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?’

Getting There

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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.

Toilets and Pink Hair II: What it was really about

I think I have more to say on this topic after reading the feedback on the previous post, so thanks to all for bringing the clarity to me. Perhaps I was stretching it a bit in trying to bring too many topics under one umbrella. So now I’m just going to talk about women and girls and their objectification. While it is true that women do enjoy broad professional and political equality in Argentina, which is to be applauded, they continue to be objectified, their femininity given disproportionate importance, placing them forever on the pink team since the only other option is blue. But what about purple or green or yellow? (Not talking about hair here anymore, folks, so keep up.) Cristina said it herself: “I am not a feminist; I am feminine.” She’s also pumped full of botox and likes to flip her bangs like a teenager while addressing the nation. She embodies exactly what I’m talking about. Professional woman, Barbie worshipper.

For anyone who doesn’t have kids, it’s important to understand where my concerns are rooted when it comes to raising mine here. As adults, we are at liberty to choose the people we socialize with, the ways we go about it, the social norms we will and will not adhere to. If I don’t care to participate in football madness and deal with the barras bravas, I don’t have to; if I’d rather not kiss all 40 people at the birthday party when I arrive, I just don’t. And I can choose to take a positive attitude and focus on the fact that women have successful careers here and try not to look at the massive billboard images of vedettes plastered all along Corrientes. Or that pole-dancing is the most popular thing on TV, viewed by entire families including little girls and abuelitas.

But on the playground, the rules are not like this. Kids don’t get to make those choices; they have to learn the codes and adapt. And my concern is the message being put out there about what is feminine and what is not. And how this message seems to be embraced across society by women as well as men. Ergo, short hair is not feminine. (I suppose pink is, but only in a secondary sort of way once it’s chopped off. The pink hair story wasn’t really about that anyway.) Playing soccer is not feminine, ditto for basketball, etc.; only volleyball and field hockey qualify as school sports sufficiently feminine for girls to play. Go figure. These are subtle, insidious expressions of societal views that are put forward by teachers, classmates and family members of both genders.

The objectification of women is a global issue, not unique to Argentina. However, what I see as women’s complicity in perpetuating the image of extreme femininity here perplexes me. Which brings me back to the toilet issue. In this case a broad dismissal (again, across genders) of women’s “feminine” needs. And yes, while hovering over the toilet is standard practice in public bathrooms, it’s not possible for little girls or old ladies. They have to sit. And their needs are being ignored. By other women.

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?

University Prep Schools in Buenos Aires: The case for ILSE

I have lately come to believe that the education debate is kind of in free-fall, with different solutions, alternatives and panaceas up for grabs. I suppose this is the product of having dealt with three different systems in as many countries, rendering me muddled and confused as to what’s really best for my kids at the moment or in the long run (not necessarily the same thing.) I have gone from leaving No Child Left Behind far behind when we moved from the US, to a public school in southern Spain that appeared to be mainly about getting through all their textbooks and memorizing long lists of bones, muscles, plants and provinces; then we crossed back over the pond to a “progressive” private elementary school in BsAs. that often seemed more like a cage of monkeys than a school. This last finally led us to our current best option for high school: ILSE (Instituto Libre de Segunda Enseñanza), a traditional, uniformed – some might say old-fashioned – school that came with the initial filter of a heavy-duty entrance exam (see previous post). Who knew such a school would turn out to be the least of all evils and perhaps even the best of all worlds?

Despite my continued misgivings about the education my children are getting, when people ask if we plan to stay in Argentina, to my surprise I find myself mentioning school as one of the most compelling reasons for not moving on to cleaner, cheaper, more first-world climes at present. How did this happen, me and all my complaining and second-guessing of so many systems? To be sure, I’m definitely not convinced that their schooling is suddenly fantastic, but I’m also not convinced that the alternatives available to them in the US would necessarily be better, at least in terms of the big picture. Yes, they would have a full school day, elective classes, better facilities, more resources, sports, etc. – all things I wish they had – but I am not so sure that they would in fact be learning more. And then there are the social realities of high school life in the US that don’t need pointing out…

Honestly, I started writing about my kids’ schooling when they began first grade in Spain as a way to hash out my concerns and frequent bafflement. These have always at heart been largely due to my foreignness to the system and local codes, and compounded by the fact that my brain has been constantly fed by the education debate in the US conveniently coinciding with my kids being educated abroad. So in my surprising present state of quasi-satisfaction, I set out to clarify some of my lingering doubts about ILSE and how it differs from the other colegios universitarios de la UBA (see previous post for basic description of this unique system of university prep schools). In an interview with ILSE Vice Principal (Vicerrector), Roald Devetac, I had the opportunity to discuss several issues that may prove interesting for other expat parents looking for high school alternatives for their kids in Buenos Aires.

My first question was regarding the school’s academic focus compared to the Nacional Buenos Aires (humanities), Carlos Pelegrini (historically more business-oriented, although has undergone a shift in recent years) and the new Agronomía (agro-technical). According to Mr. Devetac, ILSE’s focus is comprehensive and humanities-based, much like the Nacional Buenos Aires. The latter being historically the most prestigious of all these schools, I told him we had chosen ILSE over the Buenos Aires because it was similar academically (actually, nearly identical; see curricula for both at ILSE and CNBA), but differed in three key aspects for us: no third shift, no teacher strikes, no student takeovers. I was curious as to why the last two issues do not seem to come up at ILSE as part of the public university system. As such, it has never been sufficiently clear to me everything implied by the assertion that these schools all “dependen de la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires).” If they all “depend” equally, then why do neither ILSE teachers nor students go on strike like they do in the others? The answer is that ILSE’s relationship of dependency (more aptly translated as ‘governance by’) is limited to the UBA-designed academic curriculum. While this relationship extends to politics, policy, administration and student council in the other schools, ILSE is an independent institution on all fronts except its curriculum. This independence is also reflected in the fact that its subsidy is only 70%, the remaining fee of 30% effectively rendering it a private school, while the others are completely public. For me this guarantees that my kids’ classes will be equally challenging academically, but they won’t be cancelled due to walkouts like the one that went on for weeks at the Pellegrini last year due to parent, student and faculty opposition to the choice of new principal there.

Another feature that sets ILSE apart from the other universitarios is its reputation for strict discipline. Notably, students are required to wear uniforms and stand up when a teacher enters the classroom. There is also a very clearly defined system of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules. As I mentioned in my original post on Argentine schools, for some parents who grew up here, this kind of requirement may be reminiscent of the years of harsh repression in schools during the dictatorship of the 1970s. (For a good film depicting that atmosphere in the Nacional Buenos Aires, see La Mirada Invisible.) In fact, a number of our friends overtly criticized ILSE and discouraged our choice for this reason when we decided on the school. However, not having lived through those dark times in Argentina myself, but rather having lived through the backlash of its aftermath, my initial impression of ILSE was one of clear rules aimed at students’ best interests, genuine prioritization of academic excellence, and quiet, focused classrooms with thoughtful and accomplished adults in charge. What really stayed with me from that first visit, though, was the impression Mr. Devetac made on me with his obvious dedication to students’ wellbeing and commitment to providing the best learning environment. So when I asked him what he thought about the school’s reputation as heavy-handed, or even military in the eyes of some adults, he chuckled and said in no uncertain terms: There must be rules for there to be learning. Honestly, the kinds of sanctions my kids have had to suffer during their first year at ILSE have amounted to being written up – if you accumulate too many write-ups, they affect your academic standing – for forgetting permission slips, talking in class, etc. They have served the purpose of breaking bad habits, so I fail to see how this is repressive.

As for the academic side of ILSE, this has been a year of transition for us. Perhaps not as demanding as I had expected outside of school hours, although the work has definitely ramped up the second half of the year; they spent a lot of time working on group projects the first part. I asked Mr. Devetac about this, given the comments from many expat parents here on the issue of group vs. individual work. He assured me that ILSE takes a balanced approach to the two, and that as of second year, students begin to produce term papers and other demanding individual projects. He also mentioned the worldwide shift in education toward prioritizing teamwork, alongside the importance of individual work and the self-discipline it requires. In the context of global education trends, we also discussed new technologies. Mr. Devetac acknowledged the need to incorporate them, with the caveat that not all of them have yet been proven to add value to education; in other words, the real benefits of new technology should always be kept in perspective.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the learning factor at school, I think it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between excellence and superior learning, especially for Americans since we come from such a competitive society where excellence always refers to top performance in school. I personally have really struggled with this issue this year. My kids, their ILSE classmates, and friends attending Pellegrini and Buenos Aires all seem to be focused on passing grades. Not top – just passing with a 7 or above. (It is a daily exercise for me to subdue the nagging alarm bells that anything below 88 is a C, mediocre, not up to par.) The fact is, they struggle to achieve these grades, spending hours studying for tests, producing charts, summaries, lists of definitions, etc. to prepare for long essay answers on everything from music history to Greek and Roman mythology. Not a multiple choice in sight, no standardized testing, no grading curve here. Then in my other ear, I get to hear from my friends and family in the States about their kids in wow high schools, all of whom are taking AP classes, in IB programs aiming for the best universities and jumping through the necessary hoops to get there: the coveted 4.0, stellar SAT scores, extracurriculars and all of the above. Bs are frowned upon. A friend recently sent me her daughter’s schedule, which ran from 6am-9pm and included scheduled activities on Sat. and Sun. in addition to the loads of homework. We don’t have that kind of “excellence” here. However, we do have lively conversations in which the kids spontaneously discuss things over dinner like the differences between the societies of  Sparta and Ancient Greece. They have strong opinions about learning Latin and syntax; they’re definitely much more verbal about school subjects than I ever was at that age. In fact, they seem to be learning a lot without being focused on the competitive aspect of top grades as a means to get somewhere else in the long-run. And I wonder if this way  of learning is really such a mediocre thing after all, what with so many paths available to them.

En fin, it turns out that ILSE was probably the best of all choices for us. I wouldn’t trade this for the kind of schedules kids have in the US, no matter how great their sports facilities, theater programs and state-of-art classroom technologies. My kids are engaged, challenged, well cared for, developing good habits, at times stressed about academics, but still have time to learn outside of school as well, which is equally – if not sometimes more – valuable. Perhaps I will write about that another time…

Reading Harry (Part 2, continued from previous post)

Just before leaving Europe for good, we did something extravagant: We flew the whole family to London to see the premiere of the HP4 movie. Although the movies have always been second-best to the books, that trip placed London at the top of Lucas’ and Fiona’s favorite-place-in-the-world list. So the vivid images of the Goblet of Fire, the World Quidditch Cup Tournament, Cedric Diggory’s death in the maze and Voldemort’s rebirth from a cauldron, were actually trumped by those of the dinosaurs in the Museum of Natural History, ice skating at the Tower of London, and a frigid hike across Kensington Gardens to find the statue of Peter Pan. Harry was still with us, but other things had begun to make noise in our kids’ awareness of the world around them.

We had already been in Argentina for a couple of years by the time the seventh and final book came out, and both kids had read the entire series on their own – some books more than once. In fact, they probably sat and listened to me read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows more out of a spirit of solidarity with me than anything else. Even so, we still had a good cry together at the end: not only was Harry’s story over; it was the last time the three of us would sit and read together. We held on to the knowledge that we still had several films to go, which softened the blow a bit.

After that, there were just two more notable HP moments to add to the lot. One came in the most unexpected circumstances during a long hike in southern Patagonia one summer. Looking at 6 hours between departing the town of El Chaltén to get to one of the jaw-dropping glacial blue lakes in the Andes, the ‘how much longer’ question loomed large on our trek. Among our arsenal of stories, jokes, snacks and mind games to distract whining hikers, 20 questions always worked well. This time I decided to give it a Harry Potter theme. The kids’ categorical questions – Is is a magical creature? Is it a spell? Did it first appear in Book 3? – soon became a source of curiosity for other hikers on the trail, who started joining in. We ended up with a huge line of international Harry Potter fanatics all playing along with us! Seeing my kids as part of a global community of readers? Very cool moment.

So it’s been ten years since we started reading Harry and the time has come to say goodbye. Our final farewell at the movies last month was a fitting close to the saga not for its cinematographic recreation of The Deathly Hallows. In fact, the film took a backseat to the packed theater of fans, many of them dressed in Hogwarts robes, who clearly knew every scene by heart from multiple readings of the book. It was a crowd of readers whose real tears preempted every tragic death, whose shouts, cheers and applause mixed with the raging battle of Hogwarts students on screen to the point that it was hard to distinguish movie from audience. The effect of the collective emotions of all those teenagers not only surpassed the movie, they made the movie. Unforgettable.

The benefit of reading to one’s children goes without saying. What is perhaps not so often mentioned is the gift it gives to the parent who takes his child’s imagination seriously. Reading with my children has allowed me to inhabit the fictional places they have loved right alongside them. I have become the voice of Piglet, Brer Rabbit, and yes, Dobbie the house elf. It’s been a privilege I’ll never forget. Farewell, Harry – you will be missed.

Reading Harry (Part 1)

Fair warning: I am going to gush about Harry Potter. And I’m going to have to do it in installments. So bear with me only if you are a true fan. Since that final trip to the movies with my kids a few weeks ago to watch Harry and Voldemort fulfill their destinies, I have put off writing about it, mainly in hopes of gaining some perspective and reining in my drama queen. But I fear that my devotion to Harry will never really fade, and whenever I talk about him, it will always be with an exaggerated reverence that no doubt seems downright silly to the faithless. The fact is Harry is special to me because of the priceless bond he has forged and sustained between my kids and me throughout 10 years of their childhood. While they have gone through many phases of fascination with one literary character or another – Peter Pan, Merlin, Tom Sawyer –the 10-year run of Harry and his world is unmatched by any other, and has been the stuff of parenting bliss.

There were so many memorable moments; it all started with the paper maché owls that came home from kindergarten with Lucas and Fiona in the form of little balls of masking tape with owl faces drawn on and tiny envelopes stuck to them. Lucas would frenetically produce several of them each day after school, saying that he had to get the mail out to his classmates. He had a friend called Sam, who was telling him all about the owls, wands, Hogwarts and muggles (non-magical folk); his enthusiasm to learn more was just brimming over. Vaguely aware of the growing phenomenon of Harry Potter (back in 2001), I didn’t consider exploring the books because of my twins’ age at the time. However, I soon met Sam’s mother and she told me that Sam was an early reader; she had been reading HP aloud with him and discovered it to be a source of fascination and real stimulation for Sam. Because the boys had become such good friends – and were “writing” an HP play for their classmates – I decided that we would give Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a try. That was the beginning of a journey through 7 books, 8 movies, learning to read, life in three countries, and the passage from childhood to teenagers. So, like Harry’s own passage into adulthood, his story will be forever intertwined with my own kids’.

There is a photograph of me reading that first book to Lucas and Fiona out in our backyard in Richmond, Va., not long before we packed up our life and moved it across the Atlantic to Spain. The kids are both staring into the middle distance with such rapt expressions – photographic evidence of having moved beyond picture books into the realm of full-blown imagination. The Harry Potter books particularly lend to being read aloud. Even after the kids started reading them on their own, we still read every new release aloud together. And they would always beg for “just one more chapter, please, Mommy!” And every time we got our hands on the next one, our mutual relishing of that first page together on the sofa – me cross-legged in the middle with one kid snuggled on either side – there was something nearly sinful about it, so utterly unimportant was everything else.

The orality of J.K. Rowling’s writing took the kids’ powers of concentration to new levels and set the stage for many of the long road trips to come in Europe, listening to one book on tape after another in the car  –  Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak and many others – I think they love road trips for that very reason. On one such trip, Harry accompanied us all the way to France. Although we have always made a point of reading (and listening) to books in their original language, the only audiobook I could find in Seville was HP1 in Spanish. Since my husband had largely been left out of our little party of three when it came to Harry, it was a good way to let him in on it and try Harry out in Spanish for the long drive north. I believe we spent as much time in rapt listening mode in the car as we did exploring the castles ruins, camping or touring the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. We have fantastic photos and memories of that trip, but the narrator’s voice reading Harry in Spanish is the soundtrack that comes to mind every time I revisit them.

Then there was the invisibility cloak, conveniently left in the street for my husband to find and bring home to Lucas one day. It was a slippery, slinky black and silver thing that I think Lucas truly believed gave him powers of invisibility and certainly became the prize object in the kids’ costume trunk. Moving to Spain did nothing to tame the kids’ theatrical inclinations – they both lived in costume – so they attended their first HP bookstore event in Seville decked out in full Hogwarts regalia. Lucas with his invisibility cloak and round, broken glasses, and Fiona, of course, as Hermione in a long, natty brown wig (formerly belonging to one of the three Reyes Magos), with a broom and starry wand. Winding our way through the labyrinth of Seville, we ran into friends on the way (as one always does in the streets of Seville). A battle ensued between Lucas and a rival wizard from the other party, with threats in Sevillano Spanish mixed with spells in Latin. Wands drawn, the duel continued through the narrow streets, around corners and on into the bookshop. (I believe they both lost, flayed as they were on the floor as I recall. Hermione took a potion from her bag and revived Harry, thank goodness). As the flagship event in Seville at that time, the local media were there and we made the papers.

Sadly, our years in Spain came to an end sooner than planned. For personal reasons, we made the decision to move to Argentina at the end of 2005. Looking back to our first summer in Andalucía, and how we sweltered in a tiny apartment, searching for a place to live, waiting for the ship carrying our container to arrive and double-guessing the sanity of what we were doing, I also remembered the intensity of our immersion in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban that summer. Those endless hours of reading with Fiona and Lucas were the one constant in a family life that had been completely turned on its head when we left the US and moved to Spain; Harry became our anchor then. And so, less than 3 years later when the same thing was about to happen all over again – this time en route to Argentina – he was right there with us as we mentally prepared for our next adventure in international moving. First, there was the reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that last summer in Seville.  I have placid memories of our month housesitting for friends whose house came with a pool (serious luxury in the frying pan of Andalucia) and happy bike rides along the river and through the city, empty of noisy Sevillanos in August. Absolutely blissful end of summer. However, sadness befell us as well. One afternoon my husband came down from his nap to find his entire family in tears on the couch. In complete shock he asked what was wrong, fearing that someone had died. We all blubbered in unison, “Dumbledore is dead!” Obviously, the kids were mourning the death of a beloved character, but in my case, it was much more about the killing off of the last adult figure in Harry’s life and what that represented in the larger scheme of childhood waning. It had to be done. Even though my children were only 8 then, the upcoming move marked a turning point towards the later stages of childhood, in which I knew my presence would become increasingly less important. J.K. Rowling manages to consistently and poignantly capture the different stages of separation between children and the adults in their lives as Harry and his friends grow up. This surely comes from a writer who is keenly aware of her own role as a parent; for that she has my respect.

To be continued….

A Lesson for Me

At the urging of the fantastic people in my writing group, I will change directions with this post and submit something that just came out of a writing exercise. This also allows me to start living up to what I said my original post about looking at the topic of education from different angles. So this one is just a daily lesson for myself.

Right now I’m feeling annoyed. I would have to say that if I had to describe my most common state, it would be annoyed. At the moment, it has to do with ineptitude, or maybe it’s inefficiency or lack of organization, overlooking of details or whatever it is that causes things to not work in Argentina. Present example: Filing a complaint to have the damn tree in front of my house pruned. I have done this before. It’s been 5 years. They’ve never pruned it. The branches cover what little light that’s not already blocked out by the monstrous building going up across the street from our house; they also reach into our small balcony making it easy for a smallish chorro to break in. (I refuse to cage in the balcony and windows.) In past attempts, I’ve ether called the reclamos number or filed the online complaint form. This time I’ve decided to attack on three fronts: by phone, online, and a personal visit to my local CGPC. Since I’ve stayed home to write today, I start with the simplest first, the online complaint. First snafu: A brief description of problem is requested, so I start with ‘Tree branches growing into balcony and co— the text box apparently doesn’t allow for more. So I try ‘Tree needs pruning.’ This elicits a message informing me that there are ‘no matches’ in the system. So I finally just settle on ‘tree.’ Bingo. I can move on to the next screen. From there on, all goes well—through several tedious screens, I might add—until I click on ‘Submit complaint.’ The message: System error. Please file your complaint by phone. Well, there’s fifteen minutes of my time wasted and a third of my strategy sunk.

At best this makes for a summary anecdote of the daily challenges we all face living in Buenos Aires. However, I don’t notice everyone else suffering such a generalized affliction of annoyance. I mean, just the other day I asked my son if he could tell me why he thought his obsession with one particularly violent video game might be bothering me, and he said, ‘Because everything bothers you, Mom.’ One of those parental moments when you just have to shut down and admit they’re right and you’re wrong.

So if this is true—maybe not everything, but many things annoy me—I really need to ask myself why that is, or at least why I seem to lack basic perspective on the daily annoyances. Perhaps I’m distorting simplicity. The simplicity of everyday tasks in the place I come from—how easy it is to park your car, rent an apartment, check out at the supermarket, open a bank account or even get a social security number—is the spotlight I constantly shine on similar errands here. It can and should all be so simple, so why is it so consistently not? It’s almost like I apply some sort of universal law of simplicity that keeps eliciting the same response: System error.

Where I come from… the same place all those people cheering the death of Bin Laden do. Ding dong, the witch is dead and we can all go back to Kansas. Simplicity at its best, right? There was this evil guy who will no longer terrorize, so we’re all safe now. Simplicity and fast, easy solutions are ingrained in the American psyche, making it hard for many of us to deal with complexity, grey areas, etc. Or some of us anyway; just the other day I met a New Yorker who said he had given up his high salaried job/hectic life to move here because the easiness of everyday tasks in the US made life dull; the challenges of life’s minutiae here had restored something vital for him.

After nearly ten years of living abroad, I know this is true – that jumping life’s daily hurdles, no matter how preposterous and illogical, makes it all somehow more meaningful than going through on auto-pilot. It’s part of the reason I left too; but sometimes I just want to go to Target and load my cart full of cheap and easy stuff. When will I ever grow out of this?

One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism

            I remember the first time my kids had a big group of school friends over to our house in Buenos Aires – they were in 4th grade. There were about 10 kids sitting in a circle on our rooftop terrace mulling over what to play. I stood and spied at the door, amazed at how civil they were about their negotiations, how seriously they took it! And from what I knew so far about their new school, I thought ‘How wonderful that they should foster such a spirit of cooperation.’ I sensed I was seeing the effects of their new school culture playing out directly in their social lives.  I left them alone to play and came back to check on them about 20 minutes later. To my surprise, they were still seated in the same circle, but there was some arguing going on by then about what they were going to play: jump rope, la mancha, twister, etc. So I stepped in to mediate and pointed out that there were enough of them to break into smaller groups so everyone could play what they liked. They all looked up at me with perplexed faces until one spoke up: “What’s the point of getting together if we’re not going to all play the same thing?” Hard to know what to say to that.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised if I think about how groups of Argentine adults socialize. Have you ever been at a party where Argentines predominate and somehow you find yourself in a circle in which all present participate in the same conversation, whether there are 5 or 25 of them? You really have to be assertive – not always easy to maneuver linguistically, regardless of how well you might speak Spanish. In terms of discourse, English-speakers tend to have two-way or very small groups conversations, which ensures that all present can make their individual points – stand out and make themselves heard, so to speak. But in the multi-player Argentine version, the numbers have a dimming effect on most of the speakers who don’t happen to be “big” personality types, so it’s kind of hard for all 25 to shine. I often find myself really wishing people would mingle more at social gatherings here instead of “the big circle”…

And just one more example of what I’m getting at, for any of you on school parent e-mail lists here, you know how annoying all those endless email responses like ‘sí; ok; de acuerdo; listo; también; etc.’ in your inbox can be? Recently, when one parent suggested we make a Yahoo group so as to only have to receive the one daily summary, with very few exceptions, the rest overwhelmingly e-voted the motion down, saying that they preferred to ‘see the ongoing exchange because it gave them a better sense of the group dynamic.’ Down with efficiency in the name of togetherness.

Anyway, back to the kids, unlike my school years, where class groups were shuffled with every passing year so we had to annually adapt to a new group, here in Argentina classes are kept together sometimes from as early on as preschool throughout elementary school, and even on through high school. In fact, at the first parent meeting at our kids’ new high school, several parents lamented how their children were struggling with having to leave their childhood class behind. The sentiment in our house is very different – we’re all celebrating the expanding social horizons high school has opened up to the kids. Mainly, we hope the new environment will allow them to more deeply explore their unique abilities and interests and excel as individuals, because elementary school seemed to be a lot more about fostering group interests, both socially and academically.

Like other foreign parents I have talked to, I found the lack of individual assessment from my children’s teachers disconcerting throughout elementary school; grade reports were mostly in the context of the child’s performance as part of the group. The two annual individual reports were formulaic and showed little knowledge of my kids’ academic strengths or weaknesses. Even though it is just as important to me as the next parent that my kids feel socially accepted and respect the group dynamic, it was strange to see how this played out  academically, as if individual achievement and group role were somehow at cross purposes. Just like the kids refusing to play until everyone agreed on the game up on the rooftop, I sensed a real premium placed on the group advancing “as one” with their coursework – let no child be left behind. The fact is faster learners were indeed left behind:  to boredom, or its constant companion – mischief, as they continued working on the same concepts until everyone caught up; not until then could everyone move on.

This idea of the whole class as part of a common project in unity is particularly at odds with the notion of differentiated work for individual students, whether they happen to be gifted in math or speak English as their native language. When it comes to proposals to allow native-English speakers to opt out of mandatory EFL classes, the central argument from school authorities is the disruption of group unity; they see this as potentially damaging to the child’s social acceptance and the overall group dynamic. This also applies to suggestions of differentiated, level-appropriate work for English natives, the argument again being that setting them apart may somehow break down the fabric of the class. It just seems to me that this pretty much disregards the academic needs of individual students in favor of the group.

Argentines are actually very self-critical about their own individualistic tendencies. You will often hear people lament how individualism has taken hold of the country, everyone only out for themselves, no concern for the common good, this of course being at the root of all the crime and corruption. Perhaps. But at least in terms of social education, what I see my kids absorbing is much more about going along with the group and putting their individual differences on a lower plain, both socially and academically. This surely promotes tolerance, solidarity and cooperation, but I have also witnessed how it teaches them to be careful not to shine too brightly.

All this has made me reflect on what I really believe in. If asked whether I favor a school environment that fosters group harmony and tolerance, of course the answer is yes; but it never would have occurred to me that such an environment might also downplay the importance of individual achievement in the same classroom because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. So this has led me to wonder about the notion of individualism in Argentina, which I sense is equated with selfishness, whereas I see it as  more related to each individual attaining his or her unique potential. In fact, the different angles the two languages take are illustrated in standard dictionary definitions of individualism. The English is from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Spanish from the Real Academia:

English

1. n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Spanish

1. m. Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás, o sin sujetarse a normas generales. (Tendency to think or operate independently of others or without abiding by general rules.)

Just in these definitions alone, you can see the contrasting values associated with the term. I suppose this would explain why, by the end of elementary school, I was feeling like my personal value system was slightly under assault. If nothing else, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of why these things bother me, and how much the cultural ethos we grow up in shapes our beliefs.

Then again, the slate has been wiped clean now that my kids have moved up to high school. And I am hopeful that we may see a different atmosphere of encouragement when it comes to their unique qualities, given that they certainly had to stand out in the crowd to get in in the first place. Ideally, this will provide some sense of balance in which they feel more confident to express themselves as individuals but remain sensitive to the larger group around them.