Yesterday when I dropped the kids off at school- for the first time in months and months and months- Oscar was upset, and it totally surprised me. He turned to me wearing his “angry face” (eyes narrowed, mouth puckered) and through clenched teeth said, “Why did you bring us so late? I wanted to say hi to my friends but they are all already inside!”
None of this made sense, as we arrived at the same time we always do, and because the students all gather in their classrooms, not outside of the school. The staff member who greets us at the door every day asked me what was up, and I told her that Oscar was feeling a little angry. She immediately nodded and said she understood, that he was probably having big feelings about our upcoming move back to Minnesota. She put her arm protectively around him and walked him inside, and as I turned to leave, two massive waves of emotion hit me from opposite directions. I felt so grateful for her kindness and intuition, and I felt so devastated to realize how complex Oscar’s feelings about leaving are. For weeks, Matt and I have privately talked about how his excitement at going home is helping us feel more excited. I started crying on the sidewalk and then kept crying in my car. It took awhile for me to move on to the next thing.
It might go down as our best decision in Dourados: enrolling Oscar and August in half-day preschool at Escola Wings. Under the caring guidance of the smart, energetic, patient teachers there, our kids have grown tremendously. August can use both English and Portuguese phrases to communicate with us. He can count to around 15 in both languages, and he recognizes numbers 0-10. He loves to sort objects by color, and lately he’s started carting around a tiny stuffed Jabba the Hut (which he calls Froggy because, no, our two year old has not seen Star Wars) who gives sweet kisses. He can build impressively stable structures out of magnet tiles.
Oscar confidently orders for himself in Portuguese when we go to restaurants, and he fearlessly plunges into conversations with Brazilians big and small. (These things astonish me and swell my heart with pride when I remember where he started.) His teachers have worked hard with him on holding a pencil correctly, and it shows in the vast improvements in his drawing and letter-forming. He understands basic addition, and his Lego creations are out of this world. When we showed up to his school’s big annual celebration, Festa Agostina, last month, I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about performing in front of such a large audience. But he saw his classmates gathering and immediately ran to them, without looking back. I cried for the whole five minutes of his performance, watching him carefully work through the dance steps he’d learned alongside his friends. A year ago, there is no way he would have felt ready to do this.
Every day, my WhatsApp pings with pictures and videos from the kids’ days at school. Along with the colorful pictures of August experimenting with a guitar or Oscar playing a math-related game with his classmates, the director always sends descriptions of the pedagogical underpinnings of each activity. Whenever one of the kids has a little mishap at school, the teachers kindly pull me aside after class to explain to me in slow, animated Portuguese that August received “a little kiss” (aka a bite) from a classmate or that Oscar bonked his head chasing a friend. Whenever I have a question, the staff patiently listens to me find the right words in Portuguese, and they are always ready to find an English-speaking teacher when the topic is more complex. Really, they have taken such good care of all of us.
As a parent, there is so much I love about even the daily ritual of drop-off and pick-up at Wings. There is no parking lot, so I’ve gotten very familiar with the nearby available street spots, and the three of us have gotten very familiar with the curious cats at one of the houses we usually walk by. We are always greeted at the door by the same staff member, who has an incredible memory and knows each child’s guardian by sight and name. When August went through a long stretch of crying at drop-off, one of his classroom assistants always made sure to come to the door to help carry him in. At pick-up, I exchange little greetings with the other parents, and because the school is relatively small, I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the kids’ classmates during this time. It’s always fun to run into another Wings family while we are out and about, which happens a lot (just happened again last weekend, actually, when we were at the Independence Day parade). There is also a nice park one block from the school, so sometimes after class we head to the playground. On Wednesdays, that same park has a farmer’s market, so we usually stop there then, too.
I cannot say enough good things about Wings, this magical place, and I am going to bawl my eyes out on Friday, tomorrow, when we walk away from that brightly-colored facade for the last time. I’m seeking a mindset of abundance, trying to assure myself that there will be more magical schools in our children’s future, but right now, I ardently wish I could neatly pack up Wings and everyone in it and bring the whole damn thing to St. Paul.
And surely, Friday will be a difficult day, because I will be heading to the kids’ school from what I have come to think of as my school, Influx. Influx is an English and Spanish school for kids and adults, and I started volunteering there regularly in late 2018. The incredibly welcoming staff trusted me to host a conversation class every Friday, which I have loved. I’ve met such a range of interesting people who’ve all bravely come to practice English with a native speaker. It is a joy to spend time with them and learn from them. They are always willing to discuss challenging topics- I joke that we still haven’t solved the world’s problems yet, but I’m sure we are getting closer- and they really inspire my own language studies.
The people I will miss the most from Influx, though, will be the teachers and coordinators. The team at Influx, very like the team at Wings, has this pure quality that as a former teacher and school director I am always delighted and grateful to recognize. They are Educators, to the core. They care so deeply about their students, and they bring so much positive energy to the classroom. They plan elaborate, fun events where students can practice English with things like cooking and singing, and most importantly, with friends. This school offers students a real community, and what better environment could you ask to do something as courageous as learn a foreign language?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be a student at Influx too, learning Portuguese. School coordinators Ronaldo and Rafael offered to teach me Portuguese, knowing how few options there are in Dourados for adults who are studying the language. They received special permission to sort of reverse-engineer the school’s materials and methodology for me, and for the last year, they have set aside time in their already-packed schedules to prepare and teach lessons to me. It is an incredible gift. Going to Portuguese class each week has never felt like an obligation, and I always leave feeling buoyed, and smarter, and better. Rafa and Ronaldo have kindled a love of Portuguese in me for which I will always be grateful. They will forever be part of the group of good teachers, really good teachers, who have changed my life.
It is back-to-school season in the U.S., so it seems especially strange to be preparing to leave Wings and Influx, two of our most important communities in Dourados. These two schools will forever be part of our family’s story, and even though I do have a respectable vocabulary in Portuguese, I really have no idea how to say goodbye.