Monday, September 21, 2009


In reality, the kids' school is everything we’ve ever dreamed of—albeit in a surreal, Salvador Dali, William S. Burroughs kind of way.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I think the truth is that when you get to choose a school and you get to pay for it yourself (albeit with US Government funds, delivered in strangely sequential bills—and since when has John Ashcroft been on the fifty?), I think you’re a bit more fussy about it than you are with a normal school. Because, see, when you send your kids to the local neighborhood school, which most people do, it is what it is and that’s where they go and you don’t really think about it too much, assuming the third grade teacher isn’t named J. Jones, and keeps making out-of-context jokes about grape Kool-Aid.

When you’re paying for a school, though, there’s an undercurrent of choice. “I could reduce you to eating cat food,” you find yourself tempted to hiss into the ear of your son’s teacher. “I can buy and sell you.”

Even though, of course, it’s not true, since every international school in Hong Kong has been fully booked for nine months, and it’s either your present school or one on the border with China, where the boys seem to mysteriously disappear every time a black limousine arrives just beyond no-man’s land.

But nonetheless, there you are, feeling just a tad bit hyper-critical, running your finger along the vinyl blinds looking for chalk dust, counting the number of math assignments proportional to reading assignments, calling your daughter’s teacher at 4 AM and saying, “You’re not going to wear that pink sweater again, are you? Because it makes you look gouty.”

Or, for instance, you judge the parents of your classmates. Not me, of course, but you and other people like you. Because I would never do that. Especially at the first Parents Association meeting. Which was last week. Tuesday, to be exact.

To be honest, it was a very nice meeting. For one thing, the kids’ school is small enough that all the parents were able to go around the room and introduce themselves. For another thing, one of the mothers made some of those peanut-butter cookies, you know the kind, with the crossed hatch marks on the top? Man, those are good.

What was interesting were the different things the parents said while introducing themselves. No one, for instance, came right out and said, “This was the only school in Hong Kong we could get into,” or, “It cost less than the others, and we love our children, but not that much.” Instead they made up bogus reasons about a solid curriculum, and teachers who care about the kids, blah, blah, blah.

Actually, the two most cited reasons were: A) that this was a religious school; and B) that this school was slightly more laid back than the others.

The first of these, I have to admit, made Ellen and me slightly uncomfortable. Though we’re both offspring of highly moral and spiritual people—and our fathers aren’t half-bad, either—neither of us has ever developed much of a tolerance for so-called “evangelical” Christianity. The reasons for this are manifold, and I won’t go into them here for fear of offending most of the state of Virginia, but by-and-large it comes down to the fact these people are often judgmental, that they generalize, and that they’re all going to hell.

The second thing needs a bit more explanation. Secondary school in Hong Kong is more or less based on the British system. In the UK, students all take a monster exam at the end of their fifth form (roughly around the age of 15 or 16). Those who do well enough get to go on to sixth form, more exams, and the chance at University. Those who don’t do so well get thrown into a meat grinder and fed to giant canaries that live under the Thames. I am not making this up.

At the end of sixth form, the remaining students take A-Level exams, the outcomes of which determine what university they get to go to, if any, and what they’ll get to major in.

In Hong Kong, it’s pretty much the same, only: a) there are fifth-year exams and seventh-year exams, meaning kids don’t graduate from secondary school until the age of 19-ish; and b) the pressure to succeed in Hong Kong is extraordinary.

Not that the British don’t also feel pressure. One need only look at the number of successful Olympiads the UK has produced in recent years, to understand that meeting and exceeding high expectations is clearly part of British culture. In Hong Kong, though, the pressure is not just high, but extraordinarily high.

If you ask around, you’ll get lots of answers as to why this is. One friend told me it’s because today’s families are smaller than in the past, so parents pile all their hopes on one or two children, instead of 6 or 12.

Another colleague mentioned that Hong Kong is an evidence-driven society, so kids are pushed hard to receive certification in whatever they do, to bear proof of their success. In some ways this ties in with the perception—often forwarded by Hong Kongers themselves—that the culture is obsessed with name brands, with visible evidence of their success. If indeed this is the case, then good grades in major exams, or attendance at not just any old university but the BEST university, might explain how important these exams have become.

Because they are important. I realized as much not three days after I arrived and noticed the handsome face of Allen Chiu staring at me from the back of a bus. Allen was maybe thirty, and definitely geek chic, with his white shirt and bulky glasses countered by carefully tousled hair. What’s more, he clearly found me attractive. I knew this, because he was pointing a finger at me and saying, in both Cantonese and English, that I should “Be Part of the A Culture.”

My first thought was that he was biologist, interested in recruiting people for experiments with giant Petri dishes. Then I saw the Xi sisters on the side of another bus, looking equally glamorous and smart with their stylish quaffs, thick glasses and silky smiles. “Damn,” I thought. “I have to switch into the natural sciences.”

But then the next week I was reading the paper and came across an article on “Cram Schools,” test preparation programs run by “charismatic figures with trendy names” for which parents would pay thousands of (HK) dollars, with no guarantee of results. Apparently these programs have taken on an almost status symbol quality, with students begging their parents to send them to the trendiest schools tutored by the hunkiest or sexiest of the uber-geek supermodels from the bus ads. All, again, with no guarantee that the program would provide any results.

Think of it this way: yes, getting a great exam score is a status symbol. But status can also be gained by having a cool tutor. Even though that tutor might not help you get a good score—which itself, just to repeat, is a status symbol.

So the end is a status symbol. And so’s the means. Even if the means don’t get you to the end.

Kind of makes you feel just a wee bit better about the US’s messed up values system, doesn’t it?

All of which I mention, remember, simply because: a) it’s really funny; and b) it helps you understand why parents at the first Parents’ Association meeting would mention how they liked the school because it seemed to place less academic pressure on students.

All in all, this meeting allowed Ellen and me to walk away from the school that morning feeling pretty good about our decision to send our kids there, especially after I’d stuffed 42 of those peanut butter cookies into my back pack.

If only things stayed that simple.

Last Friday was “Curriculum Night,” the HK equivalent of “Meet the Teacher Night” in the US. The evening started with a bang when I discovered a refreshment table where they were serving these mini chocolate cakes. As if that wasn’t fantastic enough, when I bit into one of those little suckers, the taste of banana flooded my tongue. Yes, folks, that’s right: chocolate and banana. Is this a great school or what?

I was busily stuffing cakes into the pockets of my cargo shorts, cursing myself for forgetting my backpack, when my son’s teacher approached and said, “So you’re a teacher, right?”

I sort of grunt-nodded, afraid if I spoke I’d spit banana-chocolate crumbs all over her face.

She grinned. “Yeah, I was surprised when I got your e-mail and there was an ‘edu’ at the end. I actually applied to the school you teach at, but they didn’t accept me.”

I managed a muffled “Really?” trying to look interested, when really what I was thinking was if Ellen would maybe help me with the cakes if I told her about the magic bananas in the middle.

“Uh-huh,” the teacher said, then gave me a blushing grin: “You see, I’m not actually certified to teach in Hong Kong.” Then she went on to talk about something else, Will’s work in class maybe, or fashion magazines, or where she might have left her mushy little brain that she’d be inclined to mention to the educator son of one of her students that not only was she not certified to teach in this country, she’d been REJECTED FROM THE ONE SCHOOL SHE’D APPLIED TO!

Sorry about the caps. And the exclamation point. In reality, I guess, this isn’t probably as bad as it seems. After all, she’d only recently come over from Canada, and surely she’d been certified, there—certified to teach, I mean. And for what it’s worth, Will likes her a great deal and seems to be learning stuff in her class, so that’s a good sign, right?


All of that said, at the very least what this did was start the evening with a bit of a tail spin.

Don’t worry, though. It only gets better. And in case you haven’t yet caught on to my use of sarcasm, by “better” I really mean worse.

It started when Lucy’s teacher, having completed her review of the year’s curriculum for the Kindergarten class, showed the attending parents the class website. There was the teacher sitting on a chair in the comfy corner, reciting numbers and nouns and talking about eating your vegetables and holding hands when crossing the street. And there were all her cute little students, gathered around her like so many baby bunnies, all round faced and smiling, eyes bright, chubby little hands waving in the air.

Except for Lucy. Who looked like she’d just drank a quart of anti-freeze. And then sat on a hot waffle iron.

No biggie, I thought. Maybe she was just having a bad day. Or a bad hour even. Because, you see, when Lucy comes home from school she rattles on about learning Putonghua, about playing football during recess, about the funny things her teacher said that day. Just this afternoon, I wasn’t in the door two seconds when she was tugging at my briefcase, showing me a worksheet she’d done that day, unscrambling “-at” words and spelling them in the right order. She then went through the list, sounding out “cat,” “sat,” “bat,” and even “flat.” The only two she got mixed up were “hat” and “that,” and the hell if I was going to correct her.

So no biggie I thought. Just a bad hour, just a bit of underdone potato, to quote that Dickens guy. Thirty minutes and a good bowel movement and she’d be back to her usual perky self.

Only she wasn’t. Every picture showed the same thing: all those chubby little bunnies, looking chubby and little and bunnyish and cute and engaged and learning and all-American despite being from places like Finland and Malaysia. And there was Lucy, forearms on her knees, face somewhere between grim and disengaged.

Nonetheless, I didn’t panic. I know my little girl. She’s full of spirit and goofiness and vinegar and salt and humor. This is a kid whose favorite dish is Phad Thai and who learned to swim when she was three.

Once the orientation had ended, I approached the teacher and handed her the contact sheet she’d asked us to fill out. “So how’s it going?” I said.

Even then, I suppose, I expected assurances. “She’s doing fine,” her teacher would say. Or at worst, “Well, she started off a bit rough, but she’s coming along.”

What I got though, was a dip of the eyes as Lucy’s teacher brushed the cake crumbs off the sheet I’d just given her and said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that.”

Forgive me for saying this, but if you don’t have kids you might not understand why these few simple words made my heart slide down my chest and somewhere between my stomach and whatever it is that allows us to get up in the morning and have enough faith to imagine the world as a kind place.

“Oh?” I squeaked.

“She seems . . .” Lucy’s teacher bit her lower lip, trying to choose her words carefully. This was a woman who, I should add, I trusted entirely as a professional. Though only 27 at the most, she was clearly a natural in the classroom—firm but caring, funny but able to communicate ideas in a way the kids would understand. She’d only been at the school for 2 years, and already she was the curriculum director.

“She seems so serious,” is what she finally came out with. “I don’t think I’ve seen her smile once in the classroom.”

My mouth must have hit the floor. Lucy? The little girl who Will once said was funnier than the entire cast of Chicken Little put together?

Then she met my eye. “What’s she like at home?”

I stuttered. “A—a goofball. She’s—an absolute nutjob.”

The teacher looked just shy of stunned. “Really?” Then she gestured toward the bulletin board, where all the kids had hung pictures of their families, with strands of yarn leading to where they’d come from. Lucy’s picture showed our family on the VMI parade grounds on the 4th of July. We’re sprawled on the grass, just having finished a dinner of barbequed chicken and coleslaw. Will’s doing cross-eyes and Jamie’s sprawled across Ellen’s lap, squirming like baby squirrel. Lucy is behind Ellen, two fingers behind her own head, giving herself bunny ears and grinning at the camera.

“When Lucy brought this picture in,” her teacher said, “I thought, ‘I’ve never seen this person before.’”

If it’s possible to break a sinking heart, that’s basically what happened at this point. I said one or two disconnected things, thanked the teacher, shook her hand, and stumbled out into the humid night. Kids were running around on the Astroturf playground, shouting in the dark, waiting for their parents. I took a seat at one of the benches along the wall and tried to get my head around it. Lucy was happy at home, I knew that. And she was happy about school. I knew that too. Nothing like this had ever happened in Lexington, at least as far as I knew. On the contrary, her pre-school teachers had always loved her, saying she was the perfect student, obedient but funny, goofy but the first to sit on the floor at the appropriate time and be quiet for the teacher. What was going on?

There were, of course, the obvious answers: she’d just started school. She’d left the only home and the only friends she’d ever had, and moved to a new country. Her grandfather had died. Her mom had been gone for a long time. The food was different. It was hot. Old ladies kept touching her hair when we were riding the subway, or standing in line at the grocery store, or sitting on a park bench minding our own business.

But still. This wasn’t the girl I knew. I couldn’t picture the kid I knew sitting in a classroom, with a teacher she loved, being miserable.

I was glad Ellen was still in with Will’s teacher, and that it was dark. I needed time to let my thoughts settle down. Leaning back, I looked out over the field. The PE teacher, a tall Scot with a slight stoop to his back, was playing kick the can with maybe ten of the kids. An empty water jug stood in the middle of the field, barely visible in the few streetlights that made their way into the back courtyard. Mr. Blain patrolled the edges of the Astroturf, his gangly arms dangling, his polo shirt soaked with sweat, squinting against the lights to spot the children. They skittered along just out of his sight, ducking behind hedges and beneath playground equipment, oversized geckos in bright shirts and bare feet. One small boy in a yellow shirt seemed particularly adept at slipping below his gym teacher’s line of sight, and sprinting toward the transparent jug without getting caught. Twice while I watched, he flew across the pavement and onto the turf, speeding toward the water bottle and sending it spinning into the air with a swift Pfooft! all before Mr. Blain could catch him.

What I didn’t know then was that, two days later, this little boy would run in a 3.5K foot race around the peak on Hong Kong Island, and that he would get second for his age group and gender. I also didn’t know that Lucy and Will would run in this race, this despite the fact that: a) Will hates to sweat; b) Lucy has never run a race in her life, and c) Ellen and I did everything we could to keep the two of them from participating, repeatedly mentioning the early hour—we had to get up at 6 AM—the heat, the fact that lots of people there would have run races before and would be taking it very seriously. None of this worked, of course; if anything, we caused the two of them to root deeper into their determination.

Nor do I know that Lucy will run the race faster than either her brother or her mother, placing second for her age and gender—better even than the speedy little boy in the yellow shirt. This despite Lucy’s wearing sparkly purple basketball shoes that are flat soled and definitely not designed for running 2.25 miles.

I know my little girl. I know her probably better than any of my children—Will’s too much like Ellen and still a mystery, and Jamie—well, Jamie’s insane. Plus he can’t talk. But Lucy? I get her, see in her the energy and joy and passion and jealousy and hunger I felt when I was a child. I know her.

But even so. There’s plenty I don’t know. I don’t know when she’ll fall in love for the first time. I don’t know when she’ll get her heart broken, or how she’ll respond. I don’t know what she’ll choose to do for a living, or where she’ll decide to live, or what kind of mother she’ll be. I don’t know if she’ll struggle with alcoholism or anorexia or cutting or an inappropriate affection for boy bands (or worse, Nickleback). I don’t know if she’ll ever fulfill her wish to dye her ash-blonde hair black, or if she’ll wear too much makeup or if she’ll get good grades in school. I don’t know what kind of car she’ll drive or if she’ll even care or if she’ll insist on having the latest model. I don’t know where she’ll see her most beautiful sunset, or what music will make her close her eyes and sway, or what books she’ll read that she’ll want to carry with her for the rest of her life. I don’t know when she’ll die or how—though I do know I’d better not be around for it, or there is no God, and that’s all there is to it.

And I don’t know what she feels like when she’s sitting in her kindergarten classroom and her teacher is talking about nouns and verbs and two plus two and holding hands while crossing the street. Nor do I know why the little girl who makes everyone laugh just by walking into the room doesn’t smile when she’s sitting there listening.

So what do I know?

Well, it sounds corny, but here’s the truth: sitting there in the humid dark, watching that slightly stoop-shouldered man running in his stocking feet and sweaty shirt, chasing those ducking kids who were screaming and laughing in the dark as the little boy in the yellow shirt sent that water jug arching into the air—Watching that? Seriously? What I knew was that everything was going to be okay.

And that’s what we think of our children’s school.


Anonymous said...

Really good one today, p. You're getting very adept at this blogging thing.

Paul Hanstedt said...

Thanks. Much appreciated. Tell your friends, especially the ones in publishing and marketing . . .

Anne said...

Paul-hello! So glad you updated your high school profile so I could find this blog. It is amazing! You are quite a storyteller, yes, make some friends in publishing and marketing because if you wrote a book it would fly off the shelves! Love the voice in your words! And what an amazing life you lead! Who knew a lanky boy from Wisconsin could grow up to live a life a fascination on the other side of the world! I look forward to following your blog, thanks for writing it!