China adoption diary: Mom struggles to keep daughter afloat in school

Madeleine wades through the challenges of learning math and sentence structure in a new language. Mom anxiously navigates the sea of knowledge with her daughter.

Courtesy of the Belsie family
Learning in a foreign milieu, Madeleine exercises her language skills with flash cards.

Now that school is in full swing, I’ve begun to get a feel for where my daughters are on the elementary school learning spectrum. Each new homework assignment helps me pinpoint, with growing accuracy, just where they are paddling in the great churning sea of knowledge. Fifth grader Grace is currently grappling with rudimentary experiments with rocks and minerals, perfecting her cursive writing, and memorizing the location and spelling of the major cities of the Eastern United States.

Let’s just say we were both caught off guard by Biloxi, Miss.

For Madeleine – with only three months in America and scant skills in English – the experience of acclimating seems overwhelming to onlookers and concerned family members alike. Yet I am proud to say that she has never complained about going to school or resisted the routine of boarding the big yellow bus and spending the day in her Sheltered English Immersion classroom just a mile up the road. She’s not the happiest on rainy days that cut into her recess time on the monkey bars, but other than that, she appears willing to give this American school thing a try.    

Grace and I had worked with her all summer, trying to help her amass a reasonable number of recognizable vocabulary words. Each morning, we’d drill the words using picture flashcards, and as the total grew, we all felt the joy of forward movement toward the far-off goal of “understanding English.” 

The afternoon reward was a celebratory trip to the local municipal sprinkler park.

But despite our most concerted efforts, Madeleine’s performance at the pre-school registration test for non-English speakers left a lot to be desired. The short oral test, administered by a jolly Hispanic woman with a heavy accent, lasted all of two minutes. The result? Madeleine identified pictures of an apple and a fish, but was unable to answer the question “What is your name?” Older sister Grace was the most disappointed of all.

That was then, but this is now: the same box of picture flashcards is now an old familiar friend. I can zip through the entire deck of nearly 100 cards at lightning speed and Madeleine doesn’t miss a trick. I’ve even begun to make my own flashcards with pictures cut from magazines so that she’ll be sure to recognize “strawberries,” “green beans” and “hair” in daily conversation.

So much for isolated nouns. Last week, the teacher sent home a small Ziploc bag of tiny word cards. The assigned drill was to help Madeleine create different sentences based on a basic pattern. As I got out the little cards and set them up on the coffee table, Madeleine seemed less than interested in working on the very thing she had done in class that day. But we persevered. Soon, she had unscrambled the cards and created “I like the yellow butterfly.” She read the sentence to me in her funny little voice, and for a moment, I felt tears coming.

All I could think of was “Is this where she is?” I knew she was proud of herself and felt a sense of accomplishment, but that one little sentence wasn’t even a blip on the screen of language competency.

Still, she could express herself, and despite the off-kilter pronunciation, it was music to my ears.

If working to increase English skills feels daunting, try explaining simple arithmetic concepts to someone who can’t understand your attempts in awkward Chinese. The most recent debacle was differentiating between the “greater than” and “less than” symbols in comparisons of number pairs. I had an unsuccessful go at charades.

Grace fell back on a favorite gimmick her second grade teacher had used: “Think of the ‘greater than’ symbol as a crocodile’s mouth. The hungry crocodile always points toward the bigger number.”   

Madeleine’s facial expression said it all. What do you mean by this word ‘crocodile’?”

We finally made some progress and the worksheet was completed, yet there was an uncertain peace about crossing that finish line. I consoled myself with the thought that there would surely be another opportunity to work on that concept – hopefully before a test.

A wise Chinese philosopher from the 5th century B.C., Lao Tzu by name, put it this way: “The longest journey begins with the first step.”

I believe he knew what he was talking about.

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