Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

July 3rd, 2015 by Daniele Muscetta

This is one more post about things that disturbed us in America, and eventually led to the decision of coming back to Europe.

No, I don't mean to say everything about America was bad. It wasn't. We have learned a lot. We did amazing things, met some incredible people and visited places and nature that is so beautiful it can't be described with words or pictures: my limited attempts to portrait the beauty of that continent are on my photos on Flickr… but in real life it is so much more fantastic. I loved to see Eagles flying over us; I enjoyed camping like primitives among huge trees that have seen an ancient world and shared those spaces with the Native people, in harmony; it's not in many places in the world nowadays that you can drive thru forests or deserts or prairies so beautiful that take your breath away for hundreds of miles; I even had a good laugh when the occasional raccoon decided to climb on our tree at night and eat all the plums (which sounded like a Pig was stuck on the tree, by the way – another strange night episode, but actually funnier that the one with the police I wrote about in my previous post).

But we also experienced a society that, weighting all factors, is not the one we want our offsprings to grow in, and after the first euphoric and exploratory years we couldn't really see ourselves growing old there.

So, here's another story that happened to us. And – as the pain it caused is starting to heal – I am still grateful it did happen and life manifested itself this way, because it truly opened our eyes.

 

One day in November Sara said to my wife: "You know, mum? I have a friend called Sara – she stays out of school, and Sarah enters the school. Then we meet again when I come out."

Sara and Sarah. A trailing 'h' and a fairly different pronunciation (you'd pronounce it 'Sara' closer to 'Zara' than how you say 'Sarah' with an American-English accent). But wait, it's not just about the name – the kid was really telling us she was not allowed to be herself – Sara – in school, where she has to pretend to be someone else – Sarah (the only way people in the States were able to pronounce her name), to meet expectations and handle the pressure in school. The name was just a label for the different 'roles', but this was to us a wake-up call: hearing this from your 5 years old, as a parent, deeply hurt my wife (and myself, later).

Sara had always been a very happy and nice little girl.
But she was telling us she had been wearing a mask, doing everything according to the book in school, while she was being deprived and denied in her own self-image and esteem.

This was her first year in kindergarten – previously she had been in a 'cooperative' pre-school, which had been a relatively nice experience, as basically all the mums were co-teaching the toddlers, so my wife could really be involved in her education and have a clear idea of what was going on.
But at the public school, the school year had only started for a couple of months, and we didn't really know what to expect – sure, Luca, our older son, had started school in America when he was 7 – before that he had done kindergarten and began elementary school in Italy – and his first couple of years had been largely 'English full immersion'. With Joshua we had seen junior high and high schools. Lots of math, largely, I wasn’t particularly happy of the programs either… but with Sara we saw the public school system from the start and that made us even more unhappy.

We expected that 5 years old kids, even if they had to start learning something 'mental', would still be allowed to play and to interact to some extent with each other.
That is not what we found: it was more of a crash course in obedience, submission and a rat race to learn things way too fast and way too early, that completely stressed out our kid.

In the photo below you can see how she had developed an eczema from continuously biting her lower lip – basically respecting the 'stay quiet' and 'listen' and 'don't talk unless you are asked to answer something' she was given as rules. You can also see she was forced in a stiff 'standard' type of smile, not natural at all. If it wasn't that the topic is about my daughter and it hurts, it would almost be ironic this is the 'official' picture for the picture book of the year… so the school can keep good record of how they did that year…

Sara school photo america 2014
What were they asking of her, you might be wanting to know.

Well, we found it pretty intensive that in 12 hours a week (3 hours a day for 4 days):

  • The kids were supposed to learn to read, write, and count and do math with numbers under the 20 – way too much 'logical' thinking at that age, too fast, too soon.
  • No time (or not allowed) to interact with each other (kid to kid) during the lesson and learn social skills and boundaries – just listen to the teacher and return the results, fast, because they need to be measured. Wikipedia has a good comment on those standardized testing and programs:
    •  […] Critics argue that the focus on standardized testing (all students in a state take the same test under the same conditions) encourages teachers to teach a narrow subset of skills that the school believes increases test performance, rather than focus on deeper understanding of the overall curriculum. For example, a teacher who knows that all questions on a math test are simple addition problems (e.g., What is 2 + 3?) might not invest any class time on the practical applications of addition, to leave more time for the material the test assesses. This is colloquially referred to as “teaching to the test.” […]                        
  • They only had a break of 10 minutes each day: 10 minutes are not enough at that age they still need to run wild and play spontaneously…
  • Even in those 10 minutes, they were NOT even allowed to eat anything. Because of other kids with food allergies. About this, we even arranged for her brother Luca – who was in the same school but a higher class and was having break at the same time – to provide her snack in the courtyard. The teacher 'closed an eye' on it, until someone found out and complained to the Principal of the school. No, really, my kid needs to eat, and even eat something healthy, *especially* if you expect them to be able to focus and use their brains. They won't offer them to others, and it's easy to implement some slightly more tolerant policies (i.e. please don't give you kids snacks of some categories that cause allergies. Albeit a future post on food allergies – and food in general – in the States is probably something I'll write in the future.). I know that when I am short on sugar, I get grumpy and I can't think straight myself – good sugar is actually good for your brain
  • There was, however, time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (almost) every day. If you don't know what the pledge of allegiance is – it's because you come from a (even if only slightly) more decent country like myself. Also, if you are European, you might have studied that the Americans came to rescue us from the evil Nazi's in second world war, so you might have this feeling that Americans wouldn't do the same things as the Nazi's… would they? Well, you can read about the pledge on Wikipedia but essentially it is a ritual where you swear your loyalty to the American flag that you'll love it and respect it and be a good robot citizen, to say it my way. The whole thing is coupled with holding a hand on your heart, or with a military salute. There is an interesting photo (and its comments) you should read
    • A photo of a child is titled: “little girl giving the Heil Hitler salute 1934.” It is so funny to read comments from U.S. citizens (and others) remarking that the photo is disturbing because it shows how pliable children are. No one is aware that it was the salute used in the U.S. and originated in the U.S. (see the work of the symbologist Dr. Rex Curry). None of the U.S. citizens is aware that the photograph could be of a U.S. girl (and not a german girl) and the commentators would not know. The thought has never entered their minds. They cannot even make a comparison to the modern Pledge of Allegiance ritual and gesture in the U.S.   

[About similarities in the american public school system and the Nazi schools, you should also watch this Disney movie, which ironically was part of American's Anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II]

  • No real 'playing' as kids are not really allowed to touch/get close to each other during play – everywhere they stress about respecting 'personal space'
  • Kids were given 'rewards' when performing what we would consider simple normal tasks – i.e. putting back your chair next to the table (rather than leaving it a mess in the middle of the room) is something we do expect kids to learn early on and do simply out of respect and courtesy. Not something that has to be specially 'awarded' like having been heroic or patriotic. Especially if the reward is this stupid bottle with more Stalin-style (I compared to the Nazi – let's use a different totalitarian example) propaganda:

Bibitone

  • Kid's behavior was tracked and also 'rewarded' with stickers and ribbons and tickets every week – green, yellow and red. I think it's what they use in some prisons in Europe, not in toddler schools:

Stayed Green all week

 

The above list should have given you an idea. And I am sure I am missing and I have forgotten about some details.

If the above looks 'normal' to you – it doesn't have to be like this. It's not like this across the ocean in many countries.

And by the way – we were not leaving in a 'bad' or 'poor' area either – this is one of the 'best' school districts around Seattle, where a lot of educated people live who work for big companies such as Microsoft, Google, Nintendo, Boeing, Amazon, etc…

I broke down when I understood what I made my kids go thru, by coming to work to the States. Thru this and to other episodes.

I am convinced that many people – both Americans from previous generations (when schools were better) or even immigrants like us – don't even *realize* they are exposing their children to this type of programming. Largely because life is frenetic, work is demanding, and both husband and wife both work.

We (me and my wife) like other school systems and methods, like Waldorf, or even Montessori (for some kids it works well, albeit not for all) – that place an emphasis on raising individuals that can be critical thinkers and self-standing humans, not obedient calculating machines.
Anyhow, I didn't even like a 'mitigation' such as sending them to a private school of that kind – they do exist, but private schools are *so damn expensive* that they are really only affordable by a very small rich segment of society. If I had one kids, maybe, but with three – 20 thousand dollars a year per kid are just not something many families can get by, and those are the prices… but even if I could afford it, I believe that gating access to 'better' schools thru money just makes the school environment an 'elite' one: not only unfair for those who cannot afford to access it, but even detrimental for the students who can, as they get no exposure to 'real' society and are raised in a 'bubble', which kind of defeats the purpose and premise of those schools' supposedly more 'open' views. This is of course also what allows some people to go to 'prestigious' colleges and get jobs easily, while others can't even try getting close to the bottom of the ladder. But higher education and access to workforce – is another topic I might look at in a future post, not right now.

Back to the specific effect this school experience had on Sara: I showed the 'stress lip' physical sign above, but there were also deeper psychological effects on her (not) growing up – in fact even regressing in some sense. For example, the summer before she started kindergarten, she was starting to draw more detailed 'puppets' – not just a head with 'sticks' – she was starting to add bodies and fingers and more details… and then, only a couple of months in kindergarten, she was only drawing heads again. And small ones.

Guess what happened once we moved to the Netherlands and she started attending a (public, tax-funded – here it's normal) Waldorf school?
In this last couple of months her drawings 'evolved' again, and they started featuring bodies again (in fact, the body is now drawn before adding a head on top of it – and it even gets a belly button!) and hands and feet have become more detailed due to the stimulation of being immersed in physical/practical/interpretive activities as opposed to just 'mental' ones like it was the case at the public school in the states.
Besides drawings, she has had a growth burst – she grew a few centimeters all of a sudden, and started changing not one but FOUR teeth, and she's literally blooming with vitality.

And the imaginary friend? We have not heard from her again – there is just the real Sara now:

Sara and the windmill

When I stopped sleeping well at night

June 30th, 2015 by Daniele Muscetta

If you are here for IT content – this is not one of those posts. It also doesn't feature any new song and it's NOT politically correct. But it is a true story that happened to us while living in the United States.

It was Friday night. Or you could call it Saturday 'morning' – basically it was fairly late, like quarter to 2 AM in the middle of your weekend, after a very hectic week – we were finally relaxing: we had had dinner, watched a movie, the kids had all gone to sleep, me and my wife had made love and we had been talking in bed and we were finally starting to fall asleep. We both were in that in between state between darkness and wonder, when you aren't completely in Morpheus' arms yet but not fully awake either. But pretty damn relaxed and almost ready for some great night sleep…
…thump…
I start hearing noises – are they from outside? A car? People? Not sure, I try to ignore them but they kind of broke the spell already… Is anyone with military boots walking in my dream or in my front yard? Are those our crackling wooden steps to the door that I hear? I have never been scared for burglars and the like – we simply don't own anything that is worth stealing… wait, are they knocking at the door?
I realize my wife's breathing has also changed, she is half awake too, I ask: "Is that our door that they are knocking at?" – and they knock again, harder – this time we are sure we heard it right. Is this a nightmare? I try to crawl out of bed, put something on (I was previously naked)… the knocking continues and my temper starts raising as I get worried they – whoever it is – might be waking up my little daughter (or her older brothers, but she'd be more effort to then calm down again if she wakes up with nightmares…). I walk thru the corridor, down the little stair (the house was on a split level) and reach the door – still in the dark. I ask: "Who's there?" and I receive a thunder in return: "Police!".
Not sure I can recollect all that went thru my mind – now even more confused if this was some kind of nightmare I was in – and my heart started racing. I froze. I have done nothing wrong, I thought. What could they possibly want at this hour of the night?
I try to mumble something like "I am trying to open the door" – which was indeed what I was trying to do, but I was still in the dark, incapable of thinking straight and finding the light switch.
I fiddle with the doorknob and lock enough and eventually I manage to open the door on a gap – I am still in the dark indoor, and the outdoor lamp is still on and blinds me from behind two tall, dark, male figures with weapons et all… I am frightened but I nonetheless attempt to pull out a straight face and say something. In the absurdity of the situation, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is: "Whatsup?".
The police officer does not seem amused, and he asks for Joshua.
I think a million things again – has he done something wrong maybe? He's such a good boy…
I say I am not Joshua, that my son is downstairs, in his room, presumably sleeping. I hear in the back that now my daughter has woken up from the noise (and the tension in the air) and my wife is attending her, trying to calm her down. The officer explains that there is no time to lose, that they had received a call from a very good friend of Joshua and she thought he might be committing suicide because he was not returning her messages and had turned off his phone (!?). It takes me a minute to register what I just heard – did he just say that? Suicide? Joshua? What does he know about Joshua anyway? Since when is it a felony to switch off a phone? I am the teen's parent, I have seen him grow up, he's a stable boy (especially when I see other teenagers). Whatever 'very' good friend – since we had only been in the states a couple of years at that point and Joshua had changed schools in between – is probably just some hormonal teen who wants attention, I think – but I of course I don't say this. I just say "yes, I know that he broke up with his girlfriend, but we talked about it and he seemed pretty fine with this, almost relieved. I don't think he would commit suicide; certainly not for this.". As a matter of fact, the counselor and principal of the school had spoken with my wife about this during the day, and they had informed us they knew about the 'break up' and that they had spoken to Joshua and he seemed fine (and may I admit that this thing *already* looked like over-protective and privacy invading to us?).

But the police men insist they have received a call and they need to perform their duty and make sure he's fine. My wife also comes by, I tell her something quickly about what's going on, but basically we have to walk down and make an entrance into Joshua's room, and turn on the lights and brutally wake him up and have the office verify that indeed he seemed quite fine. Joshua explained he had just turned off his phone as he wanted to sleep. Thank you for coming by.
They eventually concluded there was no evident risk, and left. Nothing happened, no 'formal' consequences…
…but I didn't sleep that night until 3 hours later, and I think the rest of the family slept uneasily too.
And I have slept crap since that day for the couple of years afterwards, and I never felt safe in my own house again. Or anywhere.

How do they dare to think they know our son better than we do?
How can they listen to a report of a hormonal teen and just raid into people's homes like that?
What a fuzz, and what an annoying invasion of privacy – into my son's private life as well as in our home!
American citizens worry for the NSA but they don't worry for this kind of behavior. Most don't even seem to 'see' the issue here – the scariest thing of all is the reaction of some of our American friends once we told them this story: some of them were along the lines of "how good/nice that they came to check! Makes you feel safe, doesn't it?". And they were not being sarcastic – they positively thought that was a good thing.
You can keep that if that makes *you* feel secure.
It make me literally pooh-pooh my pants. I felt I (we, all) were at the mercy of total randomness and we had to be scared of the people around us, because they could easily be following their paranoia's and get us into trouble, with no proof whatsoever needed to initiate the process.

I had never heard of or lived anything like this. Besides in the stories of the people deported by the Nazi's to the concentration camps – in no country in Europe you get the police at your door in the middle of the night for something like this!

This type of situations is one of the reasons that made us really stressed and sick (call us over-sensitive) in the last couple of years we have been in America, and we eventually decided it was not the place for us, and we moved back to Europe. I will be sharing some other stories and reasons in future posts… stay tuned.

Ponyo, society and translations

March 7th, 2015 by Daniele Muscetta

Since I speak three languages, I have also seen a lot of Miyazaki's works translated in other languages (namely in Italian), and I can't help but prefer the Italian translations above what they make the characters say in the united states.

I am talking of subtleties here – and they are more cultural than linguistic.

Take for example this dialogue in the movie 'Ponyo' ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0876563/ ).
If you have not seen the movie – you should – keep in mind Sosuke is a 5-years old. Ponyo is a fish who changed into a human to be with him because they love each other.

[…]
Goddess of Sea: You know that Ponyo was a fish, don’t you?
Sosuke: Mm-hm.
Goddess of Sea: and you know her as a human. Your drop of blood did that.
Sosuke: Oh, that’s it! I cut my thumb. Then Ponyo licked it and made it better. So that’s how she changed into a human.
Goddess of Sea: Could you love her if she moved between two worlds?
Sosuke: Mm-hm. I love all the Ponyos. It’s a big responsibility, but I really love her.
[…]

Now, I really have an issue with that last sentence. Big responsibility? That's not how my 5 years old talks!
Since I speak three languages, I have also seen the movie in italian: while I can't tell if that's truly closer to the original japanese (but I suspect it is), the italian translation is more child-like and pure, and conveys more unconditional love. It sounds roughly like this:

Sosuke: Mm-hm. I love all the Ponyos: Ponyo the fish, Ponyo the human-fish, and the human Ponyo too. I love all of them.

I think it is much sweeter. Down to basics. The way a 5 years old kid really talks.
By contrast, the english translation is more of a 'what are you expected to be saying from society' – which, if you ask me, wouldn't have been necessary, and it gives it, in my opinion, a disturbing twist: it takes the purity out of that moment and makes it some sort of commercial deal or contract!

That 'it's a big responsibility, but I really love her' makes it immediately some sort of tradeoff… should Ponyo start having a guilt trip because Sosuke accepts the 'responsibility'?

Sosuke doesn't even see it as a responsibility! He is just manifesting the unconditional love that kids are capable of giving (and many adults forget how to, when they get later obsessed with money or other 'responsibilities').
Moreover, what about Ponyo herself – she already did a big effort herself to become a human – and that 'responsibility' and that 'but' really don't seem to acknowledge that anymore, and unbalance the situation.

I know, I am such a snob. But words are important, and carry powerful implications.