to some friends:
So, the kids: With out other people to distract them, they focus intensely on each other, which most of the time is a bad thing. Since we've arrived, they have each gone through a difficult period as a reaction to the move. Mia became intensely volatile. There was a few weeks where she would get angry and scream that she hated me multiple times a day. Often before we even had breakfast. Sam already had a short fuse before we moved, but his temper has turned into something nasty. There is no build-up for him. It is instantaneous fire-breathing hell-bent destructive fury. And even Nate has become clingy, whiny, and demanding. Luckily, they've moved through these phases at different times, so they weren't all in a bad place at the same time.
The kids started school last week, and seriously I didn't think we would survive even one more day at home together. I have never looked forward to something so much. At the same time, it was pretty gut-wrenching and difficult to leave them there. The night before I had the sad realization that I was sending Sam off to his first all-day school experience with almost no preparation. In the states he would be going into kindergarten as a 6 year old with speech difficulties, possible attention issues, and no reading skills. Here, he is in the equivalent of 1st grade, and is having to learn and read in a different language. Did I mention I worry about attention issues with him? I dropped him off with this feeling of despair; that I'm just throwing him to the wolves to be eaten alive. Everyday I asked him for a thumbs up or thumbs down report, and it took 4 days to give a thumbs up. His teacher hasn't talked to me about any major problems, so I guess we'll just wait and see. I still wonder how it's all going to work out for him, learning to read in a 2nd language when he doesn't even read in English yet. Also, since they spend the entire year learning dutch, and focusing a little on reading and math as well, it means that both kids will probably be a little behind next year. For Mia, I'm not so worried since she has done so well in school, but with Sam I really worry about that. I worry that it will mess up his earliest experiences with reading and writing, and he will never enjoy them and always struggle, and blame us forever. Does it sound like I am tormenting myself by dwelling on the worst possible outcome? Well, yes, I tend to do that as a parent. It's hard not to, especially when I'm in completely new parenting situations, and I don't have a lot of clear examples of how this is going to work out.
Mia is so difficult for me to handle now, that most of our disciplinary interactions leave me in tears because she is so nasty and disrespectful. I know it sounds cliche, but even in high school I don't remember being as rude to my mom as she can be to me. Now, much of the time, she's very helpful and cheerful, it's been good since school started mostly. But when she gets in her mood and I need to get after her for doing something bad (usually hurting Sam or Nate, or calling names), she turns on me and won't let up until I'm the one in tears. And it's quite a wound to my pride to even have to admit this. Lecturing does NOT work with her at all. I've tried writing her letters, and she hates that. She will not talk about what upsets her so much. She's almost 9, and just in the past little while I can tell that our relationship is changing. She doesn't want to hold hands or cuddle with me as much. She's started to tell me things about me or Mark that she thinks are annoying. I can tell she is entering the tween zone, where toys are not as fun for her, but she hasn't figured out yet what to replace them with. (This is another thing about the move that is stressful for me-- we don't have any extracurricular activities right now, and finding some is quite an undertaking here with the language barriers.) Basically, I've got a sassy drama queen maladjusted to a stressful international move, and there are days where I wonder if my family is going to implode here.
Most of the time, I try to pep-talk myself, and focus on the positive experience that it's going to end up being for everyone, and try to convince myself that I am the kind of person who can turn our dreams into reality without fearing the unknown. But there are little moments that sneak up on me and either leave me crying or scared out of my mind.That was at the beginning. There were many days I dragged them to school and deposited them inside the threshold, and walked away pretending not to hear their begging and crying. Then I would get on the bus and cry myself.
"Don't make us go. They yell at us," they would say. "That's just Dutch; it's just the way it sounds," I would respond.
"We don't learn anything!"
"You just don't think you learn anything. but you do."
It was a painful adjustment, that first month of school, punctuated by the onset of nervous habits, increased outbursts and tantrums, and excessive clinginess. At times it seemed my kids were case-studies of anxiety-induced neurosis, and I was getting no sleep.
Eventually, that amazing resiliency I was hoping for kicked in. Gradually, slowly, they relaxed, stopped complaining (as much), made a few friends, and when they didn't think anyone was looking, kind of enjoyed themselves. Mia was still adamant that she wanted to move back to the US, and there were still a few outbursts, but by the time we went to England for Christmas, I was feeling pretty good about how things were going. As I would tell most everyone at the time, each day got a little bit better. I was surprised they weren't speaking Dutch fluently, but their comprehension had reached the level where they were approved to start attending our local school on Fridays. They were scheduled to start in January. It seemed we were going to get through this.
By now, you've all heard the term 'double-dip recession' right?
Yep, that's where we're going.
Of course they didn't want to start at the Friday school. It was a new school all over again-- new teachers, new friends, new routines and rules, and they were not excited about doing all that for a second time in 4 months.
So as expected, at first it was hard. but then it started getting worse. Especially with Mia.
On Thursdays after school she was all smiles, but often by the time we got to the end of our bus ride, a completely different child got off. A disaster of a child, and we all dreaded what was coming. Sometimes it was tantrums, sometimes it was endless teasing and taunting of Sam and Nate, a lot of times it was yelling, but it always dissolved into an epic melt-down by bedtime. I started to hate Thursday afternoons. Friday mornings were the worst though. The crying began as soon as she woke up, and lasted until I had to shove her through the door of her class and run away. Sam would put up his own kind of fight-- dragging and stalling, running away from me at school to hide.
I would come home on Friday mornings and feel drained for hours, from the sheer emotional exhaustion of holding it together for my kids. I didn't always hold it together though. Those were not good days.
Friday afternoon would bring happy children and relaxed moods, and we would repeat the cycle every week. I knew their teachers were trying hard to make them feel welcome, and the kids at school were being friendly, but no matter how non-nightmarish is was on Friday, they would have an entire week to forget. They were the new kids every week.
In February, it was time for parent-teacher conferences. I braced myself for the meeting with Sam's teacher. I knew what she was going to say: he doesn't pay attention, he's never on task, he's way behind, we can't understand him, his pronunciation is a mess. You've made a big mistake. This kid needs serious help.
I wasn't prepared to hear: We love Sam! He is a joy to have in class. His Dutch is coming along wonderfully. He always pays attention and knows what's going on. OK, his handwriting is atrocious, but everything else is wonderful.
And I was also surprised to hear from Mia's teacher: She never speaks. Ever. She's extremely withdrawn. I can tell she is smart, but she will not try anything vocally. I'm quite concerned about her. Is she like this at home?
It was like I didn't even know my own children. They behaved so differently at school. In Sam's case I was thrilled, and also a little bewildered. In Mia's case, entirely disheartened.
Soon the Thursday night-Friday morning drama started to spread to other days, and we were dealing with outbursts all the time. Mia would tell me she hated me at least 3 times a day. She started coming home and changing into her pajamas immediately, lost all interest in doing things she used to enjoy, and hated to leave the house. She wanted to watch movies all day long.
Suddenly all that resiliency and flexibility were nowhere to be found. It seemed my little girl was falling apart. I talked to a friend and found about 9 year old angst (turns out it's a thing). We got a book about feelings. Still, things were touchy for a long time.
Mia's birthday was this week. She spent the day wishing she was 10. I guess childhood is losing its grip on her. She had another big emotional breakdown this week over school-- the process of learning Dutch has been quite traumatic for her, and when she's upset about something she will do just about everything she can to make sure everyone around her is miserable just like her. So we had a rough day this week, and I held it together and dealt with her with love and super patience, until is wore me out and then I had a little private breakdown. I hope that girl starts speaking Dutch soon. If she doesn't, I 'm not sure if we'll all survive it.
...Once again feeling like the world's crappiest mom lately. Being told "I hate you" by Mia multiple times a day might have something to do with it. I'm sure Pinterest does too.
...Mia is my child who breaks me. She pushes every button she can, she has so much turmoil inside her, and deals with it all in the most dramatic way possible so as many people (but especially me) will be pulled into her misery. For the past few months this has felt like a daily occurrence, though I know we've had some good days, but I'm tired of the struggle. I am never enough, I cannot do enough, and I am at a complete loss as to how to deal with, and love, my own child. All I can do is get up and try again and again.
Aaahhh, things were beginning to click.
Mia is not one of those flexible kids.
She fears new and unknown situations, and doesn't like not knowing what is going on, or what to do.
When she is overwhelmed or intimidated with a task or challenge, she immediately tells herself she can't do it, and gives up. This usually involves a big tantrum or emotional outburst, until she eventually tries it. It is a painful, drawn-out process.
She feels the need to do something well, even the first time, and is very afraid of doing something wrong or looking stupid.
I somehow thought that moving here would help her get past all those things. Maybe it will eventually, but for now we have to learn to deal with her anxiety. (You can imagine how much she is looking forward to our trip this August. Spoiler: she's not.)
Only recently it occurred to me that before moving here, she was a super star at spelling and reading, while struggling a bit with math. Once she started school here, her strength in spelling and reading didn't mean much in a different language, and her struggles with math intensified because of the language barrier. Basically, her strength was minimized, and her weakness magnified. Also, I'm sure on some level she was jealous that Sam seemed to be adjusting and learning Dutch just fine. Add to that everything else, and being 9, and it's amazing she was ever happy.
So we got her a dutch tutor. I helped her with math. Slowly the drama started to decrease, and things did get a little better, for a while. The last month has been difficult again on Fridays. Last Friday was her last day and she cried the whole morning before we left. Maybe in a few months I'll have another epiphany and will figure out what was going on, well after the fact. The person who invents some sort of bio-metric digital sensor that works just like a thermometer, but gives you the emotional/developmental reading of your child-- that person will be a bazillionaire.
So, somewhere in there, the kids started to speak dutch. It wasn't sudden-- they'd been throwing words and little phrases around for a while, translating things for us, and calling each other names. But one day, a teacher came up to Sam after school and started speaking to him. And he responded in Dutch. I listened to them have an entire conversation I didn't understand, and was completely floored. It is the strangest thing to hear words coming out of your child's mouth that you don't understand but other people do. Especially with Sam, I'm used to it being the other way around. Another day, we met some kids on the way home selling cards for a fundraiser. Mia asked them all about it-- what they were selling and how much, what it was for and which organization. We bought their cards. It was the first time I had ever seen Mia talk in Dutch without any resistance. And then I realized one day that Sam was reading in Dutch. Wait Sam, you can read?! And then one day he read me a children's Early Reader book in English. Blew my freaking mind.
Things like this started happening more and more, but it still amazed me every time.
So where are they now? Mia has told me that she doesn't remember when she didn't understand Dutch even though 10 months ago she didn't understand or speak it at all. I don't know how high their fluency is, but they are comfortable enough to make fun of us and our feeble attempts to speak Dutch. Sometimes they speak Dutch to each other when they don't want us to know what they're talking about. They still aren't entirely comfortable expressing themselves, and will revert to English if they are unsure of how to say something. Sam is reading in Dutch and English. Mia has forgotten how to spell words she used to know in English, and occasionally forgets words in English entirely. That difficult guttural Dutch g sound? They pull it off effortlessly. Mia's principal told me last week that Mia was reading above her grade level. Now they are in the last level of the immersion program. They will continue in September, and hopefully transition to the local school full-time in October. They still swear they hate going, although Sam mostly says he hates it because Mia does. He actually really likes it.
Even with all the emotional stuff, I'm here to tell you that a child's brain is an amazing thing. Dutch and English are remarkably similar, many words are exactly the same even, or very close. The sentence structure though? I would come home from my Dutch class terribly depressed about the prospects of my kids ever speaking it. If it seemed that difficult for me to grasp, how in the world were they going to figure it out? I mean, I was college educated and everything! But as it turns out, this is one of those areas where children excel, thanks to their crazy, language-absorbing brains. My kids, whose reading and vocabulary levels are far below my own, had a huge advantage just by being kids. But even still, I'm super, insanely proud of them. They now speak a second language, and some days I just can't get over that. Crazy!
Incidentally, tomorrow is our 1 year anniversary of arriving here in the Netherlands. I know it sounds like I just whined and complained about the whole experience, but I don't regret it. Parenting is challenging no matter where you live-- we just added an extra fun layer to it all, thousands of miles away from our family and friends. We made it through a year more or less (maybe less), a little dazed, and trying to sort through what it is we just put our family through. It's been incredible, and hard. Like really freaking incredible, and hard. I admit even writing this has made me pretty emotional. I could use someone to put their arm around me and tell me:
Stop crying, loser.
Soon you will all be happily adjusted, the kids will find it strange that they once only spoke 1 language, and you will worry about having to go back to the US and the sorry public education system there.
You've just been through the part that sucks, where you didn't get much sleep and you worried a lot and your kids went kind of ballistic.
But, you will come out on the other side, amazed and happy.
And that color really brings out your eyes, and what moisturizer are you using because your skin looks amazing! When it's not all blotchy from crying, I mean. You really should stop that, it's all going to be OK. Just imagine that you are really resilient and flexible. I hear that helps.
* Next up: Part II, in which I give a quick update on Nate, post a boat-load of videos that will probably crash your computer, and inundate you with observations about the Dutch education system. Tantalizing, yes?