GPS Moment

 

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I like maps. They give me a sense of control, a bird’s-eye view of my options in which I ultimately get to decide which way I’ll go, as well as Plan B and C, just in case. It’s a spatial thing, really. I just don’t like being lost, and feel disoriented if I don’t have a broad aerial sense of things.

I remember my enthusiasm way back when my kids were in fourth grade and had to map out our neighborhood. Such a simple task, I imagined the light-bulb coming on as they saw their surroundings organized for the first time on a map of their own making, a sudden sense of order to the sidewalks, intersections, parks, neighboring buildings and shops. One of the first steps on the path to independence in a big city.

The GPS on my phone has conveniently replaced the old map of Buenos Aires that I used to constantly stop to unfold, always getting tangled up in its tattered, scotch-taped sections. This new technology naturally suits me. I use the GPS much like a paper map, planning my route before I leave, but with the added ease of being able to check my location if I lose my way, no willy-nilly unfolding required. However, there is one function that I hate: the voice option. Suddenly, my trusty map morphs into someone else telling me where to go. It makes me crazy.

Case in point: L. has recently gotten his driver’s license, so he asks to drive often. F. and a friend needed to make an early Saturday morning pick-up, so he volunteered, meaning I would have to go along for the ride since he’s still not driving alone. I was groggy and hadn’t had my coffee, so didn’t think to check the map before leaving. I knew we were going somewhere in Devoto, so thought: Avenida San Martin, and the kids will have the exact address. The following scene ensued.

“Does anybody have the address?”

“I’m turning my GPS on,” says F. from the back seat.

“OK, but give me the address so I can map it. Turn right at the next light onto San Martin,” I say.

Right at that moment, a different voice with a California-neutral accent issues from the back seat, “Continue straight, on &*%^&Y.”

“Mom, the GPS said to keep straight. Why did we turn?”

“Because this is the way to Devoto.”

“Turn left, onto $^%&D$,” the GPS says as we continue up San Martin, now fully into Metrobus construction chaos.

“Don’t turn left. What the hell is she saying? Why do you have it set to English? She can’t pronounce the street names right! I have no idea what she’s saying, just give me the address now.”

“Turn left – Gire a su izquierda y vuelve,” now the GPS was a Spaniard.

F. gives me the address. “Oh no, my phone is dead. Give me yours so I can see. I need a visual! Watch out for the cars on the right! And don’t turn left!” Full-blown PMS joined forces with GPS lady at that point.

The two girls are frantically texting in the back. As the española continues to bark out orders to turn left at every intersection, Fiona says, “Why don’t you just do what the GPS says, Mom?”

“Because you can’t turn left on two-way avenues in the city of Buenos Aires! She obviously doesn’t know that. You have to turn right to go left.”

“Stop calling it a she. It’s not a real person,” F. finally hands me the phone.

“Gire a su izquierda—“

“Shut up, gallega de mierda!” I bark at the GPS woman. To L. I say,:”Do not turn left, whatever you do. You have to turn right and then come back across.”

He says, “Calm down, Mom. The GPS is updated, so I think we should follow it. You have to trust the technology.”

“NEVER when there’s construction or on two-way streets. She can’t possibly know!”

“Not a person, Mom…” he says as he tries out the accelerator on the bridge.

“Slow down!” I yell, while grabbing the armrest on one side, my other hand pressed hard on the ceiling of the car. “Why didn’t I just check the map before we left? You have to have a plan before driving into unknown territory. I know this. Turn right!”

We finally get across San Martin Ave. and are presumably somewhere in Devoto. We come to a railroad crossing and I say, “Turn here.” He turns left. It’s a two-way street. Luckily the oncoming traffic isn’t closer. I go completely berserk.

“You see! You see what happens? I meant turn right, but she has burned it into your brain to turn left! There is a universal law according to which you can never, EVER turn left on avenues in Buenos Aires without a turn arrow.”

“Ok, Mom,” he says as we finally find the address and he handily parallel parks. “I think you need to get out and take a walk around the block.”

It is hard to describe the anxiety over having your kid behind the wheel of a car in a mega city; it’s a lethal mix of the instinct to protect your child and the knowledge that they’re on their way, surrounded by imminent danger but don’t need or want you telling them how to maneuver. You have no control. Despite my mounting hysteria, the construction, the traffic and contradictory orders from me and the GPS women, in addition to the fact that his girlfriend had witnessed my meltdown, he had driven carefully and skillfully and kept calm. How did we get to this point?

Although I would like to think we have provided them with the basic tools to find their way, I know that their coordinates are different from mine. Writing this today, their very last day of high school, I am reminded that there was no map to get us here, and yet… here we are, safe and sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bilingual kids: a few words from the finish line

“Look, la muna!” Three little words that encompass two worlds. This is the first complete sentence I remember, the first spoken record of our escapades as a bilingual family. It was a spring evening, so he would have been about 18 months old. He was on his father’s shoulders, walking home from the playground at dusk when he looked up at the night sky, pointed and made this colorful observation. We were still living in Virginia then, so it was natural that the imperative (“Look”) would have been more accessible to him in English, since commands are what kids learn first based on mere frequency (toddlers being particularly bombarded by the likes of ‘Look, a car! Look, an elephant! Look, the moon!) But then he instinctively switched to Spanish because he knew he was talking to his dad, getting the gender of the article right, and finally did that magical thing that shows he knew the next word in both languages by splicing ‘moon’ with ‘luna’ – a perfectly bilingual sentence that encompasses grammar, syntax and sociolinguistic acumen. And this is the way language nerds talk about their kids’ developing language skills.

I have often started to write about bilingual kids, but always abandoned the attempt because I feel like what I have to say is mostly pretty darn obvious. And there’s so much out there on the subject already, who could possibly need convincing that bilingualism is a good thing, even more so when it happens naturally? However, after recently hearing two stories from other parents in which their kids’ language skills were questioned, I’ve decided that it’s at least worth speaking up for the bilingual community here in Buenos Aires, since these two cases would indicate that there’s still just a whole mess of nonsense on the loose out there.

Case 1: Mother (US) of 4-yr-old twins is told by Argentine preschool teacher that their language skills are lacking and that she should stop speaking English to them, because clearly they are confused.

Seriously? The whole language confusion argument still? Rather than questioning their family dynamics, the teacher should be applauding the parents of those kids for giving them the gift of bilingualism; then she could have taken five minutes to google language acquisition in bilinguals, in twins, and twin language, to learn that all three of these factors may add up to some differentiation in terms of the language these two boys are producing at age 4 in comparison to their monolingual classmates. I say differentiation (not delay) because, after four years in a bilingual home, these kids’ amazing little brains have fully incorporated the complexities of English and Spanish by now. Therefore, while what they say may come out as a creative mix for a while still (particularly in the case of identical twins who also happen to be producing their own unique twin-language), this should be cause for fascination, not concern. And in the knowledge that within the next year or so, they will produce both languages appropriately based on context. Right now they are still immersed in a rich duality that is anything but confusing—it is a world twice as large. What young bilinguals do with language is double the fun. Period. Teachers who can’t appreciate this get a bad grade in my book.

Case 2: Parents (mother UK, father US) of a 12-year-old bilingual daughter, born and raised in Buenos Aires, are told by a tutoring institute that their daughter will likely not be fit to take the tough entrance exams for secondary school, since she comes from a home where neither parent is a native-Spanish speaker.

So the assessment here is that, even though this girl has spent her entire childhood in the Buenos Aires public school system, doing all classwork in Spanish, socializing with Argentine peers and immersed in entirely Spanish monolingual surroundings outside her home, and clearly speaks native Argentine Spanish, the fact that she speaks English with her parents and siblings is seen as somehow detrimental to her chances to pass the entrance exams. Interesting.

Similar to the case of the twins, the theory here is that the “other” language must surely get in the way of academic success. Ironically, schools prioritize English as a foreign language in a major way here, with most proudly waving the bilingual education flag. Personally, I think what happens is that second language skills are often seen wholly as an academic pursuit, at least for kids—something to work towards mastering when they get older. And to their credit, many schools do an excellent job of teaching English. The idea of acquiring both languages simultaneously at home, however, is apparently viewed by some educators with skepticism. I hate to lecture, but Linguistics 101, people: language learning (happens in school); language acquisition (happens at home or in natural language setting). The latter is available to us all in mono- or multilingual version, with window of opportunity lowering at around age 12. Those lucky enough to have access to the multilingual version are just, well, luckier!

Enough about the limitations of certain educators. When I was pregnant with my own twins (mine now competent bilinguals and therefore doubly exasperating teenagers), I spent a lot of time reading articles about raising bilingual children, much of it prescriptive. Honestly, of everything I read, only one story from a Greek-American family resonated and has stayed with me over the years. The approach was simple: “Language is always a topic of conversation in our family. We discuss it over meals, ponder why people say what they say, talk about books and how they’re written, make up words, splice grammar across languages, play word games, etc. In general, we just give the subject of language a ridiculous amount of air time, and otherwise try to keep a balance between both languages.”

As for all the other approaches—one language, one parent; half-day one language, half-day the other; meal times always in minority language; exclusive use of minority language in home—I just knew we wouldn’t be able to follow the rules. What I did know was the basic math of language: you get out what you put in. Children acquire language at the rate they are exposed to it, as long as it is has a meaningful place in their life. So in the early years in the US, we aimed for roughly equal use of both languages from the beginning in all possible contexts: we formed playgroups with other native-Spanish speakers, socialized ourselves among both language groups, made regular trips to Argentina and forged relationships between our kids and their Argentine cousins. We happily adhered to and upheld the ‘language as a topic of conversation’ principle, repeating stories of the silly things we’ve all said (my gender gaffes in Spanish: I once went on at length about my wedding veil, referring to it with the wrong gender (la vela). Meaning I was telling people I’d worn an antique candle on my head. Or how their dad once asked if it was ok to use the ‘wheelberry’ to cart the leaves…) And the ‘meaningful place’ was easy: it has always been in books, stories and music, these shifting languages (in the opposite direction) as we’ve shifted countries.

In our case anyway, I think this last point has been just as relevant as frequency of exposure to both languages. Even more so. It’s the meaningfulness that is key. This is what differentiates language in a natural setting from language-learning in a classroom. When our kids were toddlers, their father told them stories he’d make up (ongoing sagas) every night in Spanish. They’d lay there in the dark, completely immersed in the adventures of Max, el perro de rescate, in which they were always protagonists. Or Selena y Tiniebla, the warring queens of either side of the moon. Later, once we’d moved to Spain and then to Argentina, every time we were in the car for any length of time, we’d dissolve hours listening to audiobooks in English of stories by Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl (the H. Potter years I’ve already said more than enough about). And just loads of music in both languages. They knew all the María Elena Walsh songs; went around our house banging buckets and pretending to be orphans as they blasted the soundtrack from Annie; and at age 4 did a strange backyard performance of Don McLean’s American Pie while dressed in sequins and white gloves. Meaningful stuff.

Even though this sounds slightly like a circus house, it was actually a strategic plan. And not always easy. And not always balanced. When they started kindergarten in the US, they stopped speaking Spanish after the first week. Their dad was desperate. A few years after moving to Argentina, Spanish replaced English as the language they spoke to each other. In pre-adolescence, they’d get annoyed if I addressed them in English in public, insisting I only speak Spanish. When they started high school, they stopped speaking English to me at all for a brief period. It made me angry. Now they get exasperated if I speak to them in Spanish in public. If I do, they answer me in English. Go figure. They gossip, text, study and party all in Spanish. One writes songs lyrics only in English; one prefers reading in English. We have come full circle. It has been a worthwhile 18-year commitment.

My point here is that, for any of you out there with little bilingual people in the making, if you run into so-called educators who question what you’re doing with language in your house, please feel free to ignore them entirely. You are doing important work.

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UBA or USA: Coming to terms with the competition

I have a confession to make: We have not put money away for college savings for our kids. We have squandered it on international travel. When we should have been staying home and saving thousands to finance two university educations, we spent it instead on plane tickets to London, Lima and Rio. Now that high school graduation is nearly upon us, how do I feel about this? Pretty fine, really. Like they’ve gotten the most for the money. Like we have not allowed their childhoods and our family life to be shaped by the insane cost of college in the US.

How do I feel about them not even applying to US schools? That’s a different matter. Confession No. 2: I am envious of all my friends’ kids after the barrage of acceptance announcements I’ve received in the last few months. Georgetown, Barnard, UVA… All these kids I’ve known for the past 18 years have made the grades, high test scores, done their volunteer work, been awarded scholarships to top institutions of higher learning and will soon be leaving home for their respective dorms. Their parents glow with pride. I can’t help it, there’s nothing to be done about my competitive streak. I feel cheated. I have no announcement to make. L&F took the SAT, they got high scores. But in the end, the decision to apply for scholarships to US schools has been tabled. They will be starting at the University of Buenos Aires next year; they didn’t have to ‘get in’, take entrance exams, apply for scholarships or write fantastic essays, nor did we have to save money. It’s a free system, open to all. And they’ll be living at home.

27944I am a rubber-band ball of contradictions, I admit, but bear with me while I work this out. One wonders, if I really wanted them to follow the standard path of US college applications, why did we not prioritize the money for starters, knowing that it would be essential? I could play the Argentine husband card here, but in all honesty, I personally have an issue with the cost/quality equation when it comes to US higher education, so being married to someone who grew up in a country where it’s free and who, by all counts is a perfectly well-educated and successful adult—well, that just adds to my conviction. So this pretty much leaves me with my own competitive tendency, which, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is at least partly a product of my own glory years of imbibing US education culture. Despite my keen awareness of this, it has nevertheless reared its head and roared in the present circumstances and left me feeling cowed and small. Therefore, in an effort to put things right and relative, I submit the following questions to myself and anyone else in a position to choose:

  1. Do you believe a US undergraduate education to be the best in the world? In general, no. Most of the people I admire and respect were educated elsewhere in the world. Many have US graduate degrees, though.
  2. Do you think paid education is inherently superior to free, public education? No, I have seen the output of both, and know just as many successful people who attended free universities.
  3. Do you think leaving home to go to university is essential to one’s independence? No, not right away. I think 17/18-year-olds are often still in need of some guidance and may well achieve adult-like independence more organically with a couple more years at home.
  4. Do you think the social aspect of university life is as important as the academic, or should school only be about an academic education? I agree that the social aspect of university is an essential part of a broader education, however I don’t think the all-inclusive ‘campus’ is the only way to get that. School can easily be just about academics, especially in an urban setting, making the fees people often pay for the campus experience a bit crazy.
  5. Do you think not attending a US university is in any way an obstacle to getting a job in that country later in life if one has comparable qualifications from elsewhere? The statistics say not at all.

So this is where I’m supposed to finally embrace UBA, break out my swagger and tell you how it’s one of the top universities in Latin America, that students from other countries in the region flock here, and that it’s free, free, free. And that we happen to live in the city that is the destination of loads of US students, who come to do their studies abroad here. But it’s not gonna come to that, because I just don’t feel it. And the reason I don’t feel it is the same reason L&F don’t feel the urge to compete to get into US schools. Because it’s just not in the atmosphere around us. Transitioning from high school to public university in Argentina is really just a matter of registration, so there’s no hype attached to it, no bragging rights. It is much the same with the kids I know in different countries in Europe. The world is wide and there is never just one way. I am happy about all the amazing teenagers I know in the US who are going to off to fine universities, and I share their parents’ pride. But I am also finally coming around to the fact that the choice we have here feels like the right choice for us, at least for starters, and an equally enviable one at that.

Other Side of the Fence makes it to TEDxTalk

After first saying no because ‘what could I possibly talk about’; then after some cajoling by veteran presenters and gung-ho family members and deciding that perhaps I am just too chicken shit and should make it a personal goal; then after writing over 3000 words in Spanish, amounting to a rambling 26 minutes, which I then had to edit down to 1200 words; after wandering the streets of Buenos Aires listening to 6 different versions of my recorded self on my headphones, forcing friends and family to listen and give me feedback way too many times; after worrying that I would surely have an allergy attack on the day of the event, or trip or bungle the Spanish… I finally got on stage and did a TEDxTalk. Now it’s out there. With English subtitles.

Road Signs

DSCN2076I believe we largely make our own destinies. And even though I carelessly used the word ‘providence’ in an interview once in reference to an uncanny alignment of events, I don’t believe in fate or god or any of that. I am, however, a faithful disciple of Dr. Seuss and his vast wisdom of the universe—the forks in the road, road signs, speed bumps to be heeded. Anything traffic-related really. Because these are behind the choices we make. And sometimes the signs are billboard-sized and all in neon.

One example of this would be how my family and I ended up living in the house of Hugo Midón. I could play connect-the-dots on that one back any number of years, but I’ll just limit the connections to one: a public school in Seville, Spain –> our current residence in a PH in the noisy barrio of Caballito in Buenos Aires. Short version goes like this: Frustrated by the lack of arts activities in our children’s elementary school in Seville—a school where “art” class consisted of a color-coded text book and our naturally musical kids would come home crying about how mean the music teacher was—my husband turned a volunteer storytelling activity into a makeshift drama club, which quickly mushroomed into a major theater project. Then our friend Marina from Buenos Aires gave us a CD of music from Midón’s musicals. Then we decided it would be cool to incorporate some of those songs and build our own script around them. And everyone went a little gaga over the music, and there were suddenly people making weird percussion instruments, giant pinwheels and I was running a tie-die operation off my balcony. Contagion city.

Then in the midst of that circus I made a solo trip to Buenos Aires because we were thinking maaaybe about moving. But all those crazy theater people wanted was more music from Midón’s plays, so in addition to real estate sleuthing, the music thing was also on my shopping list. And one day as I was wandering the (then still hipster-free) streets of Palermo Viejo, I found myself accidentally in front of Rio Plateado, Hugo Midón’s theater school. Two-bird moment, I rang the buzzer thinking I’d avoid Musimundo and score a few CDs of his musicals right then and there. And because my short version is turning long: I ended up sitting in Midón’s office, sipping tea with the man himself and he happened to mention his house was for sale. That was one of those signs you heed.

Six months later we were living in his former house. The music happening in that house, mostly thanks to my kids, has never ceased for a moment. And we also have a resident writer. Call it a muse, creative spirit, providence, whatever—but it really comes down to the choices we made.

Following some similar signage, I made a trip to San Francisco, CA last year. This was after a moment of personal crisis and a conversation with a friend about what the hell to be when I grow up (in the second half of my life). She asked, “If you could wipe out all factors limiting your field of options—responsibilities, family, geography, etc.—what would you do?” In a very random moment, I said, “I’d go to San Francisco, visit the Pirate Supply Store, maybe buy an eye-patch, and hope to meet Dave Eggers.” She said, “Why don’t you? You could open your own pirate operation here.”

I have to confess I suffer from a bit of starry-eyed giddiness when it comes to Eggers, which is mostly just about his writing. When I read his first book way back when he was all ‘stream of consciousness’ and I was all ‘holy crap, he is speaking directly to me in my special language,’ I decided he was the writer of my generation, that I had connected deeply on that. So over the years I’ve read all of his books, and he’s grown up, and so have I. And I’ve learned to respect him not only as a constantly evolving and multi-talented writer, but also for coming up with the brilliant idea behind 826 Valencia, an ingenious public initiative that has writers and volunteers doing free creative writing workshops with public school kids. It has mushroomed into numerous centers throughout the US and elsewhere in the world. After following the project for the past few years, forcing my family to watch his popular TEDTalk more than once, and just generally being way too much of a groupie, I learned about the 826 National seminars not long after aforementioned conversation with my friend. The national NGO runs seminars for people interested in starting their own 826 centers. Which gave me a much more concrete (ok, mature) reason to go the Pirate Store.

Dot-connecting: Went to 826 seminar in SF last July, spent two days learning about how to start a non-profit, raise funds, talked to volunteers, explored the store and writing center, met inspiring directors of other connected organizations, like Mimi Lok, executive director of Voice of Witness. It was all better than I’d imagined—just brimming with genuine commitment, quirkiness and the most incredible people. Luckiest of breaks, the organizers told me someone else had come from Buenos Aires earlier this year with similar intentions. They said they’d put me in touch. After months of mulling over how to start one of these centers in BA, a notebook full of lists of potential donors, venues, school-system contacts, other education NGOs, etc., I knew what I really needed was a partner, someone with the same mission. Someone like any of the amazing people I had met during the seminar. My wish was about to be granted. Soon after my return to Buenos Aires, I got an email with the contact info for this other person interested in starting an 826-inspired center here.

And sometimes we ignore the signs. The official version of this story is that I met Ignacio (not his real name), began to brainstorm and collaborate with him, helped raise volunteers, bring in writers to run workshops and handled the social media and communications aspects of a pilot program that he had arranged through the sponsorship of a local publisher. The program was incredibly successful and a joy to be a part of, mainly seeing the enthusiasm of the students and teachers from the five public schools that participated. And to see the need firsthand and know that a program like this, if done right, will address serious failings in the school system when it comes to writing skills and creative self-expression. The experience confirmed that following my long-term interest in this project and making it happen was right on target.

The backstory is a little different. There were billboards. And flashing lights. That I chose to ignore because I knew they would prevent me from being a part of the project. And because sometimes I overanalyze and make too many allowances for potential “cultural” differences. Sometimes those differences are really just about people being out for themselves no matter where they’re from… And this is the part where I have to delete a whole paragraph of ranting in an effort to stick to the high road and boil it down to: I had good reason to be pissed by the end.

Do I wish I had followed those signs from the beginning and saved myself from some humiliation and the feeling of being used? Actually, no. Because if I had, I would have missed being a part of the whole process of making it happen and now knowing that I am quite capable of doing it myself. With better people. And better ideas. And truer to the whole collaborative spirit of the thing, and not some convenient marketing scheme. Even though I ignored all the little lights and warning buzzers I saw early on in small acts of incompatibility, I can now see they were pointing to a much larger—huge, really—difference in our global understanding of the project and Egger’s vision.

I live in a house where at least three generations of artists, performers, musicians and writers have regularly come to dinner and worked their creative magic under its roof. It feels like the appropriate site for an 826-inspired program to come together. In an imaginary dinner conversation between Dave Eggers, Hugo Midón, and my family, I see lots of shared vision, like-mindedness and lively conversation. (Ignacio is not invited.)

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.

Set Your Alarm for 5am (Parents’ Guide to BA Teenagers)

After seeing way too many looks of horror on the faces of friends as I casually mention what my teenagers do on a typical weekend night out, I am reminded of the stages along the way to reaching my current state of zen. So for expat parents of kids who will soon be moving on to secondary school in Buenos Aires, here’s the lowdown on what to expect outside of school.

Year 1: Your still cherubic 13-yr-old will at some point this year ask to be allowed to go to a matinee. Strike down immediately any inclination to inquire as to whether it’s an afternoon film or play; it is not. Matinees are essentially kiddy night clubs that run from 8-12pm, don’t sell alcohol (supposedly), no one over 16 allowed in (ditto). There will likely be much online debate among members of your class parent list as to the potential evils of these places and you will get first glimmers of other parents’ true colors. Seize this opportunity to identify: the slackers, who always let their kids go out, no questions asked and never volunteer to drive; the clueless ones (most) waiting to go along with the group consensus; the detectives, who try to ascertain which kids are lying about the venue by comparing stories; and the die-hards who make grand statements smacking down the mere idea of discussing the subject in the first place: My daughter will not go to a matinee, a disco or around the corner to the kiosko until she’s 18! (Now you know who to avoid.) Whoever you are, face the fact that you will give in at some point and let them go. Find out which matinees have the best rep and take the hurdle, pool with the other cool parents for drop-offs and pick-up times. Welcome to high school.

Year 2: The Fiestas de Quince. Having grown out of the matinees (so soon – no one over 14 ever goes!), not to worry, they don’t get to graduate to full-on after-hours clubs quite yet. You are saved this year by the endless chain of fiestas de quince, each so special yet essentially the same as the last one. I’ll spare you yet another description of these ubiquitous affairs, other than to say that even though they last all night long, at least the grandparents are present, not to mention the rest of the family. So not much to worry about in the middle of the night other than possible sugar coma from the mesa dulce that usually premieres sometime around 4am. Your parent taxi services are, however, still required this year, so get used to setting your Saturday alarm for 5am. Nearly every weekend. And sometimes twice. As with all ostentation, by the end of the year, the kids are mostly bored to distraction with the pomp and gluttony and feel no shame at going to sleep in the muck on the floor under a table. Good preparation for what is to come next year. (I should point out that it is allowable to break with tradition on the quinceañeras and do your own thing. We rented a music venue, put on a concert and sent everyone home by 2am. By all accounts, it was one of the most memorable parties of the year; they didn’t even complain about the cakes not having dulce de leche.)

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Year 3: Brace yourself. The fact is those all-night parties last year had an ulterior motive: to lay the foundations for the Argentine notion that all fun happens between midnight and 6am (only the extended family is no longer welcome). Having gone through my own high school years with a 12pm curfew, adapting to this schedule felt downright scandalous but with a curious element of transgression against one’s own aging parents… When it comes to your kids, if the late hours of the fiestas de quince were a stretch for you, third year fun and games require deep-breathing exercises and a huge dose of faith. The key shift is that, while they stuck with their classmates in previous years, they now socialize with the older students. Sex, drugs, rock ’n roll, baby. They start the year asking to go to previas (pre-parties) at relatively reasonable hours (10-2am), always at private homes but rarely with adult presence. This is the point at which you can start worrying about drinking, a happy stroll down your own seedy memory land. The good news is it takes them a couple of months to muster the courage to request the all-night pass and carry on at the real parties that kick in after the previas, so they actually come home by a reasonable 1 or 2am, meaning you might still be awake enough to hold their heads over the toilet.

However, they will not settle long for the mere pre-party, so onwards and upwards: after-hours bashes at rented venues, where the kids organize and serve bar and who knows what else. Interestingly, they also hire security and, in an effort to control ticket-sales and avoid over-crowding, do not allow anyone to re-enter once they’ve left the venue. And I am told that drug consumption is pretty limited, at least among the public school crowd, for a simple reason: no money. (This small fact was a light-bulb moment for me, given my very recent efforts at trying to procure summer work for my own kids so they’d learn the value of work/money, control their own expenses, blah blah blah, the standard US approach. Working while still in high school just to earn “spending” money is uncommon in Argentina; kids go to school, study, hang out, do what they do, but most don’t work for money unless they have to. Ergo, very limited buying power. Flip-side: One way to look at drug consumption among US teens.)

Once you’ve accepted this is their night life for the remainder of high school and decided to trust in the decency and good sense of Argentine youth, your next hurdle is how to deal with the comings and goings at insane hours of the madrugada. You will probably, like we did, succumb to your parental instinct to sacrifice your own sleep, texting throughout the night to track their movements and then stumbling out to your car in your slippers in the pre-dawn glow to pick them up from some warehouse on a street you’ve never heard of in Barracas or Chacarita or Parque Patricios… and it will all be fine. And you will soon realize it’s OK to let them just take the bus to the party because they always travel in herds, and find yourself a good remisero or reliable taxi service to bring them home. And you’ll wake up several times during the night the first few times, but then you won’t because you’ve reached nirvana and now trust them to make the right choices.

Which brings me back to kindergarten… A very wise kindergarten teacher once taught my kids the value of making good choices. I can still hear them repeating that line in their 5-yr-old voices to each other. Sounds simple, but it is actually the key to being a good parent and is not so simple. Because it means your kid is the one who has to learn to make those choices and the only way for them to do that is for you to shut up and let them. It requires a mountain of trust.

What I have come to know about Argentine teenagers: They genuinely look out for each other; they travel in large groups; they have a tradition of ripping up their uniforms and covering themselves in rainbows of paint on the last day of school; they are surprisingly organized when it comes to their own fun; they make their own music; the boys like to cook more than the girls; they have strict codes of honor; they care about politics; if they trash your house, they also clean it up with mops and brooms in the haze of dawn. What’s not to trust?

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(Sorry not to include years 4-5, but not there yet and even so, it wouldn’t matter. By this point, you will have either reached acceptance or decided to bail out and take them to some first world suburb where they have smartboards at school and everyone comes home by midnight.)