On Thursday, I went to Back-to-School night for the twins. It was hard to find parking within 4 blocks in all directions of the junior high. Hundreds of parents shuffled their way through hallways and crammed into desks and around tables to hear their children’s teachers present the year to them. “This isn’t about your individual child,” the note home had warned. Instead, we went in groups to hear the teachers explain how This is the Year that would get Our Children Ready for High School!! We were also told that they always have home work, but I didn’t believe them because they just don’t always have homework.

I was inevitably reminded of back-to-school nights in Mauritania and Morocco, although this was bigger and less intimidating, since I understood every word. Donn and I split the load, as usual; he went to Abel’s teachers and I went to Ilsa’s; we saw each other in the gym for electives and in the cafeteria for a word from the principal (who is a giant, but genial).

Posters in the room trumpeted the importance of diversity, acceptance, and respect. Pictures of ice-cream cones illustrated the concept of “Proficient,” “Novice,” “Working towards Proficiency,” etc. We’ve had numerous notes home explaining that this is the new grading system. The “Novice” poster showed an enormous cone with one scoop—I couldn’t see that as an incentive to try for Proficiency, which had 8 scoops, syrup, and chocolate sprinkles and was in no way edible without making a huge mess. But I was beginning to suspect my attitude by that point. I just wasn’t feeling the group enthusiasm. In fact, I was downright grumpy, mixed in with a little smug.

All the teachers went on and on about what a Great Enormous Privilege and Honor it was that we were entrusting them with our precious darlings for hours on end every day. And I had another mental eye roll. Because, come on. I know many teachers love what they do (all they need are minds to mould!) and all that, and I know the pay is crummy and yet they persevere and spend their own money on Kleenex and extra pencils, but come on. It’s their JOB and they do it to pay the bills. I love teaching ESL and I have loved most of my students, although I did have a really hard time with the young Mauritanian man who would stick his pen up his nose during class. But I didn’t view it as a Great Honor. I suppose you have to tell yourself something to make yourself enter a junior high school every morning.

The math teacher explained that each test can be retaken once with no penalties at any point between now and the end of the year. “That way, the child can be sure that he or she really has learned the concepts,” she explained.

The social studies teacher explained that basically, you can’t read enough. I actually rolled my eyes at that and I think she saw me. This is ironic because I am a voracious reader, an omnivorous reader, someone who always has a book tucked in her purse or in the car door, just in case. For a long time, I bought into the myth that you can never read too much. I felt very virtuous. I not only read to my children—I modeled reading to them. No matter my other failings, I was doing that right. Then I realized that, uh, yes you can read too much, as I glanced round at my neglected house and family. And Ilsa can read too much—she who packs 16 books for a 3-day weekend, who has at least 2 books on her at all times in case she finishes one, who embarrasses her brothers when it takes 4 of us to get her library books out to the car. So we don’t have to worry about her reading enough, is what I’m saying.

I chatted with this teacher later. She knew my daughter right off. “She reads in class,” she told me. “What?” I gasped. “Oh it’s okay!” She patted my arm. “I told her as long as she can pay attention to what’s going on, she can read.”

Ironically, this woman is not Ilsa’s favorite teacher. Ilsa feels her class is undisciplined.

I walked down the hall towards the gym, where I would meet the choir and art and P.E. teachers, and I ran into some friends of mine, a couple who also have an 8th-grade daughter. We chatted a bit about the last meeting. I commented on how amazing it is that they can retake tests. “Wish I could have done that!” I joked.

“Isn’t it great?”  enthused the dad (inner eye roll from me). “After all,” he went on, “the point is that they learn the concepts, not the grade. This way, they really get it.”

Oh yeah. Guess that is the point.

So I had to change my grumpy attitude and stop rolling my eyes. And, considering that the Nomad family as a whole is extremely math-challenged (except for Donn, who can add things in his head), I have a suspicion we might be availing ourselves of this do-over option several times this year.

And, after the rigor and stress of the French system, I think that at least one of my children is relaxing and expanding in the warm-bath atmosphere of the American school.

Because it’s not about the grade! It’s about the giant ice cream cones. And I can live with that.

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