My three-year old daughter has just had her first day at school. It wasn’t for long – just two hours in the afternoon to start with, to get her used to being in a classroom environment.
I guess we went through all the usual trepidations parents feel as their ‘babies’ step through the school gates for the first time. Will she make friends? Will she like the teacher? Will she think we’ve deserted her? Will she be scared? Will she go to the toilet OK? What if she falls over in the playground and hurts herself? Will she behave? Will she like it, and want to go again tomorrow?
But there were some added concerns too. For one, the classes are all in Catalan, and she doesn’t speak a word of it, since we speak English at home. She’s also a chatterbox. So how would she be with this sudden entry into a world where she understands nothing her teacher and classmates say, and vice versa? Will she be bored in class? Frustrated? Resentful?
We know thousands of other kids go through the same process when a family moves abroad, and that as a result of this total immersion they pick up the language quickly. As the saying goes, kids are sponges. Nevertheless, to see your own struggle through the transition phase from blank bewilderment to eventual fluency tugs on the heartstrings.
It seems young to be going to school too. In England they don’t start until they are four, going on five. When they do begin it is to go into a reception year, where the emphasis is more on play.
In Spain they start at three years old. Some may even be two, if their birthdays are late in the year. And while it is not obligatory for kids to be in school until they are six, no one seems to wait. We did hold our daughter back for a little while however. If we’d followed the usual procedure she would have started back at the beginning of the school year, in September, just a couple of weeks after her third birthday.
But the main cause of all our worries – and the reason she didn’t start school with the other children in September – is that our daughter has severe food allergies. At six months old she had an anaphylactic reaction to a doctor-prescribed, supposedly safe milk formula given to allergenic kids. We had to rush her to hospital as her mouth and tongue became swollen and she started to turn blue. I’ve never forgotten the terror of that car journey.
But now we have to screw up our courage and let her out into the big wide world, to a place where the kids bring breakfast and snacks into the classroom: bread, cheese, chocolate, biscuits and crisps, all the things that could produce another, potentially fatal, anaphylactic shock.
In England it would be less of a problem. The flip side of the unfortunately high, and rising, incidence of food allergies is that schools and the educational authorities are becoming more aware of the risks, are better trained and equipped to deal with medical situations, and are adopting preventative measures to counteract the threat.
For instance, many schools are now changing their dinner menus to take account of any student’s particular requirements, or are banning certain foodstuffs from the kids’ packed lunch boxes. In our part of Spain there isn’t the same level of awareness, medical preparedness or action being taken, simply because allergies are so much less common.
So to keep our daughter safe we applied to the Catalan Department of Education for funding for a classroom assistant, whose sole responsibility is to keep an eye on our daughter and see she doesn’t come into contact with these dangers. At first our application was turned down. The risk of death, it seemed, was too great a threat to allow her into the schooling system. Instead they offered to pay for her to be privately tutored. Not the answer we were looking for, since it would leave her even more isolated from the local community: an English-speaking foreigner excluded from the main social networking environment a child has.
So we – or more correctly the school – appealed the decision. A week later we heard we’d been successful. A week after that she was starting school. It is a comfort to know the assistant is there, the best case scenario we could hope for given the educational set up here in Spain. Still, it’s not easy to let go.
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