M started kindergarten in New York City. The United Nations International School in Manhattan. Just by the East River. The school was meant to be for the children of UN employees and diplomats, the gypsies of the world. But it was also a school for New York families, and New Yorkers came from all over the world.
M learned to read and write from the Scottish Ms. W. She sat next to Ababakar, the son of an African diplomat; ate lunch with Lila, the Jewish girl with a shoe size twice that of M’s; stood in line next to Nadhir, the very well-behaved Malaysian boy; spent nap time giggling with Stacey, the well-dressed girl with even more well-dressed Korean parents; went on playdates with Laila whose mother came from California.
My husband attended meetings at the UN, and discussed important world matters with diplomats from 191 countries. M paraded around in her Japanese kimono on UN Day.
He presented and defended Japan’s position on social issues. M had to stand up for the dried seaweed in her lunch box.
Classmate: You have smelly food.
M: Cheese is smelly too. But it’s good.
Classmate: But that’s not cheese.
M: It’s yummy like cheese. Do you want one?
Lila tries nori for the first time in her life.
Lila: Can I have another one?
M: Yes. And I will bring you more tomorrow.
Another sushi lover born.
M loved going to UNIS. Kindergarten was all about reading Billy Blue Hat and his friends. First grade included French lessons. Second grade was in a classroom overlooking the East River.
She was in Mrs. S’s second grade class. She founded the pet sitter’s club, with its handmade pet sitter’s badge. She had to take care of a snail whose owner went away for a few days.
M was also elected class representative. Second graders are introduced to the voting process. It is a good idea to plant the seeds of democracy early. M won by a landslide. According to Mrs. S. M was a very responsible and efficient class representative. Also according to Mrs. S. M was very serious about her duties. She was very committed. M always completes what she starts.
My husband was reassigned to Tokyo. He had to be in his new office in January. Right after the New Year holidays. It was going to be our last Christmas in New York. The last time we get to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The last Nutcracker Ballet at the Lincoln Center. A whole lot of last things.
And M was leaving UNIS for the American School in Japan. The last day of school before winter break was reserved for her farewell party. That was the plan.
M: Mommy. Daddy. Can I talk to you?
Mommy: Of course, sweetie pie.
I did not see this one coming.
M: I really do not mind moving back to Japan.
Mommy: We know that.
I made sure that she understood the nature of her father’s job. I arranged for the whole class to go on a field trip to the UN. They sat in the Assembly Hall, and tried on the earpieces for simultaneous translations. I not so gently persuaded my husband to talk to second graders about the rights of the child.
I was so sure that moving from one country to another would not be a problem for M. After all, she left behind friends in Lagos. And she was perfectly happy in New York from Day One.
M: I think ASIJ is a nice school.
She has seen the pictures.
M: But I am the class representative.
M: Who will do my job when I go?
M: I want to finish second grade at UNIS.
My husband and I looked at each other. I had no idea what was going on in his mind, but I was thinking of the costs. Financial. No housing allowance. New York apartments cost a lot of money.
And we have never lived apart. My husband does not cook. And I doubt that he even knows how to boil water.
M: Can I stay until the last day of school in June?
Six months. My husband in Tokyo. M and I in New York. Six months of rent. We will have to move into a smaller apartment. Still a couple of thousand dollars a month.
Daddy: Yes, M. You can stay until June.
I did not say that. My husband did.
I could not believe what I was hearing. What ever happened to discussions before decisions! We need time to think. We have to add up the costs. Financial costs. Does anyone in this family ever think of the logistics!
Mommy: Yes, M. I think we can stay until June. You can be class representative until the last day of school.
I was not being rational. I was acting on my instincts. And my gut feeling told me that we had to listen to M. She could have hollered when told of the move. She could have thrown a tantrum. She could have sulked for days.
But she listened to me talk about the move. And she thought about it. And she came to us with an alternative plan. A request. And a reason. How could we say no!
I searched the classified ads for a smaller apartment. Found a one-bedroom on 34th and First. UNIS was on 23rd and First. Rent was around 2000 dollars a month. But we can walk to and from school. No more cab rides.
M and I were New Yorkers until the last day of school. She had a wonderful farewell party. Mrs. S gave her a UNIS T-shirt which had everyone’s signature. We were on the plane back to Tokyo the next day.
Fast forward. Three years later. M was a fifth grader at ASIJ. It was autumn. The middle of the first semester. My husband called to say that we might be moving to Vienna in the New Year.
Here we go again.
Mommy: M. We have to talk.
I give her the news. I go through the usual Mommy talk about life, and all these difficult but character building experiences.
M: Oh, we don’t have to stay behind this time. Let’s go with Daddy.
I did not see this one coming again.
Mommy: You don’t want to finish fifth grade here?
M: I am bigger now.
Mommy: But you’re class representative!
M: Someone will take over.
We were reaping the fruit of a seed sown three years ago in New York.
Fast forward again. M was a high school junior at International School Bangkok.
Mommy: M, I think you will have to be a senior in a new school.
M: That’s inconvenient.
Mommy: You will have to apply to college from a new school.
M: It can be done. Other people have done it.
Mommy: You will be the new kid whom no one knows. Not the students. Not the teachers. You will not have any leadership positions.
M: I can start something new. I can learn Spanish.
M speaks English, Japanese, French and German.
Mommy: You and I can stay in Bangkok. Or, you can stay with one of the teachers. They have all offered to take you in.
M: I’d rather be with you and Daddy. It’s our last year before I go away for college.
We are still reaping the fruit of the seed sown ten years ago in New York City.
I made plans for the move. Applied to three schools in three countries. And was informed we were not going anywhere.
M finished high school in Bangkok.
Not everything goes according to my plans. And sometimes, it is better that way.