I found myself talking with someone new the other day. She was new to Britain; new to town; new to the school. Lots of newness. A bright shining cup full of newness, and I found myself wanting to distill all my past two years into three or four intensely important dollops of wisdom to pour into that cup. Everything I wished I had known, particularly about school life, in four minutes or less.
Is it bad that the first things I mentioned were lice, pinworms, fifth’s disease, and strep throat? Because as I spent our first winter reeling to discover — Britain is full of cooties. For any American mother experiencing the rather laissez-faire British attitude toward childhood nuisance illnesses, it is very nearly shocking to see these ailments go round and round and round the school.
Next up: the days of darkness. I’m not sure how to warn people about the descent of darkness without sounding like a vampy extra from a bad Dracula movie. But people, it is real. Winter darkness, even at this relatively lower latitude, is enough to depress, to dishearten, to distress, to despair. When the kids go to school in the dark, and come home in the dark, and there’s only a dim crack of sunshine around noon … I shudder. I’ll be taking my daily dose of blue light starting next month, and gritting my teeth for solstice.
Realizing I was on a demoralizing roll, I still felt I had to mention that joining the school community was not as straightforward as the typical suburban American mom might expect. Here on the blog I’ve alluded to what some people call ‘politics at the school gate’, and how difficult that was for me. My first year at school was spent as the invisible woman. It gets better through some complicated British alchemy of people ignoring you when you are outgoing and friendly, and then reaching out once you stop caring. How to distill all this down for someone filled with fresh-faced excitement? “It’s not like back home — but I’m sure you’ll be fine!” Perkiness in the face of adversity. How American of me.
And a final tip — I have a feeling no non-native adult person can understand the school uniform. We come to it too late in life. Just as our children grow up understanding ipods and tumblr as a first language, they pick up the requirements of the uniform, with its multiple socks and wellies and plimsolls and hats and blouses and swim caps and bags and trainers, through some peer-fostered osmosis. Just throw money at the uniform shop, and let the kids sort it out.
And then I realized that over quiet sips of a very nice coffee, I had just told this lovely new person that her children would be subject to disease, she would descend into seasonal affective disorder, British mothers would treat her like a leper, and she was about to lose all her money to an unsolvable uniform puzzle. Oh, and did I mention the GIANT SPIDERS? Welcome to Britain!
Sigh. We’ve been in Camelot two years, as of this month. England is beautiful, and this country is wonderful, but for these few things I wish I had been warned. I wish I had been prepared. So from me to you, if you are planning to move to England or to live here temporarily: it’s not all crumpets and jam. Just try to embrace it. Even when it’s freezing and dark. I’m sure you’ll be fine.