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.

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