Starting Public School in Spain: Overcoming Fear & Our First Trimester

The day I dropped my kids off for their first day of public school in Spain, I cried so hard I could barely function. I cried in the school hallway once my daughter was out of earshot. Her teacher, a complete stranger, had to console me.

I speak pretty good “functional Spanish” and I couldn’t even understand this woman- how was my 7-year-old who speaks NO Spanish going to do this DAY, much less the entire school year?

I just kept chanting through sobs “I know this is good for them but I hate this so so much”. 9am to 2pm on Sept. 8 was the longest 5 hours of my recent life and THE day that I had been dreading the most throughout our international move. It was the only uncertain part of this whole experience. Visas are paperwork, a house is just bricks and siding, but my children are another story. What if they didn’t like school? What were we going to do? Homeschool? nope. It’s illegal in Spain. Private school? So expensive and taught in English. There was no plan B.

Both of their teachers do not speak ONE WORD of English. Nada. Neither of my kids knew any Spanish beyond the number 15. They had no friends. There was no before school orientation. Max had to SKIP 3rd grade because they go by birth year here. The kids hadn’t even seen inside the school buildings and did I mention – they had to go to separate schools? How in the BLEEP was this going to work out?!

I stared at my phone all day through tears. I just knew that the teachers were going to call and tell me to come get my kids. That they were panicked and bawling and they needed their mom. That people were staring at them or yelling at them to do something that they didn’t understand.

At approximately 11am, I completely went off the deep end. For some reason this thought hadn’t occurred to me until that moment: “What if they have to go to the bathroom? They can’t even ask that?!!!!” OMG they’re going to pee their pants and Billy Madison won’t be there to say “You’re not cool unless you pee your pants”. My tear ducts were the only thing not pathetic about me. 3 more hours of crying and phone staring.

We had ruined their life, I was sure of it.

Finally, 2pm. Nothing felt better than seeing their little faces come out that school door. They were alive. I couldn’t even believe it. “How was your day peanut?” “OK mama”.

The first 12 days of school were a bit rough but not nearly as bad as I expected.

I creeped on them at school and found Max playing soccer and Sam skipping rope with friends. I went from walking Max into the school to leaving him at the gate. They were exempt from a few tests early on because of the language barrier and an aide was helping in their classroom a few hours a week with language acquisition. “Bit by bit” their patient and loving teachers would tell me…”Poco a poco”.

This has become my 2nd favorite phrase in Spain: “Poco a poco”. Not only does it roll off the tongue, it’s now become a mantra. Little by little we have learned, fallen, overcome, forged relationships through gestures and facial expressions, studied, cried, and laughed. Mainly, we’ve leaned on the kindness and generosity of each other and some amazing new friends that have come to feel like our family.

It really hit me this week – 4 months into school, that the daily reports have graduated from “OK mama” to “¡Súper bien!”

This week I said, “Let’s go around the table and take turns telling our favorite thing about Spanish school”. It was the longest meal at our table since August. Here’s a highlight reel, as there were way too many rounds:

– Metal utensils in the cafeteria and ceramic trays (no waste!)
– Songs on the PA instead of school bells
– Small schools (only one class per grade!)
– “Tutoria” a class when they problem solve social situations (playground drama, choosing nice words, owning mistakes, etc)
– “REAL food, not peaches from a big can. They make everything.” Max, my 9-year-old going on 67.
– Teachers that hug and kiss them all the time
– Being friends with different types of people (diverse religions and nationalities)
– No hard feelings or over sensitivity (The Spanish are refreshingly thick skinned and blunt)
– Walking to school
– Languages (English, Spanish, and Valenciano)
– Having little ones at school with them (school is free in Spain starting from age 3 so there are loads of little uniformed peanuts)
– People wear their clothes two days in a row..haa, less laundry:)
– “No playground equipment so we get to use our imagination!” Sam

So there you have it, their pint-sized POV and the most valuable currency in my world. As we kept going round and round the Taco Tuesday table with all the positives, it became clear…we indeed did not ruin them.

Their Spanish improves every single day. At his haircut yesterday Max cut me off, “don’t translate Mom. I know what she’s saying”. With pleasure buddy;) When we do homework, they’ve already defaulted to using words like “suma, resta, por” and all of the Spanish numbers, as it comes to them quicker than English most days. Eeenie meenie miney mo between siblings has been replaced with the Spanish equivalent. I could go on and on. It’s just incredible.

Bit by bit we’ve shown them that change can be fun, people at their core are kind, and the first step through the school doors is always the hardest. Correction: We did not show them – more like the other way around;)

I hope you do the seemingly scary. It’s never as bad as you think and always worth the trouble. It might not be a new school in a foreign country but maybe my kids at 7 and 9 can inspire you like they do me. Start a blog, write a book, quit your job, buy the shoes, pop the question, retile the bathroom, grind towards your goals and go get your life! You’ll get there “poco a poco” I promise.

And if you can’t beat your fear – do it anyway.

Much love from Valencia,

La familia Hickey

9 replies
  1. Sandy Chupkai
    Sandy Chupkai says:

    Kate, This is the education of a lifetime!! What an opportunity (for all of you!!) I love the kinds of things they noticed! Enjoy every minute!!

    Reply

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