Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.

I Am, therefore I Do

DSCN2346Just the other day I got a kiss and congratulations on an arguably un-momentous occasion: the purchase of a new car. The kudos came from the guy who keeps watch in our parking garage. He came out of his booth, gave me a big smile and warm felicitaciones. It was a genuine sentiment and made my day, not because I thought congrats were in order, but because he did. That is just the kind of person he is—the “to be” kind rather than the “to do” kind. He’s Paraguayan. A few years ago he shaved his prematurely thinning hair and actually looks much better as a bald guy. He wears nice clothes and is always in a good mood. What he does (sit in a booth in a dingy parking garage) in no way defines who he is.

My first exposure to life in a “to be” culture was in Spain. After moving there, the more people I met, the more it became apparent that nobody was asking the standard ‘What do you do?’ question. Ever. They asked about how I liked the food (Spaniards loooove to talk about food), why we had decided to move there, how the kids were adapting, if I had tried the gambas yet, but never ‘What do you do?’ Spaniards place you immediately in their own social context. Which, by the way, revolves around food. The experience of being around Argentines has been similar. Even more so than in Spain, Argentines want to know how you feel, if you miss home, your family, your friends, etc. And they are particularly keen to know your where your fútbol loyalties lie. Because for them, what team you’re on is key; for Argentines, interpersonal relationships and a sense of community are a big part of who they are. I would even venture to say that people in both these countries might consider it rude to ask about a person’s profession right away in the sense that it would be seen as a cold and impersonal question. At the very least, it feels awkward to me now to ask this question.

Googling around for interesting research on “to be” vs. “to do” cultures, I surprisingly didn’t come up with much. There’s this, which I think gives a pretty limited view of both, making “to be” cultures seem primitive and sounding straight out of an Intro to Anthropology textbook. It does at least highlight the relationship element of “to be” cultures. There are an interesting number of takes on the subject from the corporate world, tirelessly stretching its tentacles into all fields. None of this, however, speaks about the “to dos” and “to bes” in everyday terms, how living in a society that is one or the other shapes how people interact. And act. Personally, I think it is more on the micro-level that being and doing become more relevant and meaningful in different cultures. After all, most people in Argentina and Spain are certainly career-minded and can speak at length about their professions in certain contexts; however, they don’t generally refer to what they do (i.e., their jobs) when introducing themselves. In fact, I kind of take issue altogether with the English usage of ‘what do you do?,’ which really means ‘what is your job?,’ on the grounds that we all do many things in our lives. It just doesn’t translate well.

I recently heard someone say, “What you do defines who you are.” I would argue that it is who we are that defines what we do, and furthermore that one should be careful in uttering cultural maxims as if they were universal truths. The cultural relativity of what exactly makes us who we are is the only true universal here. For example, here are some lower-case “to dos” from my southern upbringing, which supposedly shaped my character: Saying yes ma’am = respectful of one’s elders. (I really wasn’t.) I can’t tell you how annoying it is every time I now visit Virginia and get yes ma’amed all the time from people of all ages. It makes me feel like I’m 80; it also evokes a visit to the parrot cage at the zoo. Writing thank-you notes = sufficiently grateful. I always thought the genuinely uttered words were sufficient. It was assumed that forming these habits would bestow these qualities upon us. Honestly? All it really bestowed was perfunctory, meaningless behavior that, if not acquired, was basic grounds for judgment being passed on your character. Not that I have anything against thank you notes when one is just overflowing with gratitude for that $20 bill in the greeting card, but guess what? Nobody does that in the other places I’ve lived. So are they therefore all scandalously ungrateful for their birthday presents?

Actually Argentines give enormous importance to birthdays, especially the party aspect. The presence of their closest friends and family is the most important thing. There are gifts of course, but they are very secondary to the social gathering and often opened after everyone leaves, so there’s no way of even knowing who gave you what. Ergo, no thank-yous; the material part of it is an afterthought. There is however something that people do that is always surprising to me. Friends and family members who cannot be present call to personally wish happy birthday and ask how your day is going. Especially amongst family, if this phone call is overlooked, the birthday person will get offended. It’s kind of like the thank-you note requirement, except the outcome is not a judgment on anyone’s character. People are just genuinely hurt that you didn’t remember, that you forgot to be there for them. It’s the being there emotionally that matters, not just the lip-service.

The reduced number of little “dos and don’ts” in these cultures of course makes for less polite, more unruly, louder and unrestrained interactions among people on an everyday basis. (I invite you to watch fights among taxi drivers at rush hour here.) However, I don’t notice the bitingly judgmental nature of “to do” societies in people here. Furthermore, not being constantly asked what you do for a living is liberating in that you are free to describe yourself in any terms and not limited to the label of your profession or lack thereof. I paint, I write, I travel, I raise my children, I work. (I have a friend who refuses to be labeled professionally; when he has to fill in official documents, he writes Worker in the blank by Profession even though he holds a Ph.D.) Not having to adhere to the constraints of certain “dos and don’ts” means you are free to act based on who you are and what you believe. If I am a generous person, I will give to others naturally; if I am not, dumping my old clothes at Caritas or Good Will does not make me generous. However, even if I am not a generous person, perhaps I am a good listener or a great teacher or even a hero. So don’t judge me based on the small things I don’t do.

My garage attendant’s name is Christian. In addition to being a nice guy, he is also a huge fan of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano and can talk at length about his books on Latin American history. He’s always reading something. Imagine if I had met Christian at a dinner party and started our conversation with ‘What do you do?’