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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?