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  • Back to School Matters

    When I was a girl, I would spend the night before school started lying awake in bed, worrying. I did not worry about what to wear or what the teacher would be like, but rather about whether I would arrive a day early. Many years passed before I realised that it wouldn’t have really mattered: as I’d have been the only one there, no one would have known. For me, “back to school” brings about all sorts of strange and perhaps irrational fears and feelings that are difficult to place. Today, of course, the issues are somewhat different.

    The initial concern when my kids started school was the big discussion about the type of school bag. It had to be the right design with the correct ergo-dynamic back protection whatsit, and I remember thinking, I need a physics degree for this. Not to mention the inordinate amount of Swiss francs these specially designed rucksacks cost. But seeing as they are made to protect your child’s back, who wouldn’t want the best? Furthermore, everyone else (who seemed to have already bought them far in advance) had the same kind.

    I had nostalgically envisioned my boy running to school in knee socks and shorts sporting the cowhide rucksack while he kicked pebbles and held a blade of grass between his teeth. “You must be kidding,” was the response I got. “Captain Sharky.” Full. Stop.

    Then with my oldest daughter it was, “Princess Lillifee.” That was in year one. Halfway through year two she moaned, “I need one with a unicorn, Mummy; I’m too old for the princess one. Pleeease.” Luckily, there’s my youngest daughter, I thought; she would then take over the nearly-new Lillifee one when she was to start school….

    The Princess Lillifee one patiently waited in the cellar, ready for the big day. Sadly, it was not to be: “Pink, Mummy, is for babies. I want a mermaid one.” But this time I came prepared. I asked a Swiss friend, and she showed me a way to get a schoolbag cheaper via the Internet. It’s not like we mums can’t learn.

    I remembered how my mother had struggled with the school uniforms we wore in the British School of the Netherlands. She had come from Switzerland, and it was all new; the thought of paying money for clothes she could easily sew herself didn’t sit well with her. She actually bought the material and made us the grey skirts and the checked purple and white summer dresses. She did eventually start to recognise the benefits of school uniforms, and I have to say I miss my children not having to wear them – it just seems so much easier. I like the look, and, well, it looks like you belong somewhere.

    Another issue was language. My mum’s English is very good. Though she’s kept a wee bit of a Swiss accent over the years, she has a knack for adapting. However, it was the subtlety of the British language that caught her out. “Could you pass the bloody sugar, please?” she asked one morning at a women’s coffee morning.

    Her friend kindly took her aside to ask if she knew what she had just said. “My children say this all the time,” was her response. And you can guess what trouble we were in that afternoon when we came home from school.

    Listening to the lyrics of my just-turned-13 boy’s choice of music, I am glad that I speak both German and English. That way I can at least aim to guide him and my girls appropriately. The language used at schools is sometimes hair-raising, and given the music they are subjected to, I now have a similar problem to the one my mother had. Because it is always hard to judge the strength of any given swear word if it is not in your native language, a lot of Swiss kids are expressing themselves in ways that would make the gangsta rappers proud – and they’re getting away with it. Just the other day I was working in my front garden and I looked up to the sound of the “f-word” uttered by a boy who looked no more than six, and his parent didn’t even flinch. I stopped myself from commenting, but I had to bite my tongue.

    On another note, I sometimes wonder whether a substantial part of the reason for this leniency might not lie somewhere else. Given that our children are expected to be at school at 7:35, and the lack of sleep resulting from this for everyone concerned, it’s hard to be consistent. Recently visiting my youngest sister in London, the kids were very impressed with the 9:00 school start: “I want to move here, Mummy. Life would be so much easier if we got to sleep this long.” I might add that we are not early risers and it is nearly impossible to get my older two to bed at any reasonable time, which I fully relate to, but that’s another story.

    The London school run was also a new experience. My youngest daughter accompanied her cousin, who was escorted by her mother all the way to the school premises. When they returned, my sister grabbed her sports clothes and checked her list for the things she would have time to do in the time slot before she had to return to collect her daughter. Now, luckily, I don’t have the school runs, but I realised that it isn’t much different to the home lunches we are expected to cook in Switzerland. At midday, precisely – though I have to admit that that is actually when I start to cook, and we don’t usually eat before 13:00 (don’t tell anyone). Though the time between my children leaving for school and returning ravenous is less than for my sister in London, I am grateful that I don’t have to always be ready and dressed in some form or another to taxi my children twice a day. Plus, I value the children’s developing their independence by walking to school without me.

    However, being an uninspired cook, I decided to try the “British way,” in that I gradually increased the number of days my kids go to Mittagstisch (school lunch). This way I don’t have to be ready and waiting when the clock strikes twelve. I have really enjoyed the nice window for writing and creativity. However, the kids don’t seem to agree. They have now asked to come home, even though they have a long walk up the hill and back down again for a 14:00 start. I warned them that there may be a risk of an oftentimes annoyed and possibly grumpy-because-she-has-to-cook-at-a-given-usually-this-is–my-most-creative-time mum. But they’re adamant. So, I’ll give the Swiss stay-at-home-mum thing a good go and organise my day accordingly. I think the structure may have a positive effect on my efficiency and maybe, as my sister in London said, “The school runs are actually perfect quality time with the kids.” So I might just translate that for the home lunches and use this added time with the kids for time well spent together. At least until the day they decide they don’t want to come home at all anymore, and then I will have time to figure out what to do with that Lillifee rucksack still sitting in our cellar.

    August 1, 2014
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    Back to School Matters

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