A childhood nightmare flashes. Standing alone, but in a crowded courtyard. Aging brick walls suffocate, paned glass mocks, trees whisper. Faces stare. Silence prevails. I’m naked. My eyes plead to the crowd for help. No familiar face will extend a jacket. There are no familiar faces. Mumbles are exchanged between friends – the words foreign to my ear. I stare at the ground. Confused. Embarrassed.
I lift my head. I awaken from the nightmare and realize that I am clothed. No one is staring. No one sees me. I am. Invisible. Like a ghost, I stare at my surroundings, unseen, felt, and acknowledged by the human forms around me. I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd towards her first full week of kindergarten.
In the Netherlands, children start public schooling the day after their fourth birthday. Once we discovered we would be extending, we set to work to figure out where to send our daughter. Two year waiting lists are common, and we were clearly behind. Back in Texas, the decision is made for you – parents send their children to the elementary school closest to their home. The curriculum is standard throughout the district, and in order to choose a different school than the one assigned is not an easy task. We had interviewed the international school in Leiden and were very pleased with what we saw, but they wait until all children turn four years old and start them together in September (as opposed to the day-after 4th-birthday-rule). Considering Baby Girl’s birthday is in April, and our departure date is October, this was not a feasible option for us. We had even inquired of her Dutch daycare if they’d be willing to accept her (and our money) after her fourth birthday and they looked at us quizzically. “Why would you send her here when you can send her to Dutch school for free? And either way – our waiting list is too long. We need her spot.” Again, from our understanding, the Dutch children are not required to go to school until they turn five, with an optional start date of four. But this option has seemingly never been exercised. We contacted a few schools. Most said their waiting lists were too long, but the school closest to us said they’d have a spot for her. (Schools in your neighborhood give precedent to the children in the neighborhood.) We made an appointment for a school tour.
November 2013 - The clouds did not part and rain pours from above. V and I enter the school and I am instantly reminded of my own elementary school in the 1980s. Red brick walls line the worn staircase. Echoes and dim lighting cascade shadows on the dusty formica floors. That unmistakable gym-smell penetrates everything. This building hasn’t been renovated in at least 40 years. We are greeted and seated in the teachers’ lounge. I shift in the hard plastic chair as the introductions are exchanged with the principal of the school.
She is an elderly woman with short hair and a nice smile, and has been a part of the school for decades. As she speaks, I begin to relax a bit. “Oh yes – we have a place here for Cosette,” she speaks in clear English. I nod. We had not heard these words from anyone else. A guaranteed place. “Oh, and there is another girl, yes – who speaks English in level zero class. We can see that we put Cosette in her class. Yes?” Also good news. This lady is on a roll. “A tour now, yes?” I fumble with my purse. My husband grabs my hand to calm my nerves.
|Level Zero Classroom|
We enter the first classroom and to my surprise, it looks much like what I’d picture a kindergarten (or as they call it, level zero) class to look like - almost. A play house station is in the corner, bins of legos line the walls, and a circle of small chairs surround a circular table in the middle. I cock my head to the side. Not only are there about 28 tiny chairs (about twice the amount I would perhaps expect in an American school classroom) but they’re also covered in clothes. Pants, shirts, and shoes litter the backs and seats of each chair. “Oh yes – the children are at gym,” the principal says in way of explanation. When she sees my confusion deepen, she continues “Oh yes, see the children have gym in their underwear.” My eyes grow wide. “Yes, see, it’s much too hot for them to run around in their clothes and it’s too time consuming to change into gym clothes.” Visions of naked children kicking soccer balls does not compute in my American brain. I look to my husband for help. He gives me the look that says: Something is being lost in translation – it will be okay, Honey. I nod and focus my attention back to the principal. She’s pointing to the clothesline above the teacher’s chair. Photos of the day’s activities are pinned to the string. I nod with appreciation. I like schedules. The principal is pointing to the pictures and explaining them to me. “Yes, so in the morning, after the children hang up their coats, and put away their bags, they sit in the circle and the teacher first reads them a bible story.” My eyes grow wide, yet again. Underwear and bible stories: two phrases I wouldn’t hear during a tour of an American kindergarten. I look back at the art station. The principal is demonstrating a traffic light. “There are so many children, you see – the teacher can’t possibly attend to all of them at the same time, of course. The children take their names from the board and place them next to the station they’d like to play in. Each station has a limited number of spots. The teacher directs the art station. If the red light is on – it indicates to the other children to not interrupt. If the green light is on – the children may approach with questions, yes?” I nod. I like this idea. “Oh – that’s nice. Where can I get one of those?” I smile.
We complete the tour and we return to the office to receive the paperwork. “When do we need to return this form?” my husband asks. “Well. . . as soon as possible, of course. There are waiting lists.” We nod. We understand. We have little other choice. The school is fine. The principal is warm. The school is half a mile from our home. Our daughter has been understanding and speaking Dutch at her preschool for the past two years. The Dutch kindergarten should be good experience for her. We fill out the paperwork and return it the next week.
March 2014 - Because each child comes into the classroom at different times, the classroom is well established. Four sessions are scheduled before her first day of school. Parent-guided for a couple hours the first time, then she could attend by herself for half a day. I like the idea of this – introducing her (and us) into the new routine gradually.
My husband and I awake on the day of her first ‘visitation’. We dress both kids, ourselves, and head out the door and a flurry of anticipation and nervousness. V had thought we could bring Holden with us and the four of us could observe the class together. I had my doubts. Upon arriving at the classroom, we are introduced to the teacher. “Sorry, spreek je Nederlands?” she asks. My husband explains that he does, but that I do not. She explains that she doesn’t speak English. I’m floored. Besides a few aging repair men, everyone in the country speaks English. The teachers at their preschool have always conversed with me in English. I love them. I’m Facebook friends with one of them. I stare at this educated woman in disbelief. Dread seeps through my veins. She explains that only one parent can attend the observation session, so clearly, my husband would be the one, considering the language barrier. My husband and Cosette enter the class and the door slams behind them. I peer into the window. My daughter, shy and small, blonde and beautiful, dressed with hope and anticipation, sits in the tiny chair confused and staring at the other 27 children. My husband sits behind her in the circle. My Baby Girl - my daily responsibility for the past two years - looks at me through the window. I wave and turn with tears stinging my eyes. The mama. Shut. Out. I hoist Holden on my hip, hug him tight, and pedal him over to the local park in the cold.
April 2014 – Cosette turns four on April 2nd, and on Thursday, April 3rd, we dress her in a new outfit, snap photos, and pack her snack. We pedal over to her school. My husband on his bike, the kids and I on mine. I’m anxious. It’s a big day. We hang her hoodie, put her bag in the cupboard, and help her find her seat. After a flood of hugs and kisses, my husband and I grasp each other’s hands, and with Holden, exit the
|Official First Day of School|
The following week, Vinny is in the United States. The loneliness that occurs anytime he’s gone is intense and magnified. The week before, I had not noticed I was not greeted by the teacher when I dropped Cosette off at school. I had not noticed that no other parent made eye contact with me. We had reassured ourselves of Cosette’s comfort level being a part of a Dutch classroom, but I had not anticipated how I would feel as a parent. My experience with their preschool was very similar to the one I had in America – I have a relationship with their teachers, and the other parents are friendly. Their teachers and I discuss our concerns about the children. They want to teach and share their culture with my family and are curious about Texas. Starting my daughter at the new school makes all the insecurities, nervous-vibes, and invisible-like feelings I felt our first few months after moving here resurface. I’m surprised at how vulnerable and clueless I feel. The teachers do little to provide any reassurance.
During her first full week, I lock my bike in the courtyard. I stare at the buildings and people around me. I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd. I walk her into the classroom and encourage her to choose a book from the table before she finds her seat. Her hand is in her mouth, she hesitates. She does not speak, but points to a book similar to the one we have at home. She smiles when she sees it – it is something familiar, and slowly moves towards it. Another girl in the class watches our interaction and moves swiftly. She grabs the book, presses it to her chest, and rushes to her seat. My daughter and I stand there, stunned. I’m new at this. I blink and encourage Cosette to pick another book. Later, I ask the teacher about the interaction and explain that I found the girl to be a bit rude – and if that behavior was appropriate. She shrugs as if to say, of course. I cock my head as if to say, really? “Oh yes, in America I suppose the classrooms are - how do you say – quite severe?” she challenges. I raise an eyebrow.
Weeks later, my daughter comes home with bruises on her arms. “The boys at school grabbed my arms on the playground and would not let go.” She says. “My arms hurt, Mama.” I ask who the boys were and what the teacher did. I recognize their names. They are 6-year old boys who tower above her. She explains that the boys were sent to time-out. I’m upset that 6-year old boys are beating up 4-year old girls on the playground, but more than that, I’m upset that the teacher didn’t bother to tell me. V confronts the teacher the next day. “Well, of course – I was not here yesterday,” (the teacher who prefers to not speak English to me works Mon-Wed, and this is Thursday’s teacher), “but I can tell you that. . . in America, I hear that you must sign a form for every little scratch,” and again. A shrug. Dumbfounded, V slinks away with the Paranoid American hat on that she’s just handed him. He calls me and explains the interaction. I’m livid – after 2 ½ years of learning, understanding, and embracing many facets of the Dutch culture, lectures in cultural shortcomings is not what I was looking for.
|Pregnant with 2 kids, pedaling my 'bakfiets' to Dutch school|
June 2014 – In retrospect, I now realize the importance of researching the schools far in advance before children turn four years old. Not all schools are created equal. My husband and I are currently researching and weighing options for the fall. As with many things, the Home in Leiden website has been an invaluable resource. I have heard from many Dutch parents that the school Cosette attends currently has high ratings and a good curriculum. Ultimately, I think our decision comes down to where we feel most comfortable, and of course, every child is different. After such a positive experience with their Dutch preschool, I feel strongly that there’s a school out there that suits my daughter’s needs and makes me feel comfortable. We just have to cross our fingers that we’ll find it and that the waiting list isn’t too long. No one wants to be invisible.
Get the latest updates! I've started my own Courageous or Crazy Facebook page. Travel information, interviews, and photos about Real Life in the Netherlands. Click and "like" to follow. (and I promise not to spam your FB with too many posts - ain't nobody got time for that.)