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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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.

“What do you do all day since you don’t have a job?”

“What do you do all day since you don’t have a job?”

That question was recently asked of me by one of my son’s friends.  From the mouths of babes, eh?  It is, however, just a much more blunt and direct expression of the same sort of conversation I have been having intermittently with people over the past two years.  It seems that in a suburb where most households are dual income, people find it most peculiar that we have chosen for me to be a full-time stay-home parent.

Our move to America two years ago initiated my first experience of being “just” a Stay At Home Mother.  I write “just” to be clear that I do not disparage the role of the SAHM.  There is nothing simple, easy or straightforward about making the choice to step away from a career and be with your kids full-time.  I also think it is a brilliant thing for women to be in a position to make an active choice as to whether they want to be parents or not and, if they are mothers, what balance they wish to strike between paid employment and raising kids.  However, our immigration was my first experience of being home with the kids full-time, with nothing else going on in my life, and I admit it has been a bit of a tricky transition.

I had actually only been in paid employment for a fraction of my years as a parent even in Scotland.  However, even when not in paid employment, I had a pretty demanding but rewarding voluntary job, serving on my local Children’s Panel, and I was also involved with various groups in the community, serving on different committees.  All these commitments and obligations kept my brain stimulated and ticking over during the baby years, gave me a welcome break from household chores and childcare, and permitted me to feel as if I was still contributing something to society – even after I stepped away from my teaching career.  All the volunteering was like keeping if not a foot then a toe in the door of employment, and gave my life an additional dimension that made it easier for me to transition into being a SAHM.

Perhaps because I was always so busy or perhaps because I lived in a more traditional community, nobody back in Argyll every queried our choice for me to be home with the kids.  It might not have been their choice but they understood it and respected it.  Moving to the Philly suburbs, therefore, has been an interesting experience in that it has been not only my first experience of being “just” a SAHM but also the first time I have repeatedly had to explain and even justify that choice.

It feels harder to justify these days too because none of my kids are babies any more.  Nor are any of them preschoolers.  Since September 2014, all four of my kids have been in full-time education.  I, therefore, have a good chunk of the day when school is in session where I am not actively fulfilling the childcare element of my SAHM role.  Of course, six people generate a lot of laundry and other mess and require a whole load of cooking to be done so I am kept plenty busy.  Now that I have the kids in school though I am able to grab just a wee bit of time for myself each day but I don’t think an investment of time in self-care needs to be justified.  Still, however, when people – and obviously I meet a lot more new people than I did back in Argyll – do that whole small talk thing and inquire as to where I work or what I do for a living, I detect something in their unspoken reaction that makes me feel they think I ought to be justifying my role as a SAHM.  I think some people regard it as a luxury whereas I regard the ability to make the choice the luxury.  Of course, choice is defined by context.  I might be considering a return to paid employment now that we are pretty settled in America if circumstances and our family dynamic were different.  Between me needing to convert my qualifications, the high cost of childcare and – mostly – the demands of my husband’s job, there seems little opportunity for me to return to paid work outside the home at this time.

Ultimately, as tricky as I have found the transition to being “just” a SAHM – largely because it has formed part of a larger process of change – it is our choice, mine and my husband’s, and is therefore, of no concern to anyone else.  Really, therefore, the answer to the question of what I do all day is that it is none of anyone else’s business.  It’s a household and family dynamic that works for we Picts, all six of us, and that is absolutely all that matters.

Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Pants, Pyjamas, Laundry and Hibernation

This week’s Documented Life Project challenge prompt had me scratching my head for inspiration.  Incorporating fabric onto the journal page seems simple enough but I don’t ever create with fabric (unless you count the occasional sock monkey or sock monster) so not only do I not have much in the way of fabric crafting skills but I do not have a stash of fabric of any kind.  Not even any old socks since those have been turned into sock monsters.  Being a tomboy mother of four boys, I don’t even have any ribbon or bows or anything.  It was suggested that I could utilise a scrap from some old clothing but we emigrated with very few clothes as it is so there was nothing that was not being worn for me to cannibalise.  One of my sons has ripped a pair of jeans but they are his favourites so he would not part with them and I also was not keen on the sewing challenge of trying to work with denim.  I kill my thumbs enough trying to hem denim jeans.  I was not about to put myself through that for fun.  My mind was wandering to ways in which I could loosely interpret the prompt and I was all set to produce a watercolour sketch of some crumpled fabrics when my husband announced that he had identified some old clothes that I could chop up and use: his underpants.

Yes.  Underpants.

At the risk of having my Green Card revoked, I am really not a fan of American washing machines.  Since moving here, I have had two top-loading washing machines – one at the rental house and one that came with our new home – and both have been awfully hard on our clothing.  Because they spin around a central axis point, it creates a sort of centrifuge (or does it?  Because I know even less about physics than I do about sewing) and all the wet garments just stick to the sides of the drum, becoming a tangled mess, straining and pulling against each other.  In all my years of doing laundry, I have become accustomed to using a front loading machine whereby the clothes spin around in the drum but also tumble because of the effect of gravity: whatever clothes are at the top of the drum fall down and rejoin the fray, so they are being constantly separated from each other.  The problem with the top-loading system is that the clothes pulling against each other leads to misshaping and tears.  A button or zip catches against a jumper and gets pulled to such an extent that a hole appears.  I have had more holes appear in laundry in the past year than I have had over the previous decades of my laundering experience.  Washing machine design is one of the few small differences between my domestic life in Scotland and America that really irks me.  When it comes time to replace our washing machine, I am hoping we can do so with a front loader.

Rant over and out but that explains why my husband was able to donate his under garments to my creative project: the blasted washing machine had created a hole in them.  So underpants it was.

It took me some pondering time to decide how I could use them on my page.  Some ideas were just too ambitious for my sewing skill level and some would have involved creating too much in the way of three dimensions which would make my art journal too difficult to work in.  Finally, last night, as I snuggled down to watch some TV while wearing my jammies and clutching a mug of hot tea, I had my inspiration: hibernation.

So this is the page that resulted from a combination of undies and hibernation.  Many days in winter I wish I could hibernate and just hole up somewhere cosy with jammies, a hot water bottle, endless supplies of tea and some favourite movies.  The undies were in a soft jersey fabric so I adhered it to some thin card stock and then used some embroidery floss to add details to the pyjamas.  The bear was painted in watercolour and then outlined in ink.  I used gel pen for the lettering and narrowed the size of my page to eliminate some of the white by using strips of colourful, patterned washi tape.  I have defaulted to my everyday illustrative style of drawing in order to create my DLP page again this week but using that fabric in a creative way was ample challenge.  It is always good to be shoved out of one’s comfort zone and try something new but quite honestly I don’t think I will be in any rush to repeat the experiment of incorporating fabric into my art.

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*PS The colours are not as washed out in real life.  That’s just my camera phone not capturing the colours accurately enough once again*

Small Differences : Mail Boxes

I own a mail box for the first time in my life.

We had no sooner moved into this house than a letter arrived informing us that the postal service required us to install a kerbside mail box (as opposed to one attached to the exterior wall).  I imagine this was the result of some sort of efficiency drive on the part of the postal service as the kerbside box means the postal worker does not even have to exit the mail van.  Upon receiving this communication, I looked left and right along our new street and right enough ours was the only house without a kerbside mail box.  We duly installed one within a week of moving in.  I can only assume our mail delivery person is now happier.

I  am new to this whole culture of mailboxes and cannot quite wrap my head around it.  In Britain, you have a letterbox in your front door.  The postie can then shove all your letters and even some small parcels through this flap in your door so that the mail lands safely and securely inside your house.  No risk of weather damage or theft.  The only risk was tripping over a massive pile of mail on returning from a vacation.  Here in America, on the other hand, it all seems to become quite complicated because the receptacle for the post is outside the house and is, therefore, not so secure against the elements or sticky fingers.  It would not have been a concern in our new house since we have a porch but at the rental property, on rainy days, I had to ensure that I grabbed the mail from the box as soon as it arrived otherwise it would all turn into a soggy mush of papier mache since the box attached to the side of the house allowed water to drain into it, creating a destructive puddle at the bottom.  Furthermore, because the mail is not securely deposited inside a house, there have to be all sorts of mail tampering laws in place – as I learned last November.  This means that only an authorised mail delivery person can deposit anything into anyone’s mailbox.  Furthermore, since the mail cannot simply be left to accumulate into a small mound on the other side of the door’s threshold, when travelling it becomes necessary to halt the delivery of the mail, have the postal service keep hold of it, and then resume delivery upon return.  That then becomes yet another one of those thing you need to remember to do before going on a trip.  Finally, although we paid for an installed our mailbox, it is not our property.  No.  Apparently all mailboxes are property of the United States Postal Service as that then gives them the authority to impose all of these mail tampering laws upon it.

So it is all very weird and alien but I do love having a mailbox all the same because it’s that little slice of Americana that reminds me everyday that I am now living on a different continent and am experiencing new things.

Small Differences: Fireflies

The other evening, while watching TV with Mr Pict, my eye kept getting drawn to flashing lights in the garden.  However, every time I asked Mr Pict to look, he could never see anything.  I knew my eyes were not deceiving me, that I was not experiencing either an optical malfunction or a hallucination, so the next evening, I kept one eye trained on the windows.  Not necessarily the most comfortable way to watch telly.  As soon as dusk settled into darkness, the flashing started again.  The kids had only just gone to bed so I got everyone to gather in the playroom to look.  Sure enough, this time everyone else could see what I was seeing: flickering lights gliding upwards from the grass into the sky.  And the lights got stronger and more numerous as it grew ever darker.

Fireflies.

Despite the fact we do have fireflies in Scotland, they are rare so I had only seen fireflies once before – and that was in America too –  but my kids had never seen them.  It’s not often that one gets to use the word bioluminescence in general conversation but I gave up on trying to teach the kids the science behind it mid-sentence anyway so that they could just watch and enjoy the spectacle.  A teeny weeny wee bit of subsequent research, however, has revealed to me that Pennsylvania has it’s very own firefly – Photuris Pennsylvanicus if we want to be all Sunday name about it – and that the male beetles can fly but their lady friends, who they are trying to impress into getting jiggy with them – remain on the ground.  That explained why I had been seeing lights flickering at both levels: it wasn’t that they were moving upwards into the sky but that some were remaining on the grass while others flew around to be show-offs.  Some other things I learned about these fireflies is that they are quite fond of munching slugs and have, as such, evolved the ability to track slug slime trails.  It makes me think of aeroplanes looking for the airstrip.  Also, the larva bites its prey and injects it with saliva that turns the prey’s insides into soup.  Pretty cool, eh?

Magical.  That was the best thing about watching the fireflies.  They were simply magical, like a special effect from nature.  We were all completely enchanted.