GPS Moment

 

images-1

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

Image

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?

Images

(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.)

Getting There

Image

I grew up in a small town, so a sense of independence came at a very early age, pretty much as soon as I could ride a bike. Back then, bikes were just for kids. There were no mountain bikes, no trendy, foldable urban bikes; there were just banana seats and high handle-bars. And we all had playing cards clipped to our wheel-spokes. In a place of such relative silence, we were like small swarms of bees. And those bikes really were our wings in the sense that we relied on no one else to get us where we wanted to go, and they also gave our parents freedom from having to taxi us around. Funny how none of us ever gave all that a second thought when we turned sixteen, got our  licenses and presumably gained limitless independence behind the wheel of a car. Because where I come from, driving is considered a major milestone on the road to self-reliance. I’ve been getting around that way ever since. Until recently.

Now I live in the vast urban landscape of Buenos Aires. Despite the magnitude and efficiency of the public transportation system here, I have to admit that my car habit has been hard to break. Even knowing that it takes longer to drive, that parking is a hassle, that all of this stresses me out, puts me in a foul mood and reduces my quality of life, even after having made “I will drive no more in the city of Buenos Aires” my New Year’s resolution several years running, I have truly been like a junkie who simply cannot kick the habit. My husband gave me a bike for Christmas two years ago. It sat in the garage for most of that time. Not that I’m physically unable, or that I haven’t been applauding the new bike-lanes in the city all along; I just couldn’t shake my car monkey.

The only other excuse was the danger factor, but in all fairness, I was never afraid to drive a car here. So I suppose there is some sweet irony in the fact that it took a minor car accident to finally get me on a bike for good. Between the pace of Argentine insurance companies and mechanics we have been carless for several weeks now. The transition to biking (and walking!) turned out to be painless once I didn’t have the choice to drive, combined with the fact that the Subte A is indefinitely closed for renovation, making bus travel from my neighborhood look something like an episode of The Walking Dead.

They say it takes three weeks to form a habit. In this time I have not been stressed a single time due to an inability to move forward; or to someone cutting in front of me by turning left from the right-hand lane; or to pointless horn-blowing and cursing; or to watching some girl teeter along in 5-inch heels at a brisker pace than me in my car. In fact, I have not been in a crappy mood even once since I started biking. I listen to great music to drown out the honking and cursing as I cruise by traffic jams, early fall breeze in my face. It makes me smile. It makes me feel in control. It makes me feel like part of a community of like-minded people. Not to mention healthier, more in harmony with the environment and one car less on these crowded streets. Mainly, it makes me feel less dependent on my car.

Which brings me to the cycle of life thing. My kids will both turn 16 this year. But they have grown up in a very different kind of place. Their independence didn’t come on a banana seat; it came on the 26 and the 42 and the Subte. And now even the 151 that takes them all the way to Saavedra, distances that in most US cities could only be traversed by car.  Getting a driver’s license is not even a topic of conversation among teenagers here; they are already independent in terms of moving around the city. As my friends in the States one after one announce the big day when their kids turn 16 and start driving, I get a brief flash of “oh, another cultural milestone of childhood foregone.” Until I realize the freedom sought therein… Oh, we already have that! And it came with a number of other perks. Unlike me – who cannot deal with long bus lines and the subsequent sardine-can effect due to my North American impatience derived no doubt from getting everywhere on my own terms in the hermetic silence and bastion of freedom inside my own car – they will hopefully reach adulthood with a larger store of patience and tolerance for inconvenience. Not to mention the adventures awaiting them on the buses of Buenos Aires.

Aside from discovering the beauty of biking to get where I’m going, I must admit that not having a car has forced us all to reflect on how dependent we are on the car, especially at night or when we need to carry anything large. We’ve ended up going out a lot less these past weeks. On the one hand, that’s good because we’ve spent less money; but on the other, it’s given me new appreciation for all our friends who don’t have cars but manage to make the trek all the way over to our house in Caballito for dinner, pick their kids up at all hours of the night from parties and somehow get their sundry amps, drum-sets and heavy bass guitars across town anyway. So once we do get the car back, I will think twice about driving unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I am finally sticking to my New Year’s resolution. I might even get an ace of hearts and clip it to my wheel.

Toilet Seats and Pink Hair: Raising a Girl in Argentina

I’ve mentioned my German friends before, I believe? Well, I will now take another example from that endless well of material they provide for the perfect contrast with life as I see it in Argentina. While I’ve never lived in Germany and therefore can’t generalize on the observation I’m about to make, the fact that I know of several cases leads me to believe it may be common practice, at least among university-educated engineers and architect types: German men pee sitting down. That’s right, ladies, never a toilet seat left up, bowl gaping for you to fall straight into in the middle of the night. And no dribble trail. It seems these guys are trained thusly. In deference to us, the toilet-seat down crowd. And proudly acknowledge it to be so, I might add.

In the opening scene of the Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges gets his head dunked repeatedly in his own toilet bowl. In his blasé, very Coen brothers effort to convince the intruders he’s not who they think he is, he asserts his bachelorhood by pointing out that the toilet seat was up, and therefore he couldn’t possibly be the married guy they were looking for. Meaning American men, when left to their devices, leave the seat up; however, they at least give lip service to the assumption that it should ordinarily be placed back down after use if there are women around (which is not to say that they always do. This I can offer lifetime testimony on.)

In Argentina, the toilet seat is always up. It is the standard position. It’s up in photos of bathrooms in homes for sale; it’s even up in public women’s restrooms. After 20 years of living with an Argentine man, I have given up the battle of the bowl, and merely resort to slamming it down every time I go in there. And our teenage son makes it two of them, so there’s no winning. In all honesty, neither of them are remotely machista. But the toilet seat down does not figure, either passively or actively, in their mental scaffolding of ‘rules one should follow.’ (Even Jeff Lebowski acknowledges this.) For all I know, my daughter probably lifts the seat “back into position” after she’s done her business. Which leads me to wonder, if women have a passive role in the whole toilet-seat thing, what does that imply on a larger scale when it comes to women’s role in gender-related notions here?

I worry about these things raising a girl in a Latin country. What kind of subtle messages are finding their way into her psyche? Especially when Argentine women themselves are seeming accomplices to the seatless toilet, the myth that long hair looks better on every woman, the tireless marching on of pinks and blues in baby stores, and the oil-and-vinegar effect at all social gatherings (boys on one side, girls on the other). Please, what are we, in middle school? Oh, and let’s not forget the No-thank you-I-don’t-drink-and-I’ll-just-have-that-piece-of-lettuce-for-dinner contingent. (Not to be misconstrued as my condonement of teenage drinking.) And what if an entire adolescence of examples like these are somehow larger than the 50% of her genetic make-up that came from her mom, who was one of those groundbreaking 10-year-old girls who played Little League baseball back in 1970s? Will she find her way to self-discovery, be loud when she needs to be, try on many different hats until she finds just the right one, eventually realize that it’s not all just about the boy and that it’s OK—no, it’s brilliant—to be different and to be excellent and to be exactly who she is and not what someone else thinks she should be? And that she can wear her hair any damn way she pleases?

My daughter’s hair is pink again. The first time, it was a fashion statement that ended in a bad color job, followed by tears and a very short haircut. Which, if you live in Argentina, you know that the short hair is equally—if not more of–a flagrant statement than any day-glo color. The short hair turned out to be the surprise that taught her how to embrace and celebrate her individuality. It has also unleashed her moxy. The decision to love her short, curly hair, even as she’s surrounded by the cadre of long, flat-ironed heads of her classmates, has turned her into a scrappy defender of the right to self-expression.

The other day she dyed her ends pink again, only this time it was an act of protest against her school’s recent ban on ‘certain’ hair colors. The school-wide protest—Facebook organized, of course—started en masse but dwindled to around 10% when it came down to actually doing the deed (either for fear of sanctions or parental prohibition I presume). My girl not only adhered, she spoke up to defend their position after the whole group was summoned to the director’s office. She proudly told me later that she had lost her fear of the director in the face of the conviction that she and her classmates had good grounds for argument: That while school regulations clearly state the prohibition on things like tattoos and piercings, there is nothing in the rulebook prohibiting hair color. So when the director chose to make the point that dying one’s hair blond or brown was fine because it doesn’t attract attention, while bright colors cause others to do a double-take (bad), Fiona said, “And what’s wrong with that? We’re exploring our identities, and teenagers need to do that outwardly.” And right she is. The way we look is an outward expression of some facet of ourselves. Dying one’s hair blond and ironing out the curls is preceded by a motive (I look prettier like this; I look more like everyone else; I feel more like Barbie.) These reasons are attached to certain personality types. The motive behind pink or green hair is probably more about rebellion or non-conformity or an adventurous nature, but aren’t there just as many of these equally deserving personalities in the world?

As I’ve said before, as a trade-off for more rigorous academics we chose the school despite the fact that it was old-fashioned and strict. So the director is certainly entitled to claim a school ethos that must be upheld and that does not allow for outward displays of rebelliousness. It is part of their policy to make no exceptions in an effort to preserve high standards. I get that. In fact, it even occurred to me that the severity of the school climate is actually an opportunity for students to raise conscientious objections like this one, so all the better. However, it was a bit disappointing that the director couldn’t at least give them credit for waging a well-founded battle against what they perceived as injustice; instead, she opted for ‘blond hair is fine, pink is not and you shouldn’t allow yourselves to be influenced by other students in this kind of thing.’ 1. Double-standard on the color issue in favor of the ‘pretty’ color. 2. Underestimation of protesting students’ ability to think for themselves. I mean, we want our kids to stand up for their rights, and encourage them when they go about it in a civil, conscientious way that promotes self-awareness, right?

It all just made me proud of my girl. She looks fantastic in short, pink hair and knows she has a voice. And it’s a relief to know that she is probably not going to be one of those girls putting the toilet seat back up for the guys.

What happened to the lazy days of summer?

Last day of school

One of the most gratifying things about keeping this blog is that, in hashing out things that bug me about the school experience in Buenos Aires – things that are lacking, broken, perplexing – I often end up discovering the flip side of those concerns in the US system. This gives me a deeper understanding of where my own fears are rooted and often leads me to the realization that, actually, this “otherness” that my kids are immersed in is not nearly as scary to me as the opposite end of the spectrum. And I end up learning something about myself. The subtitle in my header, cultural bone-baring, has to do with this – laying bare my own cultural moorings as well as those I begin to uncover in Argentine culture.

Case in point: The length of the school day/year, or in other words, net time spent in educational institution. I have mentioned the short school day here several times in previous posts. If we add to that the increasingly long list of feriados (thank you, Cristina), missed days due to strikes, and whopping summer vacation (3 ½ months for my kids!) – well, you can see where I’m going with this. It is a major red flag when I plug it all into the ‘net time’ formula. Will it all add up to them being something like a year behind by the time they finish high school? And that’s only compared to the 180-day US school year; god forbid I should start comparing it to the Chinese!

Well, now that I’ve brought the Chinese into it, as a matter of fact that is exactly what has been going on in the States in recent years. Comparisons to the Chinese, I mean. And apparently the quantity over quality approach is at the forefront of current proposals to lengthen the US school year to 12 months. Because we must keep up with the Chinese. However, more disturbing to me than the idea of no proper summer vacation are the reasons given by US high school students in opposition to the 12-month school year in this telling example in Teen Ink magazine. The essay focuses on summer internships and jobs in its argument, as do many of the follow-up comments (except for the one from China, ironically.)

Even though the teenage author and responses are obviously opposed to 12 months of school, their arguments seem to echo the same culture of work, work, work that’s behind the 12-month proposal in the first place. Not that I have a problem with summer internships and jobs (I would actually love for my kids to have those opportunities), but what I found oddly missing in the essay or follow-up were any protests about having to forego the social aspects of free time in summer, travel or just having time to read for pleasure and hang out with friends. For me, the kind of emotional and social maturity and self-exploration that comes with having the time to enjoy these things is right up there with more math. And the long break is good for the soul. (Ok, maybe not 3 ½ months worth, but still…) There is something sad in the fact that those teenagers don’t lobby for their right to sleep late in summer. And what this implies is that American teenagers – at least the ones who participated in this debate – are well on their way to having acquired the uber work ethic in their already jam-packed year-round schedules, so much so that the ‘sleeping late’ argument doesn’t even cross their minds.

Well. My Argentine teenagers are masters of the ‘sleeping late’ argument. They seem to think it’s some kind of divine right, becoming truly flummoxed and offended at the mere suggestion of getting up early to take advantage of their summer days. In fact, Argentina is really just one giant lounge-fest for most middle-class teenagers when they’re not in school. They hang out in parks, play their guitars, sing, drink mate, stay out all night – in other words, they’ve got their priorities straight. They truly take their leisure seriously and would no doubt take to the streets to defend their right to it if faced with the threat of 12 months of school. Like I said, I’d love it if my kids would do something a little more productive with all that free time in summer – get a part-time job or volunteer — but deep down, I actually kind of like that they so militantly defend their right to just hang out. I guess because if I dig way back to my own adolescence, I can relate. And honestly, I find it hard to relate to this generation of teenagers in the US who clamor for their right to spend the summer working. So there it is: perhaps I’m more Argentine than I think.

Of course, none of this really does anything to resolve my inner debate about the short schoolday in Buenos Aires and what sort of long-term consequences it will have. However, it does ease my mind a little about the intrinsic value of what teenagers do with the rest of their time here, either in summer or in after-school hours and the cultural relevance it has for me personally. They definitely have plenty of time to explore music, art, sports, whatever, without the stress of so many hours of school and homework. Who knows; perhaps the freedom to have a good time and lack of pressure in high school actually leads to more mature college students. This is certainly the assessment offered by the guys at BA Cast podcast in their education series, when they claim that university in Argentina is about serious study after all the partying in high school is over, whereas it is often just the opposite in the US.

I was recently watching a documentary about the history of jazz. There’s a part where Wynton Marsalis talks about how jazz is so fundamentally American that it could never have emerged anywhere but the US. He attributes this to the unique ethnic and cultural diversity of late 19th-century New Orleans and how this bred the ability to improvise, both in everyday life as well as in music. The Argentines know something about this as well. Thinking about that and the current trend in the US toward getting students to perform like the Chinese, I wonder if great jazz could ever have come out of a country like China?