When we arrived in Indonesia the children were 6 and 4 years old. Samuel was finishing up a few months of kindergarten, but Anna had not yet begun school. Timberley and I were going to language school every day so we had to make some arrangements for Anna. In Indonesia we had a few options. The first thing we tried was to hire a young lady who would take care of Anna during the day. Mbak Watik (Miss Watik) would be there when Anna awoke in the morning. She would help Anna get dressed. She would make Anna’s bed. She would play with Anna. She would bring food to Anna and try to help her eat. But just like Poppleton with Cherry Sue, Anna just couldn’t stand it. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to read. She wanted to work puzzles. She wanted some space. So in the end, Mbak Watik had to find other work.
But what would we do with Anna? We decided that the best thing would be to have her go to an Indonesian pre-school. She visited a few times and we decided she could try it out. It was a small school, two rooms with a small playground outside. The slide was a concrete construction with steps up one side and smooth slab of concrete down the other. The other playground equipment was in various states of violation of basic safety rules for children. The teacher was a very nice lady, I thought, but she always reminded me of an Indonesian, female Sgt. Carter. Timberley always told me that that description wasn’t fair, but I don’t know how else to say it. She was not an attractive woman.
We bought Anna’s uniform and sent her off everyday to school. In the year that Anna was there, I don’t think we ever did learn to navigate or understand the Indonesian school calendar. Some days were normal days, usually only a few hours since it was pre-school, but some days they would only go for maybe 30 minutes to an hour and then come back home. Some days school was cancelled altogether. Everything was very fluid, but it seemed that all of the Indonesians knew and understood the schedule, or when it came on them unawares, it didn’t bother them at all. Adjusting to Anna’s ever-changing schedule was one of the lessons we had to learn about Indonesian culture.
Pre-school in Indonesia is not for the faint of heart. For example, the teacher graded coloring assignments. These are four-year-olds, remember. Anna would come home with a picture that she colored and up in the corner in large letters, “B-“, or “C+.” I don’t think Anna cared, but we didn’t like it. Anna suffered from two problems with her coloring skills. The first, and perhaps most problematic, was that she could not color within the lines. I am sure at her age it was mainly mechanical, and yet when you look at her classmates’ drawings, they were all meticulous. There was never a stray line, or a slight smudge of color outside the strict black-and-white boundaries. The second problem Anna had with her coloring was that she liked to use her imagination when she chose colors. Why does grass have to be green when it can just as easily be purple? Why can’t a dog have pink spots on his brown coat? And so it went. The teachers did not appreciate Anna’s sense of wonder and imagination.
Anna learned another lesson at pre-school. Don’t cry. Not when you are hurt. Not when you are sad. And never out loud. Indonesians don’t cry in public. She made the mistake of crying one day in class. I don’t remember the cause. The teacher made her sit outside by herself until she could stop. She saw another child suffer the same punishment. Her experience embarassed her so much that she promised herself that she would never cry in school again. I did not like the fact that Anna felt the need to stifle those emotions and her reactions to them, but at the same time I noticed a strength that developed in her that I had not seen before. It was not that she felt things less. If you knew Anna at all, you knew that she was very emotional and sometimes very dramatic in her emotions. But it was that she was learning to control herself and the way she presented herself to the world. She was becoming a young lady.
After a year of language school, it was time to pull Anna out of her pre-school. I sat her down one day to talk about the decision to take her out. I was ready to explain to her the reasons and to convince her that leaving her school was the best option. I was not ready when, after I let her know that she would not be going back, she quickly said, “Okay,” and turned to leave.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t you upset about leaving school?”
“But what about your friends there? Won’t you miss your friends?”
“No, I don’t have any friends at school.”
“What about the children you play with at break time? Aren’t they your friends?”
“No, I always play by myself on the swings at break time.”
“But what about your teacher?” I was grasping for straws here. “You liked your teacher, didn’t you?”
Anna made a funny face. “Oh, Dad, of course not. She was mean to all the kids.”
I was finally ready to give up. “Well, Anna, was there anything about school that you liked?”
“No, not really.”
“Well if you didn’t like school so much, then why didn’t you say something before now?”
She didn’t miss a beat in telling me. “Because I knew that was what I was supposed to do.”
I almost started to cry. On the one hand I was proud of her for enduring something that she knew she didn’t like, and I was glad that she was so aware of what was going on, even as a five-year old. But I was also sad that she felt she needed to sacrifice for the sake of our call to Indonesia. I gave her a big hug, and said, “Anna, please don’t ever feel that you have to put up with things just because you think we expect you to. I want you to let me know when something is not going well.”