Discovering the US – School matters

Arlington is a county and not a city (some counties are re-divided into cities) which has about 200,000 inhabitants (57% white, 21% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 9% Black) from of 128 countries speaking 105 languages. This is a true “melting pot”, perfect for a Foreign Service kid.

When we arrived in Arlington, there were 18,200 students, including about 4,000 who followed the English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT). Our daughter and son were raised in English but in the French system so they were first placed in ESOL/HILT. The integration efforts and many resources deployed are so intense that the Arlington county schools rate in the top 1% of the country.

Middle School Matters

Our daughter commented that it was great to learn in Virginia because the pupils were disciplined, more so than in France, and respected their teachers. I discovered that an elementary school teacher started his/her career at about $ 40,000 in the Arlington County while in France it is barely $ 27,000 (about 22,000 euros). Low pay for teachers is a well-known fact in France and does not help them earn the respect they deserve.

Another difference is that if a student performs well s/he will get into advanced classes, potentially even following 8th grade level math for example while being in 7th grade. It is a great idea until it becomes too much pressure and competition and discrimination. In 6th grade the math program was very similar than in France and our daughter was following so well that the teacher recommended her for an advanced level, even 8th grade level when she passed in 7th grade. Then she changed school (we moved after the summer) and the program changed. It was all about fractions which are not at all taught the same on either side of the Atlantic. In France we use decimals which reads easier than fractions (0.5 versus ½ and this one is very easy). Just like when someone who has an accent is often looked upon as if they were not that clever, the math teacher started to treat our daughter as a retarded person because she could not be in advanced math, even less in 8th grade level but had to settle for 7th grade level while in 7th grade and it was probably bad for her statistics!

I was surprised to learn that my daughter had cooking and sewing classes, known as Family And Consumer Science (FACS) in middle school since these classes have been dropped from the French curriculum in the 1970s. They have been dropped from the general curriculum followed by students who are supposed to graduate and study further. These classes are still given to students following a more manual or technical curriculum.

I was even more surprised when in ‘sex’ class, instead of talking about genitals, menstruation or other needed topics they dared make that hour about fellatio!!! In 7th grade! I was out of breath. I ran to my knowledgeable neighbor and asked who I was supposed to complain to: teacher, headmaster? She frowned and flatly answered ‘Bill Clinton’. Whaaat?! Apparently, according to the survey made after the annoying facts happened, A-student middle school girls had been talked into performing fellatio on their classmates because, you see ‘it’s not sex’. The school had thus decided to advance the class a few grades to prevent this from happening again.

Primary School Matters

Our son’s first teacher was called Ms. Brat in a school called Barrett – like the hair accessory. He felt weird about this. Then the school had fun games and a show where they brought reptiles at school, big long snakes that they could put around their necks so the school became a cool place again.

One day he had an anatomy course with focus on reproduction. The girls were in another room so everyone could ask questions without embarrassment. On his return, he seemed surprised to have discovered that his penis had other functions in addition to urinating.

Whenever they do a school picnic, they go for easy things like chips, buns and hot dogs. Balanced meal??? Unfortunately our son has never liked sausages of any kind, plastic-like nor gourmet. For him picnic meant a dry bun. About school picnics my husband had a sort of opposite discovery when he proposed to chaperon one of the school picnics in France. At lunch time, the teachers pulled a bottle of red wine and offered him some. When he told me this anecdote he was expecting me to gasp and me for him to give the punch line – it was such a common thing to see teachers drink wine at lunch!

Our daughter talked more and more English at home and our son, having forgotten the French word for apple sauce exclaimed, “that’s it, I’m losing my French!” He wanted to know if we returned to France on our next holiday. Our daughter, however, thought that everything was better in Arlington.

Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.