Stilettos at School?
Picture this: rows of Bentleys, Rolls Royces, and Ferraris, palm trees swaying in the sun, and well-heeled folks walking around. No, it’s not a scene from Hollywood’s latest premiere, but drop off at an American elementary school in Dubai. Only private schools are available for expats, who make up about 92% of the population, and getting into the school of your choice is a long process. First, you must choose which private school you would like your child to attend, usually based on school curriculum (American, British, IB), school reputation, and ease of commute. You then apply to several schools, get called for an assessment, hopefully, pass the assessment, and then either get admitted and pay an exorbitant amount for tuition or be placed on a waiting list, which means you will go through the whole process again for another school. We chose an American school for our son because we knew we would eventually return to the U.S., and thought that having the same curriculum would ease the transition.
Private vs Public
I had only gone to public schools as a child, so it was interesting for both my son and I to experience all the private school perks, such as having your own swimming pool for P.E., an extensive library, and beautifully kept grounds. Aside from all the glitterati, there were also a lot of “regular” people, both students and staff who were very helpful and kind. My son really liked his teacher and his classmates, and there were many events that built a strong community. For example, one of the class projects was to bring bread from your home country. Since the class was made up of students from all around the world, students brought breads from naan to injera to Wonder Bread. Students discussed their heritage and also what they had in common. Another time, the school had a holiday concert where they performed songs about holidays from Christmas to Kwanza to Ramadan. My son excelled in this environment and had a lot of friends and activities to keep him busy and happy.
After 10 years abroad and 4 years in Dubai schools, my family moved back to the Bay Area last summer, and we enrolled my son in a public school near our home. The school wasn’t the most impressive to look at, but it had a good academic record and staff (that I researched online here), and was free! I was so happy with the admissions process, simply filling out some paperwork and being admitted. On his first day of first grade, I could tell my son was nervous and excited. I dropped him to his class and inwardly shed a little tear hoping it would all be OK. When I picked him up, he was quiet. I asked him how his day went. The work was easy, he was quite ahead in fact. But then I brought up recess. His eyes teared up and he said, “I want friends!” and then ran out ahead of me. That was one of the saddest days of my life. I was frozen with guilt about taking him away from the place he was born and plunging him into a new environment. I had grown up in the Bay Area, but he had not. This was all new to him. There were no kids his age in our new neighborhood, and all his cousins lived far away. I realized how isolated he must have felt.
Making New Friends
That evening, my son and I went over some role play on how to initiate conversations and play with other kids. He is a very social little guy, so he was actually much better than me at knowing what to do. I also sent a note to his teacher asking if perhaps she could set up a buddy system at lunch or in class, which she agreed was a good idea. The next day was better and he had already started to make new friends. Every day there was another name he brought up as someone he had played with or something new he learned.
Slowly things got better and we had a different set of school “perks.” For example, in Dubai during Halloween, they set up the school lobby as a pumpkin patch where kids could buy their pumpkins to take home and decorate. And by the way, they were local Asian pumpkins, not the huge, round, orange pumpkins we have in the U.S. (those were available in grocery stores too, for around $100 per pumpkin!) In his Bay Area school, the kids took a field trip to a real pumpkin patch with fields and fields of different pumpkins. For the first time in his life, he got to go on a hayride and see all the other amazing animals and things on a farm. He got to pick his own huge orange pumpkin (which probably would have been about $500 in the UAE) and play with his new friends.
New Challenges – From Churches to Water Fountains
We also had a lot of challenges with his new Bay Area school. Although my son’s school’s population is “diverse,” it is still largely homogeneous regarding people’s behaviors, attitudes, and likes. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the curriculum that was the hardest thing for him to learn, but instead the social nuances of living in a new place. There were so many things that someone who wasn’t born in the U.S. did not inherently know how to do. For example, my son did not know how to drink from a water fountain. All the drinking water in Dubai is bottled, so there are no public water fountains. The first time my son tried to drink from the fountain, (as a first grader!) at recess, he dribbled water all over his shirt. Luckily, it is a skill that was picked up quickly. For homework, they had a map exercise where they had to locate different things on their paper. The directions said to “color the lake blue,” or “draw brown mountains.” One of the questions asked him to “color the church white.” He did not know what that was since we usually saw mosques in the UAE, so I pointed to the correct building. He said, “Oh, I thought it was a castle!” Also, when people talked about taking vacations, they would talk about Disneyland or Hawaii or Mexico. None of the kids knew what my son was talking about when he said he visited Mauritius or Kenya or Spain. (We have been to Hawaii and Mexico since moving here, and are planning on going to Disneyland soon so we all can have a frame of reference.)
As the days go by, my son is learning more and more, and his memories from his old school are fading. He is like a little sponge absorbing all the new information, and he is transitioning well. We are still adjusting to life in the Bay Area, but before where I felt guilt for changing everything, now I am feeling hopeful. There is still some culture shock, but I think as long as he continues to make an effort, and with the excellent support system he has, it will only get better and I am very optimistic for the future.
Expecting expats need to accumulate all the traditional baby gear plus an American passport for their American baby if they plan to go back ‘home’.