The Education Learning Curve

Today my children all return to school.  This year, I have two left in Elementary – one of them in his last year there – and one in Middle School and one in High School.  With four boys in three different schools its going to feel like a second job for me to keep on top of their schedules, deadlines, requirements, and commitments.

Every new year of having my kids in American schools has brought with it new challenges for me as a parent.  Between technology developing too rapidly for my grey matter, the generation gap, and a vocabulary gap because of being British, it can be difficult for me to understand what a homework assignment even requires the kids to do.  I do a lot of googling and watching demonstrations of methodologies on YouTube.  This year, however, with one kid in High School, I feel like I am in for an even steeper learning curve than ever before.

My oldest and I attended a High School induction day a couple of weeks ago and that revealed to me how out of my depth I was.  I went all the way through High School, an undergraduate degree, and a postgraduate degree, and I then taught High School.  I am, therefore, well versed in education and the transition between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.  In Britain.  When it comes to how all of this functions in America, I have next to nothing.  And I had better learn quickly because the years are rapidly flying past.

The talks that were delivered at the induction event involved a huge amount of assumed knowledge.  Acronyms were being bandied around with no allowance for anyone, like me, who had only a scant idea of what they stood for, what concepts they represented, or how they pieced together into something coherent.  What I think I grasped, however, is that there is a through-line from the beginning of High School to its conclusion that will determine prospects for tertiary education.  Yikes.  I thought I had a couple of years to figure this stuff out.  Apparently not.  So I need to hit the books myself now and get on top of such things as GPAs, SATs, ACTs, credits, dual enrollment, AP courses, and all of those other things I am clueless about.

This new experience, this new area of life I need to research, is another stark reminder that my adult life and experience was all but reset to zero when I emigrated.  Whole areas of my knowledge were voided and made irrelevant and – even after nearly four years of living in America – I am still a stranger in a strange land trying to fill those gaps in knowledge with new learning.  I am an old dog so new tricks are hard but I will work hard to understand what I need to know.

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The Unvisited States

Last week’s prompt for the Art Journal Adventure was to incorporate a list.  I am a big list maker.  It helps me process things mentally as well as being an organisational tool.  I always have several lists on the go at once.  Most are traditional paper-based lists but I also maintain some as computer files.  I sometimes get a bit control freaky about my lists.  I am one of those people who writes their shopping list according to the different sections of the supermarket – nothing freaky about that obviously since it is just common sense efficiency – but if I accidentally write an item in the wrong area of the list or if I don’t have enough space to neatly add an item into the correct area or if I just make some other sort of error, the handwriting equivalent of a typo, then I have to write my shopping list out again until I have a “fair copy”.  I have sometimes written a shopping list out five times just to get it perfect.

I could have used the evolution of a weekly shopping list as the basis of my art journal page but I am not sure how visually interesting that would have been.  Instead, because I am still focused on travel – since we just got back from our road trip and since my kids are going off, in pairs, on vacation with their grandparents – that was the subject my mind drifted towards.  I decided, therefore, to record a list of the US states I have yet to visit.  It is very much on my bucket list to visit all 50 states.  Mr Pict is actually only missing three (North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Alaska, since you didn’t ask) and maybe for that reason he doesn’t quite get why I am obsessively intent on “collecting” more states.  Upsettingly, before I undertook this journal page, I thought that as of last year’s road trip I had been to 31 states.  However, when I added up the number of unvisited states on the completed page, I had twenty.  What?  That couldn’t be.  I thought I had been on 25 states prior to last year’s road trip where I then added six more but it transpired my base calculation was incorrect.  A previous art journal page had led me to think I was on the half-way mark back then.  Nope.  I had included New Hampshire which I actually have no claim on.  As I have explained before, in order to claim a state I have to have done two of three things within its borders: pee, eat, sleep.  Although I have been in New Hampshire, I did not do two of those three things.  I, therefore, cannot claim it and am reduced to just 30 states visited with 20 left to go.  This art journal page is, therefore, a sort of check list I can return to after future travels around America.

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Now I need to devise another road trip that has a route through as many of these states as possible.

Small Differences: Dentistry

There are two stereotypes about teeth that we all know: Americans have big, wide mouthed smiles; British people have wonky teeth.  Studies show that there is no real difference in oral health and hygiene between Britain and America but the perception of vastly different aesthetics remains.

I have lived in America for almost four years now and still every time I visit the dentist for a check up I imagine the dentist recoiling in horror when I open my mouth and reveal my ever so British teeth.  Truth be told, my teeth are pretty skew-whiff even by British standards – perfectly healthy but very crowded and crooked.  Compared to my American peers, however, they are a complete and utter mess.  The first time the dental nurse at our American practice looked in my mouth, she asked me if I was British or Russian.  It was that obvious that my mouth was not tended to by American dentists.  I never felt self-conscious about my teeth back home in Scotland but here in America I most definitely do.  Cosmetically pristine teeth are clearly valued here and mine don’t pass muster.  I may have made it to the age of 41 and have only one filling but that doesn’t mitigate against the visual mayhem of my mouth.

I think the key to the different dental experiences may be in a different approach between the two cultures.  I cannot compare US dentistry to private dental care in the UK because I have never been to a private dentist.  For the five years when I malingered on the waiting list of an National Health Service dentist, I never had an oral emergency that compelled me to seek out a dentist and pay private fees for the privilege.  Throughout my childhood and all but those five years of my adulthood in Britain, I was treated on the NHS.  This means my dental treatment was heavily subsidised (great for the budget) but it also means that the appointments were pretty perfunctory.  In contrast, my US appointments last for an interminable amount of time even though all I am having is a check up and routine cleaning.  The hygienist actually performs the bulk of the treatment.  This involves lots of ponderous poking and prodding and then a professional cleaning that lasts so long I have to stave off panic attacks.  Only after that marathon is completed does the dentist appear to look over any xrays and give my gob a final, brief once over.

Every single time I go to my check up, either the hygienist or the dentist – and sometimes both – will comment on the overcrowding in my mouth.  It is as if they find it grimly fascinating to contemplate the abyss that is my British mouth.  My teeth are not straight, they overlap, and my lower wisdom teeth came in at right angles to my other molars (though to be fair my UK dentists always found that weird too).  Even the dental hygienist, an expert flosser, has occasionally trapped a piece of floss between my teeth because there is so little space between them.  When I first moved here, the inevitable follow up question was whether I had ever considered orthodontistry.  You can probably imagine their looks of surprise when I tell them that I had a mouth full of metal for almost six of my teenage years.  I don’t think they can comprehend that the mangled mouth they see wide open before them actually represents an improvement on what was there before.  I decline each time the subject is raised.  I have lived with my wonky teeth for enough decades now that I can just accept that this is how they are.  I have endured braces for enough years of my life and don’t need a redux.  Besides, I have to shell out a whole heap of dollars on my kids’ orthodontisty.

Sadly, yes, at least two of my children have inherited my British mouth.  Apparently I have a tiny jaw, especially the mandible, and I have transmitted that “defect” to two of my offspring.  My 10 year old is already in braces because, aside from the crowding, he also had a dramatic crossbite, and my youngest will start orthodontic treatment as soon as he has a couple more adult teeth.  In addition to all of the metal and wire work in his mouth, it has been mentioned that my 10 year old may need to have some teeth pulled to create space and will need a palate expander.  That aspect of the treatment diverges from my experience of having orthodontisry in 1980s and early ’90s Scotland.  I had no teeth pulled and certainly didn’t have my palate expanded which, therefore, means that no extra space was ever created in my apparently minuscule jaw for the relocated teeth to move into.  So, while the six years worth of metalwork pulled everything into line, as soon as all of those devices were removed, my teeth simply began to drift back – especially once my wisdom teeth came in when I was in my mid-20s.

Even with very good dental insurance, the out of pocket cost for the orthodontistry is a major expense.  Multiplied by two kids, that expense becomes eye wateringly winceable.  They need the treatment for physical reasons, not just cosmetic ones, but I also think it is important to their self-esteem that they have winning smiles that fit in here rather than having my experience of people looking quizzically at teeth that look like collapsed tombstones in a long abandoned cemetery.  I am, therefore, going to stick with my awfully British teeth so that my children’s mouths can evolve to become more American.

From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lemonade Stand

This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand.  They suggested the idea and we supported it.  This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.

They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer.  I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil.  I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind.  They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience.  I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.

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We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points.  We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall.  A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies.  What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.

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It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit.  They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings.  I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently.  It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch.  I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience.  They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.

Road Trip #9 – Sand Dunes

During our sojourn in Grand Haven, we took a trip further up the coastline of Lake Michigan in order to visit Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.  This is a beautiful area of woodland that merges on the shore with spectacular sand dunes.

After a quick comfort stop at the worst composting toilet ever, we set off for a trek on the Nurnberg Trail.  This path led us through thick woodland which provided some welcome shade from the pulsing sun.  We had read that there were hog nosed snakes to be encountered on the trail but alas all we saw were squirrels and chipmunks who we encounter daily at home.

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Gradually the path between our feet turned from mulch and grit to sand until we found we were walking on roasting hot sand and emerged from the green shade of the trees onto the large, golden sand dunes.  The children scampered off excitedly and were soon scaling the wind sculpted peaks of the dunes.

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The spot was wonderfully secluded and peaceful.  It was like having our own private stretch of shore.  The sand was reflecting and radiating an immense amount of heat so the boys were soon swimming in the lake which was a wonderfully crisp blue.  We were experiencing the colours of the Caribbean in Michigan.  As I dipped my legs into the water for a paddle, I am sure I heard them hiss and sizzle.  It really was incredibly hot out that day.  Nevertheless, we could have idled on that beach for several hours just enjoying the quiet and solitude.

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After all that heat, a return to the shaded woods was most welcome and enjoyable.  However, after all of that relaxation, the trek back through the woods felt like it took an age, far longer than it had taken to walk to the shore.  That’s the theory of relativity in a nutshell then.  I found myself realising that for the first time in at least a very long time and perhaps in my life I had actually taken pleasure in sitting on a sandy beach.  ‘Twas a miracle.

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Road Trip #1 – Pittsburgh

This Summer’s vacation was a road trip across eight states plus the District of Columbia.  Mr Pict and I have undertaken several North American road trips before but this was our first with the boys.  Six people in eight states (six of them new to the kids and me) across fifteen days.  It was bound to be an adventure.

We set off from the Philly suburbs on the morning of 16 July and drove straight through to Pittsburgh – our first pit stop, pun intended, of the trip.  I had never been to Pittsburgh before and was keen to see something of the city.  We, therefore, opted not to explore any museums but actually experience the place through the soles of our feet.  This turned out to be achingly true.

We started our explorations at Point State Park where three rivers – the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio – all meet.  This geography made it an important area in times past, with the French and the British trying to control it in order to be in charge of passage and trade through the area.  Its strategic significance is demonstrated by the fact that the site has the remains of two forts, the French Fort Duquesne and the British Fort Pitt.  Not much that is discernible remains of either fort but we were able to pop into a blockhouse of Fort Pitt.  The cramped space had been turned into a museum showcasing some archaeological finds from the fort.  I tried to engage the kids in relics from various conflicts with the local Native American population but the kids were most taken with fragments of an old root beer bottle.

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The boys were less interested in the history of the area and were more drawn towards the cooling water of the impressive fountain.  The fountain shoots water 150 feet into the air, apparently drawing the water up from a well of groundwater in the rock below.  We enjoyed people watching and taking in the scenery while the kids dipped their feet in the fountain pool.

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Rested and refreshed, we walked across a yellow Fort Pitt bridge that circled us around to the Duquesne Incline.  Pittsburgh has a very steep hilly section that can be accessed via a couple of these Inclines – what I was referring to as a funicular before I remembered what they were called in Pennsylvania.  Essentially it is a 5 foot gauge railway track ascending at a 30 degree angle.  The Dequesne Incline was built in 1877 (and looks and feels every bit of it!) and rises 400 feet in height on 800 feet of track.  In its industrial heyday, the city apparently had several of these Inclines operating but now only the Duquesne and Monongahela remain.  As well as being used by the residents who live in the hilly neighbourhood, the Incline is a major tourist attraction.  This was evidenced by the length of the queue we joined.

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The queue moved at a steady pace but I did not enjoy the experience for one bit.  For some reason, the corridor above the road set my fear of heights into intense overdrive.  My nerves were utterly shredded by the time we were at the head of the queue and safely inside the terminus building.  We knew we needed to pay for our journey with cash and I had researched the ticket prices online.  Unfortunately, the prices quoted on the website were incorrect which was very aggravating since it transpired we were short on cash.  We opted, therefore, to pay for a one way journey on the basis that we would withdraw more cash from an ATM at the top.  We boarded the rickety old wooden car and rattled our way up the worryingly mouldering track that looked like it could crumble to mush imminently.

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Upon arriving at the summit, however, we learned that the ATM at the viewing platform was out of order.  Uh oh.  We did not have enough cash to get all six of us back down the Incline.  We decided to have a wander of the neighbourhood to check it out, take in the view, and seek out a source of cash.  The latter mission was entirely thwarted.  The view, however, was pretty spectacular.  From that steep vantage point we could really appreciate the geography of the area and the way it nestled around the confluence of those three rivers.  We also checked out a sculpture depicting George Washington and Seneca leader Guyasutu entitled ‘Points of View’.

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Then it was time to problem-solve our stupid cash-strapped difficulty.  We had three options: wander further afield in search of an ATM, send one parent back down the Incline to fetch the car and collect the others, or walk back down the hill.  We chose the last option thinking it would provide us with a further opportunity to see more of the city.  This it most certainly did and I must state that the architecture of Pittsburgh is fascinatingly eclectic.  I quite enjoyed looking at all of the styles and the way that different architects had solved the problem of  sloping ground.  Our children, however, could not be convinced that this study of architecture and topography was worth the time and energy it took to ascend the hill.  The path was long and twisting and the air was stiflingly muggy.  Moods were descending into grumbles and grouches.

When we got to the bottom and found a petrol station, we fell on its drink filled refrigerators like they were manna in the wilderness.  Thirsts slaked but with aching feet and kids still whinging, we returned to our starting point via the Smithfield Street Bridge. Then it was on to that night’s hotel and an invigorating swim in its pool.