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".