Two Milestones in One Day

Yesterday was a busy day for the Pict household as two milestones were achieved: I registered the smallest Pict at Elementary School and I sat my first American driving test.
This is how you register your child for school in Scotland: you go along to the relevant primary school with your child’s birth certificate, you fill out a brief form and that’s it.  Five minutes.  Your child is enrolled to start school in August.
This is how you register your child for school in America.
Firstly, you download a whole plethora of forms from the School District’s website.  The printers spews out paper for quite some time.  You then have to take your child to a Doctor for them to perform a medical and fill out a form.  In our case, this involved us also having to register the youngest child with a medical practice and talk the doctor through our medical notes from Scotland.  That took a couple of hours of my life.  Then you have to take another form to a dentist to perform a dental check on the child in question.  Again, this necessitated us registering him with a dental practice.  Mr Pict was going for a filling anyway so we just had the little one piggy-back on his appointment.  Then yesterday morning I had to take those forms, plus our rental lease (to prove our eligibility for the catchment area), plus birth certificate and a second form of ID to an appointment at the school.  The appointment was with the school secretary and the nurse.  There was a lot of photocopying and further form filling involved.  It took about half an hour.  He now gets to start school in September, which at least makes all that time, effort and paper worthwhile.
This is a family milestone as it means that come September all four of our children will be in school.
April Fool’s Day might not have been the most auspicious choice of date for my driving test, the second of yesterday’s milestones.  Mr Pict had passed his US Driver’s test first time but he has had years of experience driving in America whereas I have had five months.  I was not feeling very confident.  I knew I could handle the rest of the test but the parallel parking had me pretty resigned to failing.  In Pennsylvania, parallel parking is a compulsory element of the practical test.  Failing it is an automatic fail for the entire test.  Indeed, they start with it precisely so that they can forego the rest of the test if it is failed.  One teenage girl in front of me experienced just that.  I was a decent enough parallel parker in Britain but here I have found my spatial awareness to still be somewhat lacking when it comes to parking.  I am used to judging the width of the car and distance from the kerb based on sitting on the other side of the car.  It has not yet adjusted to me sitting on the left hand side.  Given that I had one chance to get the parallel park perfect and just three maneouvres within that one chance to get myself perfectly within the space, I was not feeling very assured of my chances of passing first time.  I’m a glass half-empty person.
I arrived in time for my test and joined the queue of cars waiting to set off on the test circuit.  I had not been remotely nervous before that point but I am neurotic about punctuality and when my allotted time came and went and I was still parked up in the queue I did start to get a bit twitchy.  I was also the only adult taking my test.  The thought that the half dozen 16 year olds in the car queue might pass and that I – with over two decades’ driving experience – might fail made me feel twitchy too.  Failing this driving test could be potentially humiliating as well as being a personal setback.  Thankfully I had a chatty examiner who asked random questions about me being from Scotland and that put me at ease again.  The parallel parking went fine.  I came close to clipping the barrels in front as I was so anxious to be inside the white lines of the space – as even having a tire on the line would be a fail – but I missed them and got lined up in the space in two moves rather than the permitted three.  The examiner asked me to drive on and that meant I felt positive I was going to pass since the only ropey bit was over.  The “course” involved doing a circuit of the adjacent mall car park.  There were lots of stop signs but that was it.  I would be amazed if the driving part even took as much as five minutes.  Compared to my British driving test all those years ago, it was extremely simple to pass.
So that’s it.  Despite my pessimism, I passed my US driving test.  I now have a Pennsylvania driver’s licence.  I now have a form of ID American people can comprehend.  I can now file my International Driving Licence, which would have expired in September.  We can now shave money off our car insurance.  I can now tick another major thing off my To Do list.

Martin Luther King Day

Yesterday was my first ever Martin Luther King Day, which is a fairly recent addition to the calendar of holidays, as I have never visited America at this time of year before.  I am not going to blog about the legacy of Dr King or his importance to American and world history because that is not the nature of this blog.  Suffice to say, however, that he and people like him are inspirational.  That then is the essence of Martin Luther King Day.  It is about taking that inspiration and those lessons of doing something to make your community better and using your time, skills and resources to make a difference.  Of course, this is not necessarily bound in the context of the Civil Rights movement but is interpreted more widely so that it has become a day for volunteering.  I have volunteered in different capacities and at different levels of dedication since my teenage years so the concept of this holiday appealed to me.

For our day of service, the kids and I headed to the Elementary School they attend as the school’s counsellor had organised a range of volunteering activities.  We could do things as varied as bag up breakfast items, write letters to service men and women, sort out donated coats or weed the school’s grounds.  In the end, given the spread of ages of my children, we decided to go and organise, clean and box up donated toys.  The kids did a great job of getting stuck in and helping out and as a whole group we powered through the task in no time at all.  I was especially pleased when m 8 year old told me how much he enjoyed the feeling of doing something to help others.

I really like this holiday and perhaps next year we will be in a position to get even more involved in volunteering in our community, perhaps even engaging longer term in a project if we can manage the logistics.

As an aside, on the way home my four year old asked me if what we had just done was “musketeering”.  Cute.

First Parent-Teacher conferences

Yesterday afternoon was my first experience of going to a parent-teacher conference in America.  It was useful to get a better have on the curriculum here and how attainment is assessed and reported as well as hearing about how well my three school age children are doing in this new education system.

I was almost embarrassed by the superlatives (positive, of course) being used to describe my kids. Their academic progress and their degree of participation is an excellent litmus test for how well they are settling into life here. In turn, them being more settled here helps me feel more settled here.

Snow Days

M kids experienced their first ever snow day earlier this week.

They have had “bonus” days off school before, when we lived in Scotland, but those were down to high winds and power failures.  This week was their first experience of being liberated from school because of snow.

The first day they just had a two hour delayed start but on the second day there was no school whatsoever.  And lo there was much rejoicing in the Pict household as four boys got to stay home all day, building a snowman in the garden, having a snowball fight and then getting cosy indoors with hot chocolate.  It was also special that Daddy did not go into work that day, also because of the snow, and worked from home which meant he was home to eat dinner with the rest of us.  As a consequence, they are now hoping for more snow days – but not so many that they need to make up for lost time in the summer break.

For my part, I am impressed with the school district’s notification system.  It is not especially pleasant to be woken by a phone call of a recorded message at 4.30am but at least it is adequate notice that there is no need to run around in a frenzy trying to get everyone ready for school on time (because we may live next door to the school but that does not eliminate the need for nagging and cajoling every morning).  What was a bit annoying was that the home phone went, then my husband’s cell phone and then my cell phone, all staggered just enough to mean there was no chance of us nodding off back to sleep.  But that was cool because at least, even wide awake early in the morning, we didn’t have to leap out of bed and start barking at our kids like a sheep dog herding a flock.  And just in case we missed the phone calls, I also had an email telling me there was a phone message from the school district.  They definitely wanted us to stay at home.

This Winter could prove to be very snowy indeed.  What I am already appreciating about Winter here, however, is the light.  Even now, in mid-December, the sunlight is strong and the skies are crisply blue and bright and the sunsets are spectacular.  By now back in Scotland the days would be dark.  I often remember one year when I was teaching in an internal classroom, with just a skylight, and I was travelling to work in the pitch dark and travelling home in the pitch dark so was going for five days straight without seeing daylight.  It was horrible.  I realised then that being a vampire would never be for me.

Winters where we moved from were harsh.  We normally didn’t get much snow because of the salt air from the sea loch but what we did get was brutal winds, hail stones that could dent your skull and rain.  Relentless rain.  Rain so hard that the sky should have become parched like a prune.  And then even more rain.  Cold and rain is not a pleasant combination.  Being soaked to the skin from freezing rain so that your skin is blue where it is not blotched with white is not a pleasant sensation.  I would moan every single Winter about how hard the winters were there.  So it will be interesting to see if I prefer this climate as we progress through the season.  If the snow days keep up then the mini-Picts certainly will.


Today marks three weeks since my three biggest boys started school.  They had been very anxious about starting a new school, as one might imagine.  They had come from a very small tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knew of everyone else even if they did not know each other directly, so the very idea of a larger school filled with nothing but strangers filled them with trepidation.

Their Dad had organised for us to go on a tour of the school less then 24 hours after we stepped off the aeroplane so they were jet-lagged and dazed as we wandered around the corridors and met various members of staff.  However, I think even this brief orientation took the edge off their worries.  Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and all the kids we met were smiley and cheerful.  There was a really nice atmosphere and buzz to the school generally.  The other advantage of the school tour, of course, was that it meant I had a modicum of a clue myself of how things worked and where to go.

So having emigrated on the Thursday, the boys started school on the Monday.  They had already missed enough formal schooling (several weeks of homeschooling had filled the gap between schools) and we also wanted to establish a solid routine for them.  And, let’s face it, we needed a break from each other.  So launched into their new school they were.  I have a First, Second and Fifth Grader so there were a lot of school supplies to buy in advance of them starting.  Thankfully Mr Pict had sorted all of that out before we arrived.  That was a whole new experience for us, however, as we have never been required to provide equipment before and here we were not just buying pencils and sharpeners but also boxes of tissues, whiteboard markers and headphones.

Everyone, staff and children, have made the boys feel welcome.  They had a few days of being hounded as if they were celebrities, intrigued kids asking them a whole series of questions about Scotland and their first impressions of America.  No one has really made a big deal out of their accents apparently, commenting at times on vocabulary (it’s an eraser, not a rubber) and my oldest son’s teacher had him answering lots of questions just so he could listen to his accent, but it has all been in good humour and the kids have not been upset or embarrassed by it.  Each of the boys has made at least one friend so they have someone to play with during recess which is great.  My oldest has even joined a math club.  I think the scale of the school was overwhelming at first as the elementary school they are in is the same size, in terms of population, as the entire campus for students aged 3-18 that they came from but they seem to be navigating their way around it fine now.

It is such a relief to my husband and me that the children have been so positive about school.  It is one of those keystone elements in the success of our relocation so for them to be so positive and stimulated and as settled as they are already, just three weeks in, is a massive deal because it makes us feel more settled as a family.