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School zones stress me out. I am not sure of how to behave when dropping off my children. I’m used to more of a free-for-all, of cars jostling one another over mere inches of space, of people turning off their engines and leaving their cars in the middle of the street while behind them, everyone else leans on their horns in frustration. In this environment, I knew that there was basically no possibility I would stress out those around me by my risk-taking. I knew I was the uptight one. But this orderly, patient, and above all quiet procession of mini vans and SUVs through a wide loop that passes in front of the school doors unnerves me. It moves slowly, so I avoid it and pull to the side of the street to drop off the twins. A woman parked behind me shoots me a glance, a hint of shock and wonder in it, and I wonder what I’m doing wrong. I run through possibilities in my mind and come up blank.

I know I look normal to those around me. A mother, unshowered and in yoga pants (Elliot has to be there by 7:30; I’m more put together when I take the twins by 9), driving a mini van that you can’t tell is borrowed. No one gives me a second look. If I were to open my window and ask a question of the man in the bright yellow reflective vest, who is gesturing impatiently at me to keep moving while I carefully obey the stop sign, he wouldn’t blink twice. I look American. I sound American.

When I go into the schools and talk to the people in the office, I feel the same way. Lost, adrift at sea, in the fog. I tell them we’re new, but they don’t know how new.

I saw a sign in the window of a trendy upscale shop the other day: Do something that scares you every day. I thought it was one of the stupidest bits of advice I’d ever seen, come in with by someone in a cozy office who probably drives a new car with new tires and has insurance for every possible outcome. Things scare you for a good reason probably, unless you’re unusually timid. And the reason these school zones stress me out is because there are a ton of laws associated with them, and also I don’t want to be known at the school as Crazy Driver Woman. Or, this being Oregon, probably something less family friendly but expressing the same idea. I’m fine with going 20 (20ish) when the yellow lights are flashing and not passing school busses when stopped, but I don’t know if I can just pull up into the bus zone to drop off my kids, briefly, me not leaving the car or turning off my engine, or if I’m supposed to wait behind the car with the slower kids hunting for dropped papers even though Elliot is already inside the school, and I would pass on the non-kid side.

Maybe I’m scared of their looks. Maybe I shouldn’t be. But I just want to fit in. I’m tired of feeling overwhelmed in Target. (I mean, who feels overwhelmed in Target?) I’m tired of feeling so strange and out of place when I look so right.

Once we move into our house, they’re going to take the bus.

***

Yesterday a friend dropped by unexpectedly and took me out for lunch. We discussed in the car where we were going–sandwiches, Mexican, Indian buffet, which? We chose Thai food—spring rolls, panang curry. Afterwards we had iced coffees at Starbucks and wandered round a store when they had a plethora of fabric shower curtains on sale. If I could remember what my new bathrooms look like (we looked at a lot of houses in a few days), I would have bought one. I hunted all over Rabat—I believe I visited every single store there that sold shower curtains, before finally finding one in plain white. The shop keepers obviously thought I was fussy because I categorically refused even a hint of neon pink and green flowers, ducks, or navy blue and gold stripes. Fabric curtains weren’t even an option, and I bought the store model, literally the only plain white one in the city.

Sometimes choice is nice.

What do you do that scares you? Drive without insurance? Forget to pay your bills, just this month only? Walk into your kids’ school wearing the completely-inappropriate Marie Antoinette costume I saw advertised for Halloween? Or do you think the shop was talking about buying a pair of red boots instead of black? And are red boots even scary? Discuss in comments.

Ilsa has done the following class work in the 4 first days of school: written a paper on herself for English class, done a collage on herself for Social Studies, written 3 things about herself on an index card for “extension” class. (which is sort of like Study Hall, only more formal) Abel has brought home syllabus after syllabus for me to sign. “Congratulations!” they say at the top. “You made it to 8th Grade!” They all let us know that no hate speech of any kind, no sexual harassment, will be tolerated. None of them tell us what books the children will be reading, or what topics they will be studying.

Elliot shows me something for his Spanish class. It lists the books he will need (provided by the school—in Morocco and Mauritania, we had to buy our own, so this is nice!), suggests a few things, like a dictionary, and says to always bring your P.R.I.D.E. to class! I forget what the letters stand for…good things, like Respect and Individualism—no wait Integrity!—and Excellence and stuff like that. Don’t forget! It says.

These are some scenarios from their past life:

  • When Ilsa was in first grade, her teacher told the class they had to write their names on all their papers. Ilsa forgot one day. It was obvious that the paper was hers, since it was the only one without a name, but the teacher tore it up in front of the class and dropped it in the trash. Ilsa never forgot to write her name after that. (Aside: she was an excellent teacher and adored Ilsa.)
  • Last year, Ilsa had a teacher that told them, “You’re the worst class in the school! I won’t tell people I teach you because you embarrass me!” Ilsa just rolled her eyes. “That teacher is so mean!” she told me.
  • Abel had to do a dictation. He got about 70-80% of it right. But the teacher took a full mark (out of 20; French schools grade over 20) for every little accent mark, and gave him a 0. Others have told me it’s not uncommon to get a test grade of 3 or 4 over 20, even if you participate in class every day and are on time and have a good attitude.

In spite of these supposedly soul-shattering moments, my children do not, as of yet, suffer from low self esteem. They’re normal, healthy. They will chatter (nonstop!) at you if you give them half a chance, tell you about their new schools, or which games they like or books they’ve read. Ilsa entered a writing contest and expected to win, although she didn’t. She’s not crushed though. We talked about it, and she knew it was always a strong possibility. It’s true they’ve gotten plenty of positive affirmation, a lot of it from their teachers, but I don’t think I’ve prepared them for the barrage they’re getting now.

I can’t help but worry a little. One thing I know: the more you look at yourself, the worse you will feel about yourself. I learned as a teen that staring at myself in a mirror, looking for flaws to fix, only plunged me into depression. I still always leave hair salons subdued from having to stare at myself in a mirror for half an hour. Is my nose really that big? Shouldn’t I be done with zits by now? And low self-esteem is really just a flip side of high self-esteem—either way you think about yourself an inordinate amount of time. Either way you’re not a lot of fun to be with.

I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. A child runs into a house carrying an enormous trophy, bigger than himself. “We lost!” he announces.

I suppose I’m getting to the age where it’s normal to worry about the next generation. I’m sure they’ll all be fine, all these little narcissists. I’m sure they won’t be narcissists, and that I’m just cranky and crochety and still in reverse culture shock. But I can’t help wondering if we haven’t swung the pendulum too far, and if all this emphasis on feeling good about yourself might end up having the opposite effect.

The house is quiet and smells of cleaning agents. In the background, machines hum busily—washing machine, dryer, dishwasher. All doing for me what I no longer need to do for myself, although just between you and me I find rinsing dishes and loading and unloading a dishwasher to be just as much work as simply plunging my hands in some warm sudsy water and washing them myself.

Outside are leaves, still green and shapely but tinged with yellow at their edges, outlined against a grey sky. Already it is fall and the air is cold. We’ve had days of rain, and I’ve cursed my glittery sandals, so lovely and summery in their season, so inadequate against a suddenly-formed puddle. My boots are in the container, a giant tin box still riding the waves somewhere in the Atlantic. ON the Atlantic, I mean. I have caught a truly impressive cold, and have managed to lose most of my voice, and catch sharp daggers in my throat with every swallow.

The kids are in school. It took some time. First we realized we couldn’t get that house I mentioned, and I had to give up my dream of certain specific schools and settle for other specific schools, although still in the same generally-excellent school district. But there are strict neighbourhood zones and we couldn’t find a house to match nor prove that we were living where we needed to be.

Their new schools are fine. Elliot had to start a day late because he had to see an academic counselor before he could get his schedule. He has college level history, which does not make sense to me since he is a sophomore. He is peer-tutoring a beginning French class, and tells me with amusement how his classmates pronounce “et toi” as it is spelled in English.

He tells me how the principal told them, in a class assembly, that as sophomores, they’re like middle children, overlooked, neither the “new baby” freshmen or the attention-garnering seniors. “But he’s going to change this—so everyone can feel successful!” Elliot reports. I roll my eyes. So American!

The twins come home their first day excited, chattering. Ilsa has 2 new friends. Abel loves his homeroom teacher. She is so different from a French teacher, he tells me. If you forget a pen or pencil, you can either buy one off her special supply, or you can borrow one—you leave a shoe at the front of the classroom so you remember to return it. We all laugh about this, as French teachers scold you pretty hard if you show up without any writing utensils. In fact, all 3 expressed varying degrees of shock at how nice and friendly the American teachers were. (This is not to put down French teachers. I think their goal in a classroom is to educate children, and they feel being nice and friendly distracts from this) Ilsa was unimpressed with one of her teachers, and said she needed to yell at her classroom to restore order. Elliot said, “I was hoping the French teacher would yell. That would have relaxed me, made me feel at home.” He added, “She’s English, you know, not French after all.”

Their list of school supplies is much smaller and less specific. No fountain pens are needed, although Ilsa takes an old one in her trousse (pencil case). Everyone is excited to have a locker.

We’ve found a different house. I believe most people would feel this house to be better than the other—it’s bigger, newer, and cheaper. We’re excited about it, but both Donn and I love older houses, with hardwood floors and funky bits of personality that are theirs alone. This one doesn’t really have much personality. It’s a blank slate, and we’ll add our own to it soon enough I’m sure. Which do you prefer?

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