Sunday, February 27, 2011

Neat Story about Delhi in Today’s Washington Post

Just read this story about our future home and all the history in the area, so thought I’d share it. There’s still more than a year till our departure but we are very excited about going to Delhi and stories like this one make us want to be there already…

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chutney’s Here!

Yes, he came a week ago today. It was a little bit of a surprise because I had just had a test estimating the likelihood of going into preterm labor, according to which me going into early labor was not likely. But because I had gone into labor at 34 weeks with Nia and wasn’t ready for her to be born, I did everything to ensure we had all the necessities by week 34 this time around.

I was 35 weeks pregnant and my water broke in the wee hours last Saturday, so we went to the hospital. Even though at 35 weeks the baby is considered premature, the doctor said there was no point in trying to stop labor because my water had broken and there was a risk of infection. On the other hand, we were all concerned about the baby. He had been measuring bigger than average but there was no telling if he’d need to be in the NICU (newborn intensive care unit) until he came out. There were a couple of NICU nurses waiting on stand-by in the delivery room to make sure the baby was OK.

Unfortunately, I was barely having any contractions. At first, we tried to let nature take its course but after several hours of waiting, it became obvious that nature was in no hurry. Time was running out and we had to get the baby out, so as much as I didn’t like the idea, I had to be induced (again). Things went faster from there and I had a pretty good birth experience (much better than my first one). Everyone at the hospital was great and had every aspect of the delivery under control.

When Chutney finally came at 3:30 p.m. on 2/12, he measured 7 lb 5 oz (3.300 kg) and 19 3/4 inches (50 cm). His Apgar Scores were 8/9, which meant he didn’t have to go to the NICU. He looked and behaved like a full-term baby, which was a major relief for us. They had to run a few extra tests on him to be on the safe side but he aced them all and we were home a couple of days later.

We’ve spent the last week getting to know Chutney and he’s been wonderful. Her Cuteness, on the other hand, had a few rough days after we came home from the hospital. She had been sick before the baby came and we were trying to make sure she didn’t get the baby sick, which really frustrated her. She’d say things like “Now that Chutney’s here, you don’t love me any more!” and “He poops and you think it’s great but you don’t think anything I do is great!” for a couple of days but seems to be doing better now.

So slowly but surely we are getting to our new happy place. We could use more sleep but hopefully soon enough Chutney will be sleeping through the night.

Oh, and no, we did not name him Chutney. His actual name is Max Stefan Ray Swider. Stefan is my Dad’s name and Ray is Paul’s Dad’s.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak Resigns! Hoping for Free Egypt!

Well, as adamant as he sounded last night about not stepping down, it looks like Mubarak has had a change of heart. According to his VP he has resigned the presidency today handing power to the armed forces. The protesters exploded in jubilation shouting, “Egypt is free!”

A history-in-the-making moment and I couldn’t be more thrilled for the Egyptians.

Of course, this is only the first step. Here’s hoping for a peaceful transition, strong leadership and true freedom for Egypt!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Trading Cool for Debt-free

Yes, we did it- we are finally debt free! We recently kissed our last loans (car, school and mortgage) goodbye and it feels good. We’ve managed to become very uncool in the process but we like to think it’s worth it.

First,  back in May of last year, when my husband got his D.C. assignment, we decided to live in a non-fancy place. It’s smaller and not nearly as nice as our house in Florida but it’s pretty much the only thing we could afford in Falls Church, so we figured we could stomach it for a year or two (at the time we didn’t know how long it would be before we went overseas). 

Second, we had to get rid of the two cars we had in Florida. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but with the baby due in about a month and my Mom with us for most of the year, we couldn’t all fit in either of the cars we had and it really didn’t make sense to drive two cars everywhere. Plus, we knew we couldn’t take a normal US car to India  because they don’t allow you to import left-hand-drive cars there. We didn’t want to buy a new car that we’d have to turn around and sell in about a year. So, we finally settled on a (gasp) 13-year-old minivan.

Cool? Not exactly. Practical? Under the circumstances – hell yeah! Especially if it survives the year or so until we ship to New Delhi without major issues. Best part - no car loans and a few bucks in the bank!

We also managed to settle a legal dispute with a couple of insurance companies related to our house in Florida, which is making it very difficult to sell the house but as a result we were able to pay down the remainder of our mortgage and the last of my student loans. Which means No More Debt!!!

If we could only sell the house now… Thinking about how much work we put into that house and how many times we’ve lowered the price in an effort to sell it since we moved last March just breaks my heart. But we recently recruited St. Joseph to help us, as in bought and buried a small St. Joseph statue in the front yard, which is supposed to help you sell your house.

We are hoping he delivers – keep your fingers crossed!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

THAT Mom (Part 2)

First of all, I want to thank everyone who responded to my previous blog post in comments and on Facebook. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful it was to hear your thoughts. Before I poured my heart out to the world and had a chance to read your comments, my husband and I felt alone in this fight. We do not any more. We were relieved to hear how many of you have been in similar situations and to learn from your experiences. Hearing different perspectives has been so invaluable. Some of you believe in skipping grades, others do not. That was important for us to understand. Based on your feedback, Paul and I decided that we had to go back and ask a couple more questions.

Yesterday, I had volunteered to help with an activity at the school. While I was there, I talked briefly to the teacher. I had been meaning to ask her where Nia falls on the achievement scale in the class but forgot. Based on the teacher’s feedback, we thought Nia was at the bottom of the scale, dragging everyone down. Well, it turns out that wasn’t the case.  The teacher said Nia was not below the lowest achievers; she is below average. Now, I know some of you will think I am a nut but I found that very encouraging. You see, Nia has missed 4 months of second grade work and she was still doing better than some kids, who had been there working on that material for months. That to me was a big indicator that Nia can totally close the gap.

It was also interesting to observe the teacher. She seemed uncomfortable. I could see she was trying to be nice and helpful. She wanted to talk more. I didn’t want to be in her way but I listened to her because this was about our daughter. She told me that she was trying to give me her perspective as a parent and to warn me that skipping can have unintended consequences down the road.

She talked about things like drivers’ licenses and wasn’t I worried that Nia would be younger than the rest of the kids in her class when that time came. Well, no, I said, because kids don’t get their licenses at the same time any way. Even if she stayed in first grade now, some kids will get their licenses before her, others after her. Besides, I said, by then we may be living in a country where people just use public transportation. That was never an issue for me growing up in Eastern Europe.

Then she talked about drugs - wasn’t I worried about drugs. Of course, I worry about drugs (and lots of other things), I said, but I felt that it was not really relevant to the decision at hand. I hope I don’t jinx us by saying this but there are so many other factors involved when problems with driving and drugs arise. I hope by the time things like that become potential concerns, we would have prepared Nia to make the right choices. But, yes, I do know that bad things sometimes happen to good kids (and to kids with good parents) and I do worry about that.

She proceeded to tell me that she had a child, who she had the opportunity to move up when he was Nia’s age. She chose not to do that because she was worried about things like driving and drugs and she just didn’t think it was the right thing to do. She didn’t want to stress out her child unnecessarily. And, yes, the words push and pushy were used again.

That was an aha moment for me.  That little tidbit right there explained a lot. It explained why we didn’t see eye to eye with the teacher from the beginning. It also explained her negativity, lack of constructive feedback and encouragement. She simply didn’t believe in skipping grades and wanted to make us feel that way too. Now her comments about Nia being stressed out  and not ready and needing to go back and be a first grader (again!) made more sense.

She then asked me if we had talked to Nia to see how she felt. This was a loaded question. You see, in our meeting earlier in the week, the teacher had shared with us that she had talked to Nia recently because Nia seemed stressed. Nia had told her that second grade was a lot of work, that some of her classmates could read harder books and do harder math than her and that did not make he feel good because she wanted to do well. Hearing that kinda broke our hearts because Nia had not said that to us. That’s what made us think we should put her back in first grade. Nia had told us second grade was harder than first but we knew that was going to be the case. We had talked to her about that all along and we had reassured her that we’d be there to help her every step of the way.

I shared with the teacher that we had indeed talked to Nia since the Wednesday meeting and that she surprised us when she said that she wanted to stay in second grade. But it’s a lot of work, we said. Nia’s response was, yes, second grade was a lot of work but she was learning new things and she liked that. On another occasion, she said that being in second grade was a challenge and she liked being challenged. We frankly couldn’t believe she was saying that because we didn’t realize she knew what the word challenge meant (we had not talked to her about wanting her to be more challenged, that was only discussed with her teachers/principals).

The teacher did not like hearing that. Her response, “Well, you can’t let Nia make that decision. She’s only seven.” True but I think how Nia feels is important even though it’s hard to understand how much of what Nia says is how she truly feels vs. what she thinks we/the teacher want to hear.

After the school activity, I also had a chance to talk to the principal alone. I wanted to share with him some of our impressions of the teacher that we didn’t raise in the meeting because we didn’t want to be confrontational. I also wanted to ask if we could put Nia in a different room and see if things work better with a different teacher. I was hesitant to ask that question before because I didn’t want to be demanding and there’s no guarantee that another teacher would embrace Nia and be more supportive. However, after hearing from all of you and talking to the teacher again, we felt it was worth asking the question.

The principal listened to me. Our meeting lasted a little over 30 min. I told him that Paul and I had thought a lot about the situation but in the end do not agree with the teacher and do not find a lot of her arguments convincing. I tried to be objective and not vengeful but told him that we do not feel the teacher was very constructive or encouraging.  I also said that we are not happy with how the situation was being handled. I gave him examples. I said we were considering putting Nia back in first grade, even thought we didn’t think that’s a good idea because we didn’t want our child to be miserable. But before we did that, could we possibly explore putting Nia in another classroom. He said that he didn’t think that was an unreasonable request. He didn’t know if he could accommodate it but said that he’d think about it and let us know.

I may be wrong but I felt like the principal was a lot more understanding than the teacher. I felt he didn’t just listen because he had to. I thought he agreed with me on some of the points I made, which made me feel a little better about everything.

So, now we wait and see what the principal says. Stay tuned…

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I am THAT mom… and I need your thoughts…

You know the kind. The one some teachers love to hate. The one they call the pushy mom. I wasn’t always THAT mom. In fact, I never wanted to be THAT mom. So how did this happen?

Well, the short of it is this: I did what I thought was best for my child and it’s not working. And there’s at least one teacher involved, who thinks I am the pushy mom. And it’s been bothering me for a month now. And I need to get it off my chest. And I need advice, so please, please let me know your thoughts in the comments, please!

But let me back up and explain (this is going to be a long post).

I guess it all started the year our daughter Nia was in kindergarten. We were still living in Florida. Nia was going to a magnet program with a marine science focus, which she loved. A few weeks after the beginning of the school year, Nia’s kindergarten teacher told us Nia was ahead of the class and she wanted to start sending her to a first grade classroom (next door) and see how she does. We were happy to hear that and encouraged it. Shortly after that the kindergarten teacher told us that she’s doing very well and they wanted her to spend more time in first grade.

Eventually, we had a parent-teacher conference with both the kindergarten and the first grade teacher, at which they told us that Nia was progressing very well and they were going to continue to work with her in the first grade classroom as much as possible. They informed us that in Florida, kids cannot skip kindergarten but that  if Nia continued doing well, she could skip first grade and go straight to second. We wanted to know what we can do to help and the teachers gave us some advice on exercises as well as websites with materials we could use. At this point, Nia was spending most of her time in first grade, doing first grade homework every day and though she sometimes found it hard, she was handling it well and was very happy. She felt special. We were very proud of her. 

Then my husband got the offer to join the Foreign Service. He was supposed to start training at the end of March 2010. I wanted Nia to finish the school year but we didn’t want to split the family, so we all moved to Falls Church in late March and transferred Nia to the local public school, where she started right after spring break. We had her report cards from Florida and her teachers there said they would be more than happy to answer any questions and help in the transition.

I gave Nia’s new teacher a couple of weeks before I emailed her to see how Nia was doing. I got no response. I tried a couple of more times via email and phone. Again no response. Finally, I went to the school one morning in an attempt to talk to the teacher. I was stopped at the door and told that the teacher was busy and couldn’t talk to me then. I was not happy. Five weeks after my first attempt to contact the teacher, she answered my original email and said Nia was fine. I needed more than fine. I wanted to know how she was adjusting to the new environment, how she was doing academically, whether she was getting along with the other kids, the usual stuff. But I also wanted to talk to the teacher about all the work she had been doing in first grade and that in Florida we were working towards skipping first grade. In the process I found out that Nia’s actual teacher was on maternity and the teacher I was talking to was a substitute. The substitute said she didn’t know about skipping grades but that she was going to research it and get back to me. Another couple of weeks went by and nothing happened.

In the meantime, Nia’s teacher came back from maternity. We had to give her time to meet Nia and get to know her. By then it was late May and I was concerned that if we were going to skip first grade, we needed to make arrangements and we were running out of time. So, I reached out to the principal. The principal responded fairly quickly and set up a meeting to discuss the situation with Nia’s teacher, the substitute, a gifted program teacher and me. At the meeting, they told me that Nia was doing well but that in Falls Church they didn’t skip grades. Plus, they said they had assessed Nia and her scores were not progressing as fast as in Florida. I was not happy with that because I didn’t want Nia to be bored but then I thought she may be overwhelmed by all the changes with the move (new place to live, new school, new friends). They told me that she did make it into the gifted program though and said that was terrific. They were the professionals, so I decided to trust their advice and not push the issue even though my original plan was to spend the summer helping fill any gaps she may have because of curriculum differences between Florida and Virginia, so she can be ready to start second grade in the fall. Never mind!

In September, Nia started first grade. She had a new teacher, who was fantastic. Everything was going swimmingly. We had a parent-teacher conference in November, at which the teacher had nothing but wonderful things to say about Nia. We were delighted. Then we got some test/assessment results according to which Nia was doing awesome (top 10 percentile in the school). We wanted to make sure we understood the test results, so we attended an information session about them. Then I went back to the teacher and asked more probing questions. I was wondering if Nia was challenged. The teacher said that Nia knew most of the material and that 99% of the things they did in class were too easy for her. She said it was hard to keep Nia challenged. There was a group of high achieving kids in the class but Nia was performing at an even higher level. That’s when I started getting concerned about her being bored and not challenged enough again. I shared with the teacher that Nia had spent most of the previous year doing first grade work and that there was a plan for her to skip first grade but that it didn’t work after the move because the principal told me they didn’t do that in Falls Church.

Nia’s first grade teacher was new to the school (though not new to teaching). She said that she wasn’t sure how those things worked in Falls Church but that she could see Nia benefitting from moving up. She encouraged me to talk to the principal and told me that both she and the second room teacher would be happy to back me up. I went back to the principal, this time with test results in hand. Surprisingly, now she didn’t say moving Nia up was out of the question but set up a meeting with me, both room teachers and the gifted program teacher. She asked the three teachers what they thought was the best thing to do with Nia and they told her they thought Nia was mature enough and ready emotionally as well as academically to move up. (Nia was born in November, so she was older and taller than most of the kids in her class). I was a little concerned about the timing. If we were to move her up in the middle of the year, she would have missed 4 months of second grade material. How hard  would it be to fill the gap? Also, in Falls Church, moving from first to second grade meant going to a different school, which was not as simple as going to the classroom next door. But the teachers were encouraging and the principal agreed to discuss it with the principal of the school where Nia would be going to second grade. Then she encouraged me to contact him myself.

So I did. I explained the situation. I voiced my concerns and he said he needed to think about it. The following day he called me back and told me that he had found a classroom for Nia and that we would do it. He said they’d never moved a kid up in the middle of the year and thus couldn’t guarantee it would work but that we’d try it. I asked if we could meet Nia’s teacher and get a tour of the school. He set up a time on the day before Christmas break started. At that point I told Nia she was moving up to second grade, which totally made her day.

I took Nia to visit the school and meet her new teacher. Nia was beyond excited. She wanted to meet her new friends and start right away. I wanted to know what she had missed to see if there’s anything we could do to fill gaps during the Christmas break. The teacher said she could give me some ideas but in the end didn’t. I had gotten a Brain Quest book for second grade and we worked with it during the break.

On day three after Nia started second grade, I got a call from the teacher. The call started with an admin matter that she was trying to help me resolve. There was no problem there but I could sense there was something going on, so I asked how Nia was doing. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

The teacher started going on and on about how Nia didn’t know the material, she was using her fingers for math, she was not nice to her friends, she didn’t want to do her work and why were we pushing her into second grade when she was clearly not ready. She had nothing constructive or encouraging to say about the situation. The closest she came to saying anything positive was calling Nia a “delightful child” and “very sweet” but after everything else she had said, that sounded like what you say when you have nothing good to say about someone.

I had never had such an awful experience talking with a teacher. I was stunned and basically said “But wait a second, it’s only been three days!” I tried to be constructive. I said I fully expected Nia to be behind but I really wanted to focus on how we can help her make up what she had missed. The teacher said that it was very difficult to work with a child like Nia. It wasn’t impossible but it was very difficult and she wasn’t sure it could be done. She said she had worked with kids from the gifted program and that Nia wasn’t gifted. Not sure what she was implying with that but this was something she could have easily verified with the first grade gifted teacher.

That’s when I started to get upset and defensive (not good but then, if I don’t stand up for my child, who will?). Nia happened to be in the room. She overheard what I was saying and got very anxious. Paul took her to her room and tried to diffuse the situation. I tried to explain to the teacher that I knew with the right approach, Nia could close the gap. She had done it the year before when she was in kindergarten doing first grade work. The teacher was having none of it. She told me there were many kids in first grade in Falls Church that had test results as high as Nia’s or higher but their parents were not pushing them in second grade (literally!!!). 

I explained to her we didn’t push Nia in second grade -  we had discussed the matter with three teachers (and two principals) and made a joint decision based on their input. She said she didn’t know Nia’s first grade teachers and that she hadn’t talked to them. I encouraged her to call them and see why they thought moving Nia up was a good idea. (She did not – I am in touch with Nia’s first grade teachers and they told me she hadn’t.)

I also told the teacher that the easiest thing would be to put Nia back in first grade but that I didn’t think we’d given her a fair chance and that it was not a good idea because she’d be doing first grade a second time and she wouldn’t be challenged. She countered with “Aren’t you concerned about stressing your child out so much to learn all this material she’s missed?” I was more concerned about her being bored and held back if we went back to first grade and I said so. Clearly, we were not on the same page but in the end we agreed that day three is a little early to give up and that we need to give Nia more time. We also agreed to stay in touch and that she would send me information on what I can help with.

The conversation had gone badly. It made me feel like my child was somehow deficient and that I was a lousy parent. I had the feeling the teacher had already made up her mind. I wasn’t sure what to do but decided to just keep working with Nia, hoping the teacher will see her for the smart kid that she is.

A couple of days later the teacher sent me some information on math facts (addition and subtraction) up to 20 and said Nia really needed to know these by heart and stop using her fingers. We worked with Nia until she memorized them and stopped using her fingers. The following week I emailed the teacher about some passwords Nia needed and briefly inquired whether Nia was starting to close the gap. All the teacher said was that she had the same concerns she can expressed on the phone the prior week. And we didn’t hear again from her for three weeks.

We did get some class work and tests back from which it was obvious Nia was learning but she was still behind. You could see that some of the assignments she was given, she just didn’t understand. It seemed like there wasn’t much explanation. She got some things she had never been exposed to wrong and she got some right. She had a fair number of incomplete assignments. There were also things that seemed correct to us but were marked as incorrect. We went over everything with Nia trying to explain what she got wrong and teaching her concepts that it was obvious she didn’t know but was expected to. We were very frustrated but had said on several occasions that we are always available to help and discuss how Nia is doing, so we decided to wait for the teacher/principal to contact us.

Last week the principal of the new school finally requested a meeting. Paul wanted to come but couldn’t make it because of his schedule. He did however tell the principal in an email how we felt. The two of them ended up talking on the phone. The principal said they hadn’t made a final decision but wanted to talk to us. We ended up rescheduling for yesterday, so Paul could be there.

We were afraid the meeting wasn’t going to go well but hadn’t lost all hope. In the meeting, the second grade teacher basically repeated all the things she had told me on the phone plus a few new tidbits, though she softened the tone. We tried to tell them how we felt without sounding confrontational but it was obvious the teacher felt Nia wasn’t ready and there was no need to stress her out unnecessarily. We realized that nothing we could say would change their minds. They said they wanted us to decide whether we want to put Nia back in first grade or leave her in second, warning us that she may not close the gap by the end of the year and may need to be in second grade again next year. We told them that neither option was optimal but thanked them for their time and said we would get back to them.

Both options suck but we are now leaning toward sending Nia back to first grade because we feel the second grade teacher does not believe in her and there’s not much we can do to change the teacher’s mind at this point. The teacher simply does not seem interested in helping Nia succeed. She seems to see us as pushy parents and Nia as a problem. It will be very hard for Nia to do well in a situation like that. We don’t like the idea of putting Nia back in first grade but if we do that, at least she will be in a loving, nurturing and productive environment.

This could have worked. It should have worked but it didn’t and I feel horrible to have put our child in this situation. After all, she did nothing but her best. Perhaps I was naïve to think the teacher here would embrace Nia and encourage like her other teachers had done both here and in Florida. If I had known this would happen, I wouldn’t have even broached the subject. But it’s too late for that now…

So, if you are still with me, my question to you is: what would you do if you were us?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thinking of the people in the Middle East…

Like many of you, I have been thinking about the people in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East where there’s been unrest lately.

I don’t have anything really profound to say about the recent events there. I have never lived in the Middle East. I don’t know the region intimately. But my heart goes out to the people in the streets because I have been there. In the streets. Protesting. And I know people don’t do it unless they are really fed up with their situation and can’t endure it any longer. It takes bravery to do that because you never know if/when those things will turn violent.

20 years ago, I witnessed the fall of communism in my native Bulgaria. I was in high school at the time. It was a crazy time and I still remember the mixed emotions we all felt. At first there was the shock and disbelief that the totalitarian regime, which had been in power from before I was born, was gone. Just like that! Of course, we had wanted it gone for a long time because it was repressive, stifling and inefficient but still, it was hard to grasp because we didn’t know anything else.  Then there was the euphoria - we had done it and we were finally going to be a normal country, not one behind the Iron Curtain. We were anticipating (however naively) the change to be relatively quick and painless a la “yesterday we were a communist country, today we are a democracy and we are all going to start small businesses and live happily ever after.”

What we learned was that changes are never simple. The transition of Eastern European countries from communism to market economy has not been smooth or easy. It’s taken a long time and in some ways it’s still ongoing. We too wanted the people that had been in power gone, which was understandable but easier said than done. These people had been in power for a long time, they weren’t going to just give it up. They had lived well (much better than the average population), they had assets and connections. They did everything they could to stay in control in some capacity.

On the other hand, the former opposition wasn’t exactly prepared to lead the country in uncharted territory. It’s one thing to protest and organize against a corrupt, totalitarian regime but completely different to lead a country out of a serious crisis. No one had gone from communism to market economy before. It’s not like there was a magic formula to follow. So, of course, things got worse before they got better, which didn’t help the new leaders (former opposition). On more than one occasion, the former communists came back with a vengeance saying that the new democratic leaders didn’t know what they were doing and should step down and let the old guard show them how it’s done. In the meantime, many of the former communists were weaving all kinds of corrupt schemes, which allowed them to profit from the privatization of formerly government-owned enterprises, drug trafficking, people smuggling, illegal trade with the Former Yugoslavia during the embargo and other nefarious activities. Corruption was rampant. In some ways it still is. It was (and can still be) very difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.

That is not to say that the fall of communism was a bad thing. On the contrary, I am so glad it happened in my lifetime because a lot of things have changed for the better. There are a lot more opportunities in Bulgaria now. Especially for young people. Things are not perfect but the standard of living has improved and Bulgaria is relatively stable. It is also part of the EU. All wonderful things, which I am very proud of.

But it wasn’t easy or straightforward and that’s why I follow the events in the Middle East with trepidation. Because transitions like that can be a blessing and a curse. They usually require changes in mentality/culture on a national or regional level and that can take a long time, perhaps even a generation. No one knows how things are going to turn out. Changes in power structures can have unintended consequences. And that makes many people very nervous about the Middle East right now…

But it’s not my place to make recommendations or predictions. I just hope the people in the Middle East get what they are fighting for. I hope better days are ahead for them. I hope they are blessed with competent leaders and most of all I hope they can do it peacefully.

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