Tuesday, September 8, 2009

School Days

In case you've joined us late, much of the subtext of this blog was more humorously expressed in the scene in Pulp Fiction where J. Travolta and S.L. Jackson discuss the "little differences" between the US and Europe. I got an eyeful of these little things the other morning, because it was Adinah's first day of First Grade.

It began in church.

Being both an American and an avowed Satanist, I should have burst into flames as soon as we walked into the joint. But I survived long enough to hear the school's religion teacher lead the kids in a song about how the (Christian) God will help all children. I even stood up for it. Then I started wondering how I would feel about all of this if I was Muslim. Then I sat down.

It's not that I'm godless. I just care less for religion when it's used as a blunt instrument. And I won't let my dark-skinned daughter be seduced or cajoled into any of the ideological rat paths of this deeply Catholic, conservative and racist country.

I watched Adinah's eyes as she watched the well-combed goodie-goodies from the older grades at her new school, as they marched up to the lecturn to recite epithets and other monkey tricks. It looked like she was taking notes on who is cool and how they get points from their parents.

It could only get better from there. And it did.

One of the other differences about the first day of school in Vienna is that the kids only really go for about an hour. And they can bring their parents and little sisters along for the fun!

So after the Mass, Adinah, V., Anette and I crossed the street and piled into a classroom with twenty-two other kids, and a couple dozen parents and assorted close relatives, to meet Adinah's new teachers. Before they came in to introduce themselves, I crouched in a corner and photographed Adinah, as she grinned and worked her corner of the room: Oskar, Teresa, Susanna and Magdalena--all her best friends from kindergarten, all sitting next to her! She looked like she was already preparing to announce her candidacy for First Grade Class President.

This is more like it, I thought. I always liked school, and I never had any doubts that Adinah would like it too.

The teachers came in and said hello, and I was especially pleased to see that Adinah will have a good, and good-humored, English teacher. The most moving moment for me, though, was watching the teacher call the roll, which she did by taking each of 23 name cards off of the white board, showing the written name to the class, then calling out the name.

Some of the boys and girls stood up and walked to the head of the class to get their cards as soon as they saw her reaching for what they recognized to be their names; some had to wait until she spoke their names; and a couple were still staring into space even after she'd called their names twice. Anette told me later that some of the kids may not understand much German, let alone English.

It was like watching these kids, in the first moments of their Austrian personhood, already slipping into the familiar dramatis personae of any classroom anywhere in the world: the Smarty Pants, the Class Clown, the Loser, the Princess, the Secret Weapon, the Heroine. It was sweet, and heartbreaking. There was something both reassuring and quietly terrible about it.

School can be so brutal, these roles so imprisoning.

There I was, squatting in a corner in a Viennese public school classroom, thinking about the way that kids grow into big people. I should have just been proud of my eager, bilingual and beautiful 6 and 1/2 year-old-daughter. Instead, I found myself hoping that it won't be too painful and difficult for her, and her classmates, to find out who they are.


Expat Traveler said...

This is so interesting for sure! I just can't imagine growing up truely bilingual. I took French 2 days a week and still can speak most of it the same as in English, but just the simple tenses. My parents researched schools and put us in a school that did not teach religion. I think we really prospered and I am so happy to have had so many extra activities in it's place... I hope it won't be too bad for your daughter..

I can imagine how adorable she is! Good luck with the year, it will be exciting.

pat said...

Thanks exPat! Adinah will not atend he religion class at her school, and that's okay, I think. Now we just have to decide between singing, flute and dancing classes!

Kat said...

I think that being able to take singing, flute, or dancing will compensate for the presence of prayer! (I wish these were options here...)

When Carter first started kindergarten, I remember feeling distinctly woozy that I was feeding my kid into The Machine. AND I was happy to watch him love school. Both things at once -- which has been the essence of parenthood for me so far. A lovely schizophrenia.