When Ellie (my spunky, fearless, furious oldest child) was four, we moved to a new city in Argentina, along with a couple of other families who were going to work with us. There was a lot going on–I was pregnant and we adopted a puppy–but my first priority after finding everyone a place to live was to figure out where the oldest children were going to go to school.
It was a daunting process.
One of the hardest things about living in another country isn’t the language or the weird customs. It’s that everyone around you knows how the system works, and you don’t have clue. I asked around. I tried some internet research. I drove through the city looking for the schools I had heard about. I discovered it was late to be looking for a school, so my options were limited. I finally found a couple of choices that looked promising.
My daughter was going to be in pre-K, and my friends’ son was going to be in kindergarten. Luckily most places offered both in the same building. We all went to visit the potential new kinder together. It was in the heart of our city, on a bustling street. They buzzed us inside and gave us a tour of the tiny upstairs classrooms. We saw the calendars and colorful posters on the walls, all in Spanish, of course. Our kids trailed after us silently as we chatted with the teachers. My friends, who were new to the country, struggled to ask their questions in limited Spanish. I tried to help translate the answers. It was a pleasant enough experience, but I felt the full weight of what I was doing for the first time.
Even though we’d lived in Argentina Ellie’s whole life and she’d been exposed to Spanish regularly, we spoke English at home. Ellie spoke and understood a handful of Spanish words but mostly, she didn’t understand what people were saying unless I helped her. My daughter, the spunky, talkative four-year-old, was going to go off without me to this strange place where no one spoke her language. They would ask her questions she couldn’t answer. They would tell her what to do and she’d have to figure out what they wanted. She’d be alone in that way you are when there are lots of other people but you can’t quite reach them.
It was only a few days before classes started. We went ahead and registered both kids. I passed the end of summer trying not to think about that one moment in our visit when Ellie’s new teacher asked her what her favorite color was and Ellie just ducked her head and didn’t answer.
The night before Ellie’s first day, she was excited and nervous. I talked cheerfully to her and tried to contain the anxiety that was eating me up inside. I barely slept, thinking of what faced her the next day, imagining how tiring and lonely it would be, worrying that my life choices had put her in a situation that would lead to long-term social insecurities and maybe academic setbacks, too. I tried to remember the truth, that the God who loved her more than I did was always with her and was doing his work in her life, but I kept swinging back to the guilt of asking her to do such a hard thing at such a young age, of sending her to face something that much older people would dread to face.
Day finally came. Heart in hand, my friend and I went together to drop off our children. We drove home fighting back tears.
That afternoon, we went back together to pick them up. We were both so ready to see them, to reassure ourselves that they were okay after a long, undoubtedly confusing day.
Let me just say that I don’t really think the stereotypes about men and women are all true, but that afternoon was like the perfect setup for an out-of-date sitcom.
My friend’s son came out first.
“How was your day?” she asked eagerly.
“Good,” he said.
“Did you like it?”
“Yes,” he said.
Then Ellie emerged.
“How was your…” I began.
“It was so great, Mami. They have this playground out back, and we all went out, and I got to climb these monkey bars, and the other girls showed me where the crayons were, and we colored pictures, and they have a snack and it was cookies! And the teacher let me have three and…”
She continued to talk without pause all the way to where we had parked our car. I opened the back door. She climbed in, still talking. I didn’t want to cut her off, so I held the door open for another minute.
Traffic was whizzing by on the busy street. Finally, I had to say, “Hold on one second,” so I could close the door and open mine and hop inside. “Okay, go.”
She went on, telling me every detail of her day all the way home, like every word she hadn’t been able to speak all day was pouring out her at once.
My friend looked at me with wide eyes. Her quiet son happily looked out the window, memorizing the route to his new school. We shook our heads and drove home holding back our laughter.
We still laugh about that day. It may not be a commentary on gender, but it certainly was a good indication of the personalities of our two kids.
Everyone is wired differently, which is a thing I always knew and appreciated. I like variety. I like that we’re all bringing something different to the table. What I never thought about before I had kids was how the personality that God gives us goes hand in hand with the life he has planned for us.
That day didn’t go anything like my son’s first day of preschool. Or my youngest daughter’s either. It didn’t go like my first day of kindergarten so many years ago. That day, with its challenges and its joys, was for Ellie. And she handled it like herself, like the person God made to have that day.
Recently I was talking to Ellie about her high school class schedules and she said, “I just can’t think of any reason not to do the hardest thing I can possibly do.”
I smiled so big. In that moment, I didn’t feel proud of my good parenting or smug about her good qualities. (I’m all too aware of how little control I had over any of that.) I just remembered that terrifying day eleven years ago, the first one on this journey, and I felt amazed at this person God had made, a person designed to do a certain set of very hard things.
I don’t know yet what all those hard things will be, but experience tells me I’ll get to hear about them all in detail.
That will be my favorite part.