Posts Tagged ‘School


I Rode the Bakfiets, I Can Take on the World!

Everyone rides bikes in the Netherlands, as you probably know. This means that people also ride something called a bakfiets (literally translated to something like “bucket bike”) with a large bucket/wheel barrel attached to the front that is meant to hold precious cargo: often (and certainly in my case) this cargo is small children. Bikes make me a bit nervous to begin with, and riding bikes in a busy, rainy city through heavy car, tram, bus and other bike traffic makes these nerves run a little higher. So you can imagine how riding a big gigantic bike through such conditions while two small boys bounce around in the front might worry me.

My relationship with bicycles over the years has been complicated, a bumpy road of love and hate. Though I learned to ride as early as the next kid, I spent most of elementary school on either roller blades or a skip-it (when I wasn’t in a hurry). I was comfortable on a bike, but only when it was up to speed and easiest to balance. It was the stopping, going, and maneuvering difficult turns – or any turns at all – that made me wimper in panic and squirm on my banana seat. The likelihood of steering right into a bush or a curb or – my absolute greatest fear – another moving bicycle was, I thought, far too great to take the risk. Plus you can avoid the stupid helmet.

I managed to hide my aversion and ineptitude from people for the most part, and got along just fine with my little secret. Just fine, that is, except for one day of the year: Safety Day at school. I remember the dread as the day approached, the careful, anxious plotting to get out of it. For part of Safety Day, the school made students take turns putting on some awful helmet and riding a bike through some kind of obstacle course laid out on the asphalt. I think it was just meant to be a fun way to teach kids about wearing helmets, but I saw it as the ultimate test, with the fat, grinning faces of yard duties suffocating you as you completed the challenge before hundreds of judgmental, 3rd-grade eyes. Any slight wobble, any grazing of the orange plastic, meant doom, a life of shame.

I was too shy to ask them to lower the bike seat when it was my turn, and the helmets were always enormous on my tiny head, like an eggshell on a toothpick, so really I could see no good reason to participate. I wonder now if my mother suspected anything when I tried it once, clearly had some sort of negative experience, and then was conveniently ill every year that same time.

While the panic and terror of Safety Day remains very real for me, my fear of riding a bike has fortunately dissolved since then…almost. Mastering my regular Dutch bike was trying enough – with the tall seat (here’s where the fear makes itself known again), and the required maneuvering through many difficult turns and very tight spaces, usually between two other moving vehicles that are either larger or more pushy than me.

But I did that, and now it’s no big deal. Next on the list was the bakfiets. I was quite terrified to try this monster out, but as it so happens it’s even easier than my regular bike. I do have to jump off to push it up hills on foot, but the seat is nice and low and it balances on it’s own. Apparently, though, I have to be careful when I turn because it does tip. And that’s when little skulls meet concrete. Or cars. Or both.

But I’ve now taken the boys on two rides to the Vondelpark without any injuries or mishaps whatsoever, and attracted some attention doing it! On my first ride, I was asked to pose for a photo with a group of tourists from LA, and an Englishman standing at a red light asked if he could get a shot of me in action. I gave him a thumbs up.

It’s been a long road from Safety Day to the bakfiets, but now that I can pedal that giant yellow machine around town, I feel like I can do just about anything. I’m just glad I don’t have to wear a helmet.


Ik kom uit Verenigde Staten van Amerika.

Last week I attended my first Dutch language course at the Volks Universiteit. Because no others were open, I’m signed up for an intensive 6 hours per week for 12 weeks. The decision was made quickly, and I had to rush to class the first night after whipping up dinner for the two little boys under my care and without even having purchased the text book. For this and other reasons, I wasn’t thrilled to be going. I have a hectic work schedule as it is, and class two nights a week wasn’t what I had in mind.

Unfortunately, it’s either this or I continue to walk around Amsterdam staring at people blankly and whimpering “sorry… English?” fifty times a day. I can’t even tell whether the 3-year-old I look after is speaking Dutch or pure gibberish. The other day he was in the stroller waiting with me to cross the street, talking loudly and happily to himself. People were turning around and giving he and I funny looks; usually they do this because they think I’m his mother, but I had a feeling this time he was attracting attention with inappropriate conversation – in a language that, to me, is wholly indecipherable, even when spoken by adults.

So I rode my bike the fifteen minutes to class and took a seat. I instantly felt comfortable. The bright, warm lights, clean chalkboard and small desks lined up like crayons in a box made me feel right at home. I laid out the crumpled printer paper I’d grabbed from the house and a ball-point pen and tried to soak up the potent zest for learning that hung in the air. After two weeks of constant and complete unfamiliarity, being in a classroom was something I knew, something I could handle.

As the teacher entered and class commenced, however, I quickly realized it would be a slightly different learning environment than any I’d experienced before. Every member of the class offered a brief introduction – name, nationality, and length of time in Amsterdam thus far – with my turn coming up last. Here is a list enumerating where everyone is from, and how many are from each place, in the order they were introduced:

Australia: 1

England: 1

Denmark: 1

Hungary: 2

Spain: 2

Nigeria: 1

Bulgaria: 1

Venezuela & Germany: 1

China: 1

Turkey: 1

Portugal: 1

Croatia: 1

France: 1

Peru: 1

Japan: 1

…and USA: 1.

Even in my study program in Italy, the most international a class got was maybe four students from Mexico and one from Sweden. Except that there was only one girl from Sweden in the whole program, and I don’t think I had any classes with her. So, great! I thought as the list kept getting more and more diverse. This is so cool and everyone seems so nice and eager to learn! I couldn’t wait to blog about the real, live “It’s a Small World” that I’ll attend class in two nights a week. I’ll be more interestingly seasoned just by being around these people!

Then I realized something else, something that I feel was confirmed in my second class last night: these people are probably all smarter than me, or at the very least have more practice at languages. The class is taught mostly in Dutch, but anything that is translated for learning’s sake is translated into English. So, aside from perhaps the two British girls in the class, I am the only person there who doesn’t already speak at least two languages. At least two. Most of them have also been in Amsterdam for much longer than two weeks, so they can at least recognize Dutch as a language and not just a random assembling of strange sounds.

Lucky for me, I’ve secured a seat next to Charlotte, a French girl who really knows her stuff. I obviously have no choice but to give it a go, so I turned to her and we practiced our greetings. I said, “prettig met u kennis te maken” (nice to meet you), in a choppy, nervous voice, but I smiled and made sure she knew I meant it. The exciting thing is that I won’t only be learning from the teacher, but also from the faces around the classroom, who’ve come here from around the world. And I’d say that to be back in school where I feel at home in a place that feels totally foreign makes me pretty boffen (lucky!).

Now we’ll just have to see if I actually learn anything.


“The relationship cannot be determined from the information given”

I don’t know how to find the area of a trapezoid. As a result of this, and the need for many other formulas I haven’t had committed to memory in at least 5 years, I did poorly on the quantitative portion of the Graduate Record Examination. The reason I’ve taken this test twice now is that I have uncertain plans of applying to graduate programs in literature or creative writing – both fields in which I will obviously need to solve many quadratic equations. The analytical writing and verbal sections I can understand, but honestly, do I really have to do an extensive review of middle school math to get into a masters program in literature?

A few days after I realized for the second time that I am simply too far detached from my 8th grade algebra class to do any better on the GRE, I found myself sitting on the BART train coming home from San Francisco next to a girl who had probably just completed her 8th grade algebra class. She looked about thirteen or fourteen, on her way home from somewhere with her sister and auntie, and she was hard at work coloring a page of her notebook. There was a healthy stash of fine-point markers, highlighters and mechanical pencils in the small zipper pocket of her Jansport backpack, and she used these to decorate page after page of binder paper in her FiveStar spiral – all while quietly singing American Idol Kelly Clarkson‘s hit, “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

I kept peeking at her artwork and couldn’t help but crack a condescending smile or two. She’d splattered the page with little phrases that I’m sure were significant to her and was working on coloring them. They went something like this:

LiSTeN tO yOuR hEaRT

CASH rules EVERYTHING around ME!

MuSIc is the way i LIVE

sOmeTImEs we WoNDer if tHe FIGHT is wOrtHwhiLe…

And so on and so forth. I sat there remembering what it was like to be that age – only a short eight or nine years ago – and the way everything seemed terribly important, terribly real, the way all of our thoughts seemed profound, bold and original (especially when embellished with a fresh set of glitter gel pens). As I shook my head and giggled to myself over her silly melodrama, quietly judging her petty, adolescent frame of mind, I realized something that sobered me right up: she would probably do better on the GRE quantitative section than I did.

While I’m glad to have left most of my teenage melodrama at my senior prom, glad that I no longer enjoy writing words with a variety of capitalization, there are clearly some things that I would have been wise to hang on to (at least according to the folks who write the GRE). I mean, her notebook was kind of silly, but I found myself wanting to borrow one of her markers and I couldn’t get the Kelly Clarkson song out of my head all night. Though, from my experience, it’s probably safe to say that she’ll remember those song lyrics long after she’s forgotten the pythagorean theorem.

Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time. I’m so movin’ on, YEAH yeah…

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2019
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