Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

Yesterday Theo had an awful day at school. Some of the kids in his class were excluding him and being mean to him. It breaks my heart. We're hoping today is a better day. It does seem that there's mostly "good days" and then a bad day will happen. Its hard to know how much Dan and I should intercede and how much to try to give Theo the tools to deal with mean or exclusive behavior - which unfortunately he will encounter in different forms all his life.

I think part of why this happens in Theo's class has to do with elementary school boy culture, which left unchecked isn't characterized by being nice and inclusive. I do think the teaching staff are proactive about counteracting it, but I don't think the other parents are involved around these topics. I think part of it also has to do with the fact that there are so few students in Theo's class - 11 in all and only one girl, which means there aren't a variety of friends' groups. Instead, there's one group and those who are left out- which changes from day to day. I think also that we opted for a school that hasn't had much exposure to foreign students. In terms of immersion this has been great, in terms of embracing and empathizing with kids that are different, from a different country, that speak a different language there has been a lack of knowledge, experience, and sometimes empathy in particular among Theo's classmates.

I think that until you have lived abroad, away from family and friends, its hard to understand what that experience could mean. Our friend Jenny, who along with her family have recently embarked on their own year abroad in neighboring Mendoza (and who will be visiting this weekend!!!!) recently wrote on her blog about gaining a new empathy for folks that have been removed from their communities. She writes,

"I am developing great empathy for all of the ‘outsiders’ in our own world. The parents whose kids enter our school without understanding how to navigate the system. That is, be both the formal school system, and the more elusive informal system of friends, play dates, book clubs, weekend get-togethers and carpools. The transplants who move from other parts of the world and try to settle in to the rhythms of a foreign place with all of it’s idiosyncrasies-the weather, the nightlife, the bus schedule and housing, and the language-what an incredible barrier that can be!".

I think that all these factors can be true in any country. Certainly, all these factors happen in the US too. But I also think that a country that has lived under a violent dictatorship that ended only 20 years ago, still has healing to do. I am doing a series of interviews for a nonprofit project I am working on here, and I was talking with a school leader this week about the community she grew up in. She still lives in that community, but talks of pre-dictatorship and post-dictatorship in very different terms. She explained that when she was a child, all the children played out in the street, safe with many neighbors watching over them. During the dictatorship Chileans headed inside, there was a state of emergency at night, it wasn't safe to be out, neighbors became informants regarding other neighbors sometimes as the only way to save themselves. People, sometimes children, were disappeared by anonymous groups working for the military. My interviewee explained that Chileans learned to fear and distrust their neighbors and today children still often arrive home and stay inside. Perhaps as a result, Chile can be an insular society at times. As one of the Chilean disabled adults at the recent training workshop I attended stated, "Chile is an exclusive society" - exclusive in terms of low tolerance for outsiders or those who are different. Whether that generalization is true or not, we're thankful that at least as a family we have made many good friends here, but it is true that many of them are Chileans that have in fact lived abroad previously.

I hope that one of the many life lessons of this year for our kids will be around empathy for those who are different and the importance of inclusivity. I know that has often led me to work or volunteer with recent immigrants in the US. I know when people here invite us to dinner or let us know about an event happening or simply ask us about how we are doing, it means everything to us. Here's hoping for more "good days".



  1. I was trying to remember a taunt from my childhood. I spent 2 1/2 years in La Paz, Bolivia, from age 2 to 4 1/2. Now, I didn't go to a Spanish School. I went to an English Language Pre-school, but I was around lots of Spanish Speaking kids.

    And throughout school I had an affinity for "Outsider" friends. But that may have been because I was an Outsider myself. I didn't really feel like one of the "Cool Kids" until High School.

    One one of my best friends in Grade School was an immigrant from Bulgaria (I think), didn't speak much English at all. No, Alexander's grandfather was Bulgarian. He was from Scandanaia, maybe? Oh well.

    Kids can be very cruel.

    Anyway, the taunt (as best as I can remember):

    Gringo, Gringo
    Mata la nina
    Con su paragua
    Dentro del agua

    White Boy, White Boy
    Kill the girl
    With your umbrella
    Under the water

    It's such a strange image. Such an odd memory.

    Good luck to Theo and your family. Be well and rock on!

  2. I am sorry your son had such a bad time at school due to bullying!!. I do see it a lot in Chile and in some places is taken as a normal behavior for a boy although I know this year the government has taking a stand towards this situation and we parents need to speak out. I would definitely talk to his teacher if this situation continues. Kids need to learn that feelings are hurt when they tease. It also happens in the states and it did happen to our son even though we live in a community that is very diverse and open in the end we had to transfer my son to a different school and try to teach him what to do if a situation like this were to happen again. He is now 14 and soon going to high school (I am very scared). Best of luck and hope this bad experience doesn't represent what we Chileans are in general.

    Maria Bonilla

  3. Sending love. I know the circumstances are different, but we have encountered this too with Brayden a few times this year with him being the new kiddo at school. It breaks my heart...tell T and G auntie loves them bunches and we can't wait to see them soon.

  4. Thanks Russ, Maria and Britt. Theo seems like he's rising above it most days. Thanks for all your helpful comments and support as we try to navigate some of these tricky issues. Its very appreciated.

  5. Dear Theo,
    This is Keegan and Tiegan and Soren all writing together! We are at the Paulson house having a play date and we wish you were here. Sorry about the rough day at school last week. We hope you had a better day today. Soren says he knows what that feels like to be excluded. Tiegan says he wants to know what to do about Athena pestering him all day long every day, which isn't the same thing but sometimes is still a problem. Suhabe has been giving Keegan some problems as well.
    All in all though it sounds like your problem is harder. We look forward to the day that you can come back to school with us, even though you won't be in class with either of us (Tiegan and Keegan).
    You will be at recess with both of us and that will be great! Can't wait til Christmas to see you again!
    Love, Tiegan, Keegan and Soren
    P.s. Soren says you can't get tired of Grace. You are stuck with her.

  6. If Theo ever wants to talk with someone who has really been there, Stefan (and maybe Jules, too) would be happy to swap stories and talk about different strategies. Stefan had a particularly difficult month and I think he feels like he figured out some things. He is definitely tougher for the struggle. Getting advice is not always useful but it would probably be nice just to know that someone else understands completely what it's like. (On the parental side, reading this post reminded my how hard it was for me during that month, too.) I remember when we climbed La Campana and they all shared stories about the ways they were different in their Valparaiso schools (while we were sharing stories about our creaky bodies!). S&J would be happy to skype again any time!