Sunday, April 5, 2009

Heroes: Legs takes a giant step.

"I got to where I am because of education."
~ Michelle Obama, speaking to students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London last Thursday

Legs and Noodle are in new schools this school year. Skunk and I decided to move them to Flemish schools from the French schools they've attended all their young lives. A bit of background on the tiny but complex country we live in: Belgium has three official languages - Dutch, French, and German. An estimated 59% of the Belgian population speaks Dutch, and French is spoken by 40%. There is a small German-speaking community in the east of the country. We live in the French-speaking part of Belgium although if we drive 20 minutes north we're in Flanders. Flemish is both the colloquial term given to the Dutch spoken in Belgium, and to the inhabitants of Flanders. If this sounds confusing, well, that's Belgium for you.

It was convenient to send the children to the local French-speaking school. They started at the École Communale, a small but cheery primary school a 3 minute trundle from our front door. Eventually, we transferred Noodle to another school two villages away because it was piloting a Dutch immersion program. French native speakers would be taught most of their lessons in Dutch, with the aim of getting immersion students perfectly bilingual in both French and Dutch by the time they were 12 years old. There was skepticism at first, and parents like us who offered up our children as guinea pigs to this experimental program knew we were taking a risk. True, we could have bilingual children by age 12 - something nice to brag about to parents with monolingual kids. But things could backfire, and instead of speaking French and Dutch fluently, there was the possibility that the students would end up confused and speak both languages badly. To complicate matters further, we speak English at home, making English the children's mother tongue. Skunk and I speak passable everyday French. Translated, passable means that we speak it with execrable foreign accents, misconjugate our verbs, gender-bend our nouns, and are a little too free with the use of tu instead of vous. In more concrete terms, I speak good enough French to jaw down the price of a Le Creuset cocotte at a flea market or have a blazing row with the shackass who swiped my parking space in front of the post office, but I will never be able to discuss Sartre eloquently at a dinner party. Not that we go to those types of dinner parties anyway, thank god.

Over the last 3 years we had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Francophone school system's lack of funding and long-term vision. Schools were getting over-crowded, teachers were badly paid, over-worked and demotivated, academic standards were sinking, school equipment was falling apart and not being replaced. After Legs started high school at the French-speaking Athénée in the nearest town, she complained that her teachers were often absent and student discipline was a problem. Most of her classmates were more interested in mobile phones, reality TV and les baskets Converse. She wasn't learning anything. We investigated the possibility of sending her to Flemish schools which are much better funded and reputed to have some of the best academic standards in the world. We found Legs a place at an excellent Flemish high school 25 minutes away, and decided to move Noodle to a primary school in the same town. When the new schoolyear began last September we took deep breaths and prayed hard. Settling in to a new school was relatively painless for Noodle. After 5 years in Dutch immersion learning, his Dutch was almost as good as that of his new classmates who spoke it at home. However, the change of schools has been a grueling transition for Legs, whose Dutch was rudimentary at best.

Skunk and I repeatedly questioned the wisdom of our decision to throw an English mother-tongue, French-educated 13 year old in the deep end at what's turned out to be one of the most demanding high schools in Flanders. It seemed cruel doing it, even though we felt it was the right thing to do for Legs' education. It's been painful watching her struggle with subjects like History, Biology, Technology and Algebra in a language she could barely speak. We knew that all the parental love in the world coupled with her burning desire to succeed did not necessarily guarantee that Legs would make it. We grew frustrated with ourselves because we could scarcely understand the frequent communiqués the new schools sent home. We speak almost no Dutch so there was no question of helping her with her schoolwork. It would have been the blind leading the blind.

It was clear to the headmaster and all her teachers from the start that Legs would be a special case. They welcomed her warmly but said she would have to work very hard. Her new classmates were friendly and helpful, although socially there was the language barrier to hurdle as well. Her first trimester grades were quite poor, as expected. Her teachers were impressed by how hard she was working and gave her the help and encouragement she needed. There was extra Dutch tutoring after school. She began to make friends. She enjoyed gym, especially swimming, which she's good at. She rejoiced in the fact that she was ahead of the others in French and English. In all her other subjects, she scraped bottom. Though she was tired everyday after school, she did her homework diligently and without complaint. She would study for exams a month in advance. She made many sacrifices to help her focus on school: her Nintendo was put away until the school holidays; computer time, unless required for homework, was limited to a couple of hours on weekends only; Saturday afternoon activities in Brussels were put off; her iPod gathered dust.

Every language a child learns brings a different way of looking at the world. Week after week, we've watched with astonishment and delight as Legs' grasp of a new language has grown. The awkward phrases she mumbled six months ago have been replaced by the nimble, confident patter she keeps up with friends and teachers today.

On Friday evening we attended a parent-teacher meeting to discuss her second trimester progress. Both kids left in the afternoon for a competition weekend in the Ardennes with their Flemish swim team. Then it's Easter break for the next 2 weeks. Legs had not seen her latest report card but warned me, "Mama, please don't be upset if my grades are still bad. I really did my best." With that in mind, we weren't expecting much when we sat before her teachers. So we were speechless with shock when we saw her latest grades, which have improved tremendously. Her teachers were full of praise, "We've not met many youngsters like your daughter, she's a real joy to teach!" Her grade point average is now just a few notches below the class average, and if she can keep up her momentum she will have caught up with everyone else by the time school ends in June. Legs has surpassed everyone's expectations. Sitting there listening to all this, I fought back tears of pride and relief. Skunk and I drove home in a daze. I sent a text message to her swim coach to give her the good news right away.

I, perfectionist but slacker extraordinaire, am totally blown away by my girl's pluck and determination. I feel awful for yelling at her on the occasions she was too tired to remember to wash the dog's bowl, bring her dirty laundry downstairs or keep her desk tidy. When I look at the Herculean task she's tackled so bravely I know I should have cut her more slack at home. I could have, but I haven't always remembered to, or wanted to. Had it been me in her place I doubt I would have fared half as well. Humility is a classroom I will have to keep revisiting in earth school.

There's a Zen saying that goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Legs, your student is here.

Photos of Legs by Liana Joyce


Pam said...

Wow, great entry! I chose a partial Spanish immersion program for my daughter beginning in Kindergarten and have never regretted it. She did great with it!

Kudos to Legs for never giving up and doing all the hard work involved in order to succeed like she has. When I struggle with my classes and I see ESL students breezing through, I am always amazed. How in the world have they mastered the subject while still learning the language it is being taught in? It humbles me tremendously.

Well done, Legs! You have one more student! :)

Kathleen said...

Hurray for Legs! Outstanding! said...

Hurrah! Good for you, Stinky and your kids! Bravo!!!
Kids can really surprise you sometimes. I really was worried when my grandson was born, I wasn't sure my son was responsible enough to be a parent, but he really changed overnight.

The Poet's Lizard said...

How wonderful! Hugs all around! What are you waiting for? Go whip up a celebration dinner! :)

masadao said...

Had to hold back my welling eyes reading this piece...

ain't kids adorable?!


Naturelady said...

Amazing! Congratulations, not only to Legs, but also her parents for being willing to give this Flemish school a try "against the odds".

Do you remember when I first came to Brent School in the Philippines? I had just moved there from Germany and hardly knew English. I remember in 9th grade English Class we read "Malcolm X" which had a lot of slang in it - and I struggled desperately, not finding the words in the dictionary (like "I dunno"). My parents couldn't help me either, but somehow, with help from teachers and classmates (and you were one of them!!!), I did learn English!

Megatonlove said...

I remember this so well! In fact you're the only other person I know who's been in a similar position to my daughter. There's a lot to be said for throwing someone in the deep end when it comes to learning a new language. Not only did you learn English, you became better at it than many of our classmates. I will always be grateful to Messrs. McMurrin and Mulligan for the torment they put us through when they taught us to diagram sentences. I still do it for fun sometimes. (Yes, I'm weird.) The one person whose sentences I can't diagram is Sarah Palin. *smirk*

Anonymous said...

That`s a very inspiring story, I had a tear in my eye finishing it well done to you all! As parents, childeren and family. I`m very proud and honoured to know you all.
Big love from BroBanjo.X

Naturelady said...

Diagramming sentences -- yeah, I love that too! Do you remember our classmate, Venus? She was lost and I helped her diagram them, even though I had no idea what half of the words meant -- so she in turn helped me learn English vocabulary...
Somewhere in the blogosphere (and I wish I remembered where), I saw an attempt at diagramming some of Sarah Palin's sentences during her VP run -- it was pathetic....!