It wasn’t until the elderly lady on the driver’s seat gave a disarming smile and called out, “Hi. Good morning!” that I heaved a sigh of relief. I marvelled at the charming lady. Atleast I had never seen a female school bus driver in India. Her winning smile set the instant connect. I beamed at her. Deep within, I let go. I let go of my fears and insecurities in a new time zone.
It was an anxious night before the first day of school in the US. We barely slept that night. It was around 6.15 am in the morning. My daughter about to start her innings at Roth Junior High School under Rush Henrietta School District in Rochester, New York. We were waiting for the school bus to arrive. It was still dark and I could feel the warm breeze. She was tensed too. It was a foreign country. Everything was new. She was about to start her seventh grade. Just then I saw the bus arrive at a distance. I held my daughter’s hands and reassured her. I told her that this is going to be a new experience and an opportunity to learn novel things in a different country.
The bus swerved at a turning and came to a stop. My daughter gave me an anxious look. As the door opened, the bus driver looked beautiful in her blonde hair and a yellow shirt. I smiled, “Please take care of her. It’s her first day. And she’s very nervous.”I was surprised when the genial lady chuckled, “Oh, C’mon honey. It’s my first day too. I am nervous too.” Instantaneously, I was at ease. I smiled back. I saw my daughter get on the bus. I closed my eyes and heaved a sigh of relief. I no longer worried about the safety of my daughter!
Ever since I embarked on this year-long journey to the US accompanying my husband who is a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Rochester and my two school going daughters, I had nursed unknown fears. I was more worried about my daughters and wondered if they will be able to adjust to the new surroundings. After settling in an apartment, we faced the daunting prospect of readying the kids for school.
The first step was finding a school. And we were amazed how the entire process was such a smooth affair at the school district office. Every time I dealt with the public institutions, I was pleasantly surprised to see how everything was exceedingly child friendly. The first day at the school office again was a pleasant affair. My daughters were given colour pencils and asked to sit at a corner and draw while we were asked few random questions. That was it! Then there was an email calling us for an English language test, that my elder daughter cleared without hiccups. The younger one, who is second grade, however was slotted for extra ESL (English as a Standard Language) class in school. We were around 10 minutes late for the test and the lady called us. We realised how Americans value time and are committed to the work they do. The lady who took the test was extraordinarily dedicated and caring while dealing with my daughters. I could see many other students from different nationalities waiting for their turn and she was equally patient with them.
Next came the ordeal of taking some more vaccination shots for my daughters in order to start school. The very thought of vaccination and needles sounded like an ordeal for most Indians. We were advised to go to the vaccination centre. As soon as we stepped into the centre, the pleasant lady on the counter gave colouring sheets and a bunch of crayons to my daughters. A counsellor called us to a room and told us that my older daughter would be getting six shots and the younger one four shots. Then came two nurses who spoke so lovingly to my daughters that they agreed to the shots without any complaints. They were given stickers and a key ring for their patience in taking the shots. In fact, my daughters loved the place so much that they often talk about it and want to go there again!
School began. The initial few days had hiccups. However, after the transition, it was a stage of evolution. The younger one at Crane Elementary School battled with the language while the older one was awe-struck by the new system in an American Public School. Unlike in India, a seventh-grader had to go from one class to the other for different subjects. (In India, we do that in college). And instead of school textbooks, they had to use a chrome book. As someone growing up with traditional style of education, it seemed too much for me to swallow. But then, I realised that probably that is the future of education!
Breakfast and lunch was in school though the menu at times sounded tough and alien. The younger one had difficulty in communicating. I decided to go to school and talk to the teachers and tell them about her difficulty and that she needed emotional support to cope with the new environment. She could not play with her peers as she could not communicate well with them. I was mesmerised by the way the school Principal and her home teacher handled it.
My little interaction with their school teachers fill me with a swirl of emotions — most often I was overwhelmed. My younger daughter started loving school and her home teacher. He responded to my concerns by writing a mail, “She is adjusting nicely. She is very quiet and shy but we have some very kind kids in class that are including her in activities. I am even getting her to participate in class and she seems to be much more comfortable to share out during math. I am happy to have her in my class. She’s a nice little girl and I see her confidence growing a little each day.” What could be more assuring for a mother!
As I was shuffling through my older daughter’s backpack, I realised that she carried all her folders back. She confided that she was having trouble opening her locker and got late for her classes as she struggled with it. Lockers on the hallways are a quintessential symbol of the American High School where students stored everything from books, sports shoes, stuffed toys, trinkets etc. There was a bewildering system of opening the lock. I wrote to her home teacher that she carried all her folders around and even brought them home as she had difficulty opening her locker. I was wondering if anybody could help her as she wasted a lot of time in it. And I was touched when her home teacher wrote back, “At the end of each day I will meet her in the hallway and help her with her locker, until she can do it all by herself.”
Public school in the US is a wonder. Learning has been fun for my daughters. The dedication of its workers — right from the school bus drivers, teachers, office assistants and its Principal — a level of excellence and efficiency I never seemed to achieve on my own — also inspired me. I realised that a society that values and respects children is a truly evolved and civilised society. I discussed the size of the tiny bookshelves, tables and chairs meant for children — in schools and in public libraries with a friend in India. And she rightly said, “No wonder, America gave us Disneyland.”
The real value of this write-up rests in the fact that someday in the distant future, when my daughters crave for the lady bus driver’s voice or the mailbox in their elementary class, they can make a trip back memory lane.
Teresa Rehman is a journalist and author of ‘The Mothers of Manipur’.