Today the New York Times posted its Sunday Magazine feature piece, “My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling” by Clifford Levy, a longtime, award-winning correspondent for the paper. The teaser reads: What happens when you take three American kids and throw them in a classroom 5,000 miles from home where they can’t speak the language?
Presumably, the same thing that happens to immigrant children in America: they sink or swim. But here’s why the Levy children’s extreme experience is different, and—dare I say it?—special:
My three children once were among the coddled offspring of Park Slope, Brooklyn. But when I became a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, my wife and I decided that we wanted to immerse them in life abroad. No international schools where the instruction is in English. Ours would go to a local one, with real Russians. When we told friends in Brooklyn of our plans, they tended to say things like, Wow, you’re so brave. But we knew what they were really thinking: What are you, crazy? It was bad enough that we were abandoning beloved Park Slope, with its brownstones and organic coffee bars, for a country still often seen in the American imagination as callous and forbidding. To throw our kids into a Russian school — that seemed like child abuse.
Oh for fuck’s sake. It’s moments like these that I’m convinced a subscription to the Times must come free with every membership in the Privileged White People’s Club.
Lest you think I’m totally bashing the Levy-Dressner family, I should say that I think it’s great that they decided to send their children to a Russian-only school instead of an American one. But what is irritating to me about this article is that despite his casually tossed-off line “I convinced myself that what they were doing was no different from what millions of immigrants in the United States do all the time.” Levy in no way examines the privileges that make his children’s experience so much easier than those immigrants’, nor does it consider the ways their experience did overlap.
At one point, after a lengthy discussion with several of the teachers, [the children's mother] walked out of the school nearly in tears. She was studying Russian, but she realized that she had missed much of what had been said. How can you help your children when you can barely communicate with their teachers?
Do you know how often this happens to immigrant parents sending their kids to school here? All the fucking time.
They hugged me goodbye, clinging a little too long, and as I rode the metro to my office, I said a kind of silent prayer to myself that they would get through the day without falling apart. But Arden had just spent the minutes between class periods hiding in the bathroom so no one would see her crying.
How often do immigrant families experience this kind of fear and anxiety? All the fucking time.
Fortunately—and here we’re getting back to the privilege part—the Russian school their children attend is an upscale private school focusing on “humanitarian” education, not the kind of crowded, cash-strapped public school where many immigrants must send their children when they arrive in the US. Oh, and the Times paid the family’s $30,000 a year tuition for them. So while being immersed in a new language and culture was very stressful, Levy’s children were doing it in a closely controlled and congenial environment, with pretty awesome teachers:
[The headmaster] even devised a ploy for Emmett’s class: one of the school’s English teachers conducted a lesson entirely in English. “This is what every day is like for Emmett,” the teacher explained. One boy was so tormented trying to follow along that he burst into tears.
I would personally give a medal of honor and a million bucks to any American teacher who did that on behalf of a student struggling to learn English.
Fortunately for the Levy-Dressner family, their kids ultimately learned Russian, acclimated to the culture and thrived. That was no doubt helped along by having plenty of resources and very attentive parents, and being able to blend in superficially; had the Levy children not been white, they would never have been able to pass for native Russians as they eventually did, and their experience would have been very different.
It was not necessarily so in my town when I was growing up. Our school system drew on thousands of families who had immigrated to escape civil wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Ethiopia—so many that we had innovative HILT programs starting in elementary school, and a variety of core-curriculum classes in Spanish for native speakers in my high school. I’ve seen first-hand what those children—my childhood friends—went through to learn English and get an education while their families simultaneously struggled with culture shock, post-traumatic stress, poverty, and a racist/xenophobic society.
It made me extremely pro-immigration and pro-social assistance programs. It also makes me roll my eyes when I read Times articles like this one that can best be summarized as: Is there anything privileged white children can’t do?