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Wanted: An Education

Mark's school bag
Mark’s school bag

“So, your teacher may ask a few questions. For example: ‘what’s your name?'”


“That’s right. And maybe the teacher will ask: ‘How old are you, Mark?'”

“… Three!”

“Yep, three. Well, almost four now.”

“What? Almost FOUR? Why? How do you know?”

“Oh, trust me, I know. I kind of keep track of these details. It’s my job as a mother. Okay, what else… maybe the teacher will also ask what you like to do for fun.”

“Mmm… I like to play with LEGO.”

“LEGO! Yes, very good.”

“And I like alien movies with big monsters, and then people come with a sword and—”

“You know what? Just mention one thing. LEGO is a good choice. So, are you happy to go to school?”

“Yes! I go to school because I’m a big boy. And because it’s Wednesday.”

“Right. And you know, it’s okay if there is a lot of people and if you’re a little bit shy at first. Everybody is, it’s normal. Just give it a few days. And whatever happens, there is one thing to remember: mommy… always…”

“Mommy is always silly?”

“NO! Not that! Mommy… always…”

“Mommy is always crazy?”

“No! The line is ‘mommy always comes back’!”

“Oh, sorry.”

That’s right, “mommy always comes back”. But also “mommy doesn’t understand how the Canadian education system works” and “mommy really wonders why kid-related matters are always so confusing here”.

In Ontario, children can start school in the year they turn four, but I wasn’t sure Mark was eligible this year since his birthday is in October, i.e. after the start of the term. Turned out that he could attend the two-year kindergarten program.

When we found this out last spring, I should have been delighted to stop writing $795 cheques (!) to the daycare centre, but instead, I felt lost. On one hand, we were just starting to master daycare and we had a routine. On the other hand, I had no idea how to navigate the Ontario education system both Feng and I were new to.

That, plus I don’t like dealing with the authorities, including an almighty school board. Blame it on my libertarian upbringing.

Turned out it was hard to actually deal with anyone. We found our designated district’s school alone—an English-language public school—doing research online and we stopped by for information. Another parent was already in the office, also enquiring about kindergarten. Phew. We weren’t the last parents to register.

The woman behind the desk looked flustered even though we were just two families asking for basic enrolment information—routine for a school, right?

“There, fill this out. Oh my, I can’t answer all your questions right now, I’m alone today! This is crazy!”

I couldn’t help thinking that if “this” was crazy, she’d better not step in the real world, like ever.

The application was a double-sided sheet of yellow paper written in cutesy Comic Sans typeface. I scanned it. Name of parents, name of kid… and the rest was dedicated to contact information. Apparently, the goal was to gather as many phone numbers as possible in case two irresponsible parents ever forgot pickup time at school.

“So… what’s the enrolment process, exactly?” I asked.

“Just fill this out and we will contact you.”

We were used to daycare hunting, where most common answers from staff are 1) “There is a ten-year waiting list but sure, feel free to add your name at the bottom” and 2) “We charged one million dollars a month” 3) “Yes, we may have a spot but you need to provide a box of documents and fill out our twenty-page application kit”.

School registration sounded suspiciously easy. But we still didn’t have any technical and practical info.

I quizzed my friends with school-aged kids but one attended the Lycée français (Ottawa’s French private school) and the other one attended a French public system school, which is a completely different system. Indeed, in Ontario four school systems are publicly funded: the French public system, the French Catholic system, the English public system and the English Catholic system.

I almost missed the French éducation nationale. Sure, like millions of students, I regularly protested various education reforms over the years, but at least the ministry’s communication efforts were consistent and on a national basis.

Late June, we received an email inviting us to tour the school. At 9 a.m. that day, when we joined the group in the school’s hallway, I noted that Mark was the only child attending. I was confused—wasn’t the tour mostly for kids to get familiar with their new environment?

We walked from one classroom to the next and explored the long hallways (Mark and I even managed to lose the group) of the 700-student school, but I was still missing crucial practical information. What was the school’s schedule? When did school start? What would Mark need?

None of these questions were answered. At the end of the tour, we were told we would get an admission package by mail.

Information was being given out in dribs and drabs so I quizzed other parents in the neighbourhood and at daycare. I learned that school started at 8:30 a.m. and ended early, at 3 p.m. Crap. It meant a much early start and there was no way I could consistently end my day at 2:30 p.m. to pick up Mark. I also learned that we had to provide lunch but that there were no fridges, no microwaves and no set lunchtime—kids just grab food from their lunchbox whenever they were hungry.

We still hadn’t received the info package promised by the time we left to France at the end of July. We said goodbye to Mark’s daycare and figured school would start after the Labour Day long weekend.

Finally, at the end of August, I received the eleventh-hour email instructing me to pick up the info package at school. When we did, we learned that we were scheduled for a “meet and greet” with Mark’s teacher on September 7 and that school would start on September 12. Phew. How hard can it be to pick a back-to-school day and communicate it to parents?

“Alright, Mark. Listen to me. Tomorrow morning, we will take the car… then daddy will park… then we will get out of the car… and we will walk together to the school’s door… and then you will see your teacher… and then what will you say?”

“Hi, teacher!”

“That’s right! Then I will give you a hug and a bisou, and then what will you say?”

“Bye bye teacher!”

“No! Bye bye mommy! Remember? Mommy isn’t going to school with you! Okay, never mind. We will see tomorrow. For now, go to sleep!”


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