Our children have just hit the 6 week mark in their new all Spanish school.
6 weeks of listening to all their lessons in a language they don't understand. 6 weeks of getting to know unfamiliar faces in the classroom. 6 weeks of dealing with playground scuffles when they don't have the words to stand up for themselves. 6 weeks of trying to keep up with maths classes far beyond what they had previously been taught. 6 weeks of eating unfamiliar foods. 6 weeks of trying to form firm friendships when they know they left perfectly great ones at home. 6 weeks of juggling not one but two new languages as they try to learn both Spanish (Castellano) and Valenciano.
They're still not 100% at peace with it, but they have come on hugely since the first, very difficult, few weeks.
Just 5 weeks ago I wrote about how hard it was to watch them struggling each day. Since then they have moved with unexpected ease from a 9 - 1.30pm day (summer hours) to a 9 - 4.30pm day. Even the 5 year old who had only ever been to playschool in Ireland until 12.30 has been thrown in the deep end. But they have coped admirably.
Those short five weeks have brought us from bribing them with sweets, toys, outings after each and every successful school day to it becoming simply part of life here.
Friendships have been made and playdates arranged - a major milestone as any expat will know. Of course there are still plenty of days when, instead of coming running out the gates with big smiles, full of stories to tell, they shuffle out with a shrug of the shoulders and a tale of stolen marbles, pulled hair or having no one to play with - but on those days I have to remind myself, and them, of all those big smile days.
There is a marked difference between the Spanish and Irish breaktime that is taking some getting used to. Instead of their half hour running around in a biting wind or doing jumping jacks in the classroom because it's too wet to go out (really), they spend from 12.30pm - 3pm on free-time - mostly spent running outside in the sunshine. During this time they are served lunch in the 'comedor' - a whole other blog post in itself - all 4 courses of it. They can also sign up to extra curricular activities that range from sewing and pottery to chess and roller skating. And of course there's always the library where they can do their homework should they wish.
But much of the time they are left to their own devices in the playground. And it's a bit wilder than they are used to. I have to admit that the day the 7 year old dropped his bag of precious marbles and the other children all pounced on them and then ran away broke my heart just a little bit. When the same thing happened the next day I was a bit less sympathetic. Third time that week it was a case of - 'oh just keep your feckin' marbles in your pocket ya big thick'. I should add that this was only heard in my own head.
The 9 year old has had a few 'mean girl' episodes to contend with too but has come out of it with stronger friendships as a result. And I'm not quite sure what happened the day the 5 year old told me someone had jump on his stomach and made him cry. Sometimes the less you know the better maybe...
On the flip side the classes all mix together amazingly well, with different years intermingling unlike anything you would find at home. Perhaps it's as a result of the fact that every two years students are held back if they don't reach the grades they should - and so old friendships are retained but new ones made too so it becomes one big melting pot of children.
And on the grades front they don't mess about. The children are challenged with a far harder level of learning - with Maths classes being a whole two years ahead of what they are used to. Of course this brings it's own challenges, especially when the 9 year old is used to being in the top percentage of the class and suddenly can't do anything. But I think she is surprising herself at how quickly she is coming along, which can't be a bad thing. One of her current subjects is Biology and her books on the human body are all in Valenciano. The other day over dinner I asked if she understands what is going on in the class. 'Nope' she replied with a hint of 'and that's your fault, I never asked to come here' attitude. 'Well do you know what they are covering so that we can look it up and you can read about it in English?' 'Yep' she says without missing a beat. 'Excretion and penises'. Um...ok then! Glad I asked!
The other thing that has stuck me since being here is the tactile nature of the Spanish. As a teenager I remember watching the Spanish students that used to come to our town to learn English. They would walk through the streets in their uniforms singing songs and holding hands, and we would stand on the street corners in our school uniforms and laugh at them singing songs and holding hands. Now I see it first hand and it seems the most ordinary and lovely thing in the world. The girls hold hands with their friends, the boys fling their arms around each others shoulders in the playground and on the football pitch. One little boy in the 5 year old's class hugs him to stop him crying when he's upset. And it's not just the kids. Going into the school the other day for a meeting I watched several classes come down the stairs with their teachers - and male and female teachers alike were holding hands with their young students. It struck me and stayed with me - a really lovely, natural thing to witness which I don't think I had before.
And that's the other thing - there are actually male teachers. Not one token one for the whole school - lots of them. Watching the interaction between them and their students shows me just what we are missing in the UK and Ireland where male teachers make up about 15% of the total in primary schools. Is it just me or is that a little bit sad?
So far the Spanish school system has been different, difficult, inspiring, challenging and we probably have quite a lot to learn from it.
At least we all know what penises are for now anyway...