Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 29: First day of nursery school

In a past post I talked about the general preschool options for our son in Bogota. We were hoping to snag a spot at one of the public preschools in our neighborhood, but we had no such luck. While we were waiting for the verdict from one of those public centers, my wife had been investigating the private options in our area. There was one place that bragged about teaching computers and math to one-year-olds. That wasn't too appealing to us. Another place was a bit more relaxed, and had fun activities like arts and stuff, but the building had a lot of stairs, so they kept the little kids Sam's age in one room all day so they wouldn't fall and get hurt. Caro liked the environment there, but a big part of the reason we wanted to start Sam in school was so he wouldn't be confined to our apartment all the time. Having him cooped up in a room in another place would hardly be an ideal alternative.

The choice we finally settled on is a sort of alternative school, but not so much that it offends me. The professors seem loving yet not afraid to lay down the law. Caro was sold when she went to visit the place and saw a dance class of cute, clumsy 1-year-olds. The dance instructor was telling them to touch their hips, and some were touching their knees, some their noses, and others were just sitting on the ground after falling down. I think it was this combination of ambitious activities (dance, singing, playing with dough, etc.), and a recognition that the little kids aren't all going to follow the plan exactly, that attracted my wife to this school.

All of the options were equally expensive (over $300US monthly as opposed to the $50-100US we'd be paying back in our small hometown), so in the end we went with this last choice that my wife liked the best. I scheduled my work so I could be in Bogota to take Sam to his first day of school. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I want to be there for his first and last day of school.

On the big morning Caro and I packed Sam's bag and the three of us walked hand-in-hand the three blocks to the nursery school. Caro's mom and her husband also accompanied us. When we got there most of Sam's cohort had not yet arrived, so we put him near the bin of balls (you know those plastic balls in a pool-like enclosure like they have at Chucky Cheese) with the group just above him. Sam was fascinated by the balls and the other kids, and he tentatively approached some of his colleagues to request the balls they were holding. A few obliged, but in general the other kids sort of ignored him. It made me wonder how my son will be as a social being. Will he be awkward, afraid to introduce himself to new people, as I was for most of my conscious childhood? Will he be forthright and charismatic? As I watched him teeter about ignored by the others, I dreaded the third option, that he might be very earnest and direct, only to be rejected by cooler, cynical kids. I didn't get too worried though; my mother tells me I was very outgoing in my preschool, even on the first day, which seems to have had little bearing on my timid behavior later on in life. Perhaps Sam's experience on his first day of nursery school at one year of age will not definitively determine his social success for the next 80 years.

Something I noticed as Sam hung out with the bigger kids (from 22 to 28 months or so) was that they weren't much bigger physically than he is. I wondered if this was because he is such a big kid, but when we finally put him with the kids his age, he wasn't much bigger than any of them, either. I posited that maybe the second year of life is a time of much developmental growth, but not such large physical size increments.

We left our son with the kids of his group in the school's patio, where he played on big wheel tricycles and ignored the other kids. The group's teacher took us to the office, went over some paperwork with us, and tried to prepare us emotionally for this milestone in Sam's life. She warned us that for the first few days his sleeping and eating patterns would change, and he'd sometimes be cranky or sad or even have nightmares. She told us that he'd be going through a sort of mourning process, as he got accustomed to new routines and more time apart from us. It struck me that much of childrearing (perhaps much of life in general) is subjecting your child and yourself to increasing periods of separation, of letting go, and dealing with the emotional turmoil of it. First is kicking them out of the womb, then you no longer let them sleep with you, then you send them off to daycare, school, college, and adult life. The ultimate separation is death (hopefully yours first and not the kid's). But all of these are part of life, and they let us know that we're not abandoning each other, but rather bringing the parent-child relationship to a new level.

Accordingly, Sam was doing just fine when we finished talking with the professor, but when he caught a glimpse of us as we were leaving, he burst into tears.

It was really nice to have that day to ourselves--one of the first times that my wife and I could relate to one another as friends and lovers and not just the administrators of a grand logistical parenting enterprise. She missed Sam a lot, though it wasn't that hard for me to be without him. I truly believe that I've some autistic current in me that somehow allows me to forgot someone or something if it's not in my sight. I'm like a baby; I get really anxious at the prospect of separation, but once the deed is done I have a hard time realizing that the person or thing that is away continues to exist without me. That said, a few times as we returned to our apartment between errands, I expected to hear a stomp-stomp-stomp running towards the door as I entered the house, and I missed Sam in its absence. Likewise, my morose reflections all day on separation and death were a clear indication that I missed the boy a lot.

Finally it was time to pick up our wonderful boy. They'd recommended we pick him up around 3pm the first day, and gradually stretch it out to their normal schedule of 7:30am to 5:30pm. When we got to the school Sam was crying. The teachers explained that he'd finally started to eat his snack of some sort of cake, when they picked him up from the table to move on to the next activity. So he was pissed off, but he calmed down when he saw his mother. That said, after some intense hugs and kisses, he proceeded to walk around the lobby and lie down on the rug, as if to say, "Don't get too excited, guys. I wasn't that anxious to leave."

The professors gave us a rundown of how he'd done his first day (slept a lot, ate a little, didn't interact much with the other kids), and gave us some practical requests. Mainly they didn't want us to pack glass bottles for Sam's milk. Of course we prefer the glass bottles because they leach out fewer chemicals, but we understood their concerns of dangerous broken glass, and agreed to find some plastic bottles that weekend. On the other hand, they had no problem with using our cloth diapers for Sam. I'd heard of preschools in the US using only bulk-bought disposable diapers, and refusing to accommodate people's requests for cloth diapers. I understand this policy, as it would seem very difficult to me to manage different diapers for every kid. But apparently in our preschool they manage each kid's stuff separately anyway (diapers, bottles, packed snacks, clothes, etc.), so it wasn't a problem to keep him in his own cloth diapers. Likewise they didn't mind sitting him on the potty to crap after lunch, even though they normally don't start sitting kids on the potty there until they're 22 months old. In general the staff seemed very considerate of our requests, as if we were neither particularly demanding nor particularly lax compared to what they were used to dealing with.

Since that first day we've noticed many changes in Sam. He is more self-assured and doesn't mind being on his own sometimes, and he is much more vocal. I imagine that seeing the other kids walk around and talk helps him to realize what he's capable of. At the same time I'm sure there will be some things that he's been doing precociously that he might regress in. If no one else in his group is using the potty or drawing with crayons, he might stop doing these things himself. A sort of early peer pressure normalizing influence!

One thing I was briefly worried about was when a professor implied that Sam was having trouble adjusting to not being the center of attention. This had me wondering if he was a spoiled kid, and if so, I felt frustrated at not being around enough to fix it. It's true that we have a lot of people in our house (grandparents, babysitter, cousin, sister, parents) that all pay a lot of attention to Sam at various moments. That said, I think that for someone who's growing up with seven other people in the house, he's pretty independent and unspoiled. At any rate, this comment raised the specter of something I dread, which is the Colombian tendency to baby little (and big) kids and not imbue them with a sense of responsibility. This is something I'll discuss in another post. For the meanwhile, my wife has counseled me not to worry too much about it. Sam's still only on his third week of school, and the inevitable flu he's been hit with has had him wanting a lot of attention and cuddling.

Another adventure we just had this weekend was the first parents' workshop. It was certainly not my kind of gathering. The ambiance started off very alternative, with a professor playing Afro-Colombian drum songs and encouraging parents to dance. To me this smacked of the overly-earnest privileged bohemian classes, and I have an innate aversion to outward shows of privilege. Also the school director gave a few discourses on how flawed the mainstream educational system was, and it was all just a bit too self-congratulatory for me.

This year the school's educational theme is race and skin color, and so they are trying to expose the kids to different cultures, for example through weekly classes in Afro-Colombian songs and Inca music. It was surprising to me, because it seemed as if the treatment of race and culture was as something foreign that the kids should learn to appreciate. I might understand this at an all-white school in the US, but it seemed forced and inappropriate in Colombia, world hotspot of racial mestizaje. They even passed around a little black doll that would be circulating from house to house over the course of the year. The parents' attitudes were as if it were some special totem to banish racism from their hearts, and they passed it around in a way that, if I were black, would have made me feel even more self-conscious than I already was.

Anyway, it was really shocking to be in this environment that was so different from our small town north of Bogota. In our area, people recognize their indigenous heritage. No one speaks Muisca, and no one would call themselves Indians, but from the simplest peasant to the most effete intellectual at the university, everyone considers themselves to be the descendants of Muiscas. People talk about the customs of the ancestors, and indeed our food, music, names, and dress are very influenced by indigenous culture. I'm not just saying this because I work in the archeology museum; people really identify with their indigenous heritage. Even private companies have names referring to Muisca mythology. More than just Muiscas, people recognize a distinct regional identity. Boyaca culture is a very distinctive stamp, and it's worn with pride by people of all ages. Even for those who don't realize the strong Muisca component of it, Boyaca's culture is seen as a very unique and special thing.

In Bogota, on the other hand, there seems to be a real disconnect, at least among the young professionals we've met. I assume everyone must know factually, historically, that they are descended from Muiscas and Spaniards, but they don't relate to this, or if they do, it's as some self-conscious effort to recapture the past. People seem to consider themselves as post-cultural, as cosmopolitan citizens of the world, or at least of a modern nation divorced from ancient traditions. I've seen this before in Bogotanos; in my work on the Muisca Garden we're constantly trying to find other groups working along the same lines, but in Bogota many groups that are supposedly recuperating their indigenous heritage are bringing in crop varieties from thousands of miles away in Peru, and consequently using the Inca names for these things, names that we've never used in Colombia. So even in their recovery of indigenous culture, they are looking abroad, feeling more connection with distant Bolivia than with nearby Boyaca.

Hence the feeling at the preschool parents' meeting was much as one might expect at an East Coast private school in the US, with WASP parents oohing and aahing at the exotic cultures their children were being exposed to through courses in ethnic dance or weaving or whatever. There was even one father that wanted the kids to have daily instead of weekly classes with the black professor, so they could see him more (and presumably imbibe his ethnic aura). It's ironic, because any non-Colombian would have looked at the group of bronze-skinned and dark-haired parents and thought of them as a bunch of exotic mestizo Latinos.

Anyway, my wife and I tried to bring this up in the comment-sharing section. We said it was good that the kids were learning about cultures from different parts of Colombia, but that we didn't want the kids to think that culture and ethnicity and heritage were things that only belonged to the Other. This is an especially important point for me, because in my politically-determined public school curriculum we studied about minorities and the Holocaust and all the other cultural issues that were deemed important, but it left me thinking something like, "Gee, I wish I were a minority or a Jew so I could have a heritage, too." We didn't learn about the German influence in Midwestern cuisine, or how my family's pastimes of hunting and outdoors-y stuff are an inheritance from our indigenous and pioneer forebears, or that Europeans don't eat lots of peanut butter like we do. Only upon leaving the US did I realize all the unique and fascinating things that my ancestors have given me and that make me who I am.

The school director, who is at the age where my wife says that women stop listening to others and just blather on with their own discourse, responded to us that the kids learn songs from all over Colombia, not just from the black or indigenous areas. And among other things, they learn about the Muiscas and local mestizo culture. That's fine, but the Muiscas and their mestizo descendants aren't just one more culture among many. For people from central Colombia, they are the culture that has shaped them, the culture that defines them. If you want to instill a sense of diversity and tolerance in children, I think it's important for to start by defining which culture is theirs, so they can appreciate others too. For instance, I feel that schoolkids in Chicago should of course learn about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest, or about Italian immigrants to New York's Lower East Side. But first they should learn about Blackhawk and the Potawotami, about the Underground Railroad routes leading through Chicago, about the 1893 World's Fair, about Polish and Jewish and Appalachian and Mississippi immigration to Chicago. Without that central reference point, everything melds into a mass of mildly interesting information that has no direct effect on one's self, one's identity.

Caro was as surprised as I was at the parents' lack of identification with an ethnicity, a sense of a culture of their own. Granted, her situation is different from many people's because her ancestry includes blacks, Indians, whites, and everything in between. So for Caro it feels very forced to make a big deal of these different cultures as if they were something we don't all bear within ourselves. A lot of our fellow parents looked very European, so perhaps they didn't have a sense that culture isn't just the exotic Other, but rather that each of us is fascinating and ethnic.

After the meeting there was a potluck, and a black fellow parent recognized Caro from their shared college years. She remarked, "Hey, isn't your grandmother black?" Perhaps she too was a bit exhausted from all the ruminating on how important it was to expose our kids to those exotic blacks and Indians, and relieved to find someone in the same situation.

Despite my initial dismay at what I feel is a mistaken focus for the school's treatment of race, I left the meeting feeling good. I would wish for people to have a better idea that indigenous culture, local songs and dances, and ethnic identity are all a part of them, that they just need to realize the roots they bear within themselves. I would wish for a more natural, authentic approach to race. But I understand that middle-class people in Bogota are coming from a different situation than peasants or the children of peasants in Boyaca. Maybe this way of doing things that seems so artificial to me is the path they need to take to appreciate their own culture and that of other people. At any rate, I am pleased with Sam's pre-school, but I'll also be pleased in a few months when he goes to a less cutting-edge school in our provincial, Muisca backwater, where he can receive all sorts of exotic, authentic cultural experiences at a much more modest price!

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