Like many expat kids, my boys attend an international school. And while it has rubrics and complicated assessments instead of grades and smart boards instead of chalk, it is a school in the most traditional sense. There are students and teachers and classrooms. There are principals and secretaries and forms. There are discordant recorder sounds coming from the music room. In short, all the props and details that conjure up school.
But it is not just a school.
As a married expat with kids, I’m not meeting people in bars. I’m not a student sitting in on courses and deconstructing theories. As the trailing spouse, I have no colleagues, no co-workers, no office staff to dance with to YMCA come the annual Christmas soirée. What I am left with then, is school.
For many expats, an international school is like a lighthouse; a beacon in a storm. Not all, of course. Some are eager to make their own way, to dive into their host culture head first. In fact, some people go out of their way not to associate with the international school crowd. Some never manage to break through the soft cultural barriers that may unintentionally bar the way. But for many, myself included, the place where I send my kids every day to learn the difference between their, they’re and there is more than just a bricks and mortar building full of textbooks and Sharpies.
So when is a school not just a school?
It’s not an easy thing to sashay into a new place and make friends, to infiltrate cliques or shoulder your way into tight-knit circles which seem hermetically sealed. Even if you’re gregarious or confident, even if you’ve done it before. Even if you can tap dance. It can be overwhelming. It can be intimidating. It can be really, stupidly difficult. I spent the first six months of our time in Denmark sitting on the edge of the sandbox by myself and I’m about as far from shy as you can get. Another friend told me she would furiously type on her Blackberry…even though her WiFi connection hadn’t been set up, just so it seemed like she was doing something. Others have lamented the cliquishness, struggled to find a way in. So when you are offered a hand up, a way to chink the armor, you’d be silly not to take it.
An international school is often more than just a school. It is a community. It’s where I get my coffee in the morning and catch up on the gossip. It’s where I get news about transport trouble or a sale at the supermarket. It’s a neighborhood, contained within itself.
My kids don’t have a neighborhood, not in the traditional sense. They don’t have houses full of kids to play with or friends they’ve grown up with. They don’t have Jimmy down the block who has been torturing them since kindergarten or Grace who used to wear braces and is now blossoming into gorgeousness. They don’t even have a backyard. So for my kids, school is where almost all of their non-scheduled social interaction takes place. Which means, by default, most of mine does too.
School is the only real neighborhood my kids have ever known. And for the last seven years, it’s been the only neighborhood I’ve known as well.
Walk into the Atrium (our fancy term for cafeteria) at almost any time of day and you’ll find parents having coffee, chatting. Sure, there’s gossiping going on. There’s bitching and complaining. There’s a thriving black market trade of information happening before the first bell rings. Play dates are made, outings sorted, rides arranged. Plans are confirmed, help is offered, help is accepted. There are parents who volunteer in the classrooms, who help out with school projects, who run events, who mentor students. Do they get in the way at times? Most definitely. It is a very fine line between being involved and being over-involved, a line which is difficult to define.
Yet all of that stuff adds up. It adds up to a neighborhood. To a community.
If we were home, I’d drop my kids off at the gate in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. I may not know my fellow parents as well, I would certainly not rely on them as much. I’d see my sons’ teachers at scheduled conference times. And that’s ok, because I would get my community fix elsewhere–my neighborhood, my job, my check box as they apply activities. But I’m a broad abroad. My neighborhood is not mine. As much as I love it (and I do), it’s not mine, not in the same way it would be if I lived in my home country. My ‘job’ as it were involves sitting in front of computer clacking away at a qwerty keys. My other? Well I mentored some students, acted as class parent, ran a writing workshop, wrote a fairy tale for first graders, created a musical number for parents leaving–all school related stuff. 98% of my social interaction is either at or through school.
It’s gotten back to me that a small group was—-let’s say unimpressed—-with an event I ran, a coffee honoring the parents who are leaving the city or the school this year. We serenaded them with some funny song parodies, had coffee and cake, and gave them each a Danish flag–a tradition within the school and Denmark. We laughed and smiled and said goodbyes to those people we’ve crossed paths with for mere months or several years. Members leaving not just our school, but our community. It’s likely Chinese whispers were afoot and things got lost in gossip translation, perhaps blown out of proportion, but what seemed to be at the heart of the unimpressed-ness was the belief that school should be for kids, not parents. That is was unwarranted, silly and oh God here’s that word again…inappropriate, to make a big deal out of the grown up members of our community leaving.
It’s their right to think that of course. I simply disagree. Utterly and completely.
An international school redefines the notion of what a school can be. Sometimes it fails..spectacularly, but more often than not, the larger scope encompassed by an international school gets it right.
Yes, a school is and should be about its students. But no school is an island. What makes a school more than a school, what makes a school a community, yes what makes that school-house rock, is the right balance of students, teachers, staff and yes, parents.
Well, that and a bunch of people willing to get up on a stage and sing ;-).