I’ve just come back from a 2-week long trip to Merida, Mexico. My 5th grade daughter had a school capstone experience there after 6 years of full Spanish immersion. The first week being a home-stay with a host family, the second week touring tourist attractions to learn about the culture and history of the ancient mayans of the Yucatan.
The school puts strict rules around the homestay week for good reasons. To make an uncomfortable experience (being away from parents for a full week, living with a host family and learning about their way of life) as painless as possible, no contact is allowed between the parents and the children. Therefore there’s a strict no-device rule.
For our family it unfortunately didn’t work out like this - and the strict rule actually backfired on me and made me embark on a supremely miserable experience. Which was shared by everyone involved. All I kept thinking about during the first week was - what am I supposed to learn from this experience? I understand I need to grow from this but what is it?
The truth is, there were multiple layers of misery combined into one week, but the primary source of pain was this:
After multiple urging of the host mom during the send-off luncheon, I relented and gave her my phone number but promised to not get in contact on my end. She is a lovely lady, Leona’s host sister kind and sweet, both had connected earlier through email and Leona was super excited for the home stay. Unfortunately, as soon as nighttime came around, I got texts after texts, after texts from mom and the distress in both her and Leona was palpable. I was distressed too, knowing that my child was desperately sad and in anguish and not being able to console her and in turn trying to console a mom who couldn’t have been really present with the child in her care but on the phone with me. In addition, I had broken the cardinal rule for this experience and i took it upon me to keep up appearances and coach the host mom through consoling my child. When we approached midnight I told her she should call Leona’s teacher and have her talk directly with Leona. This helped, everyone went to sleep … sort of. The next morning the texts started again. Leona wasn’t eating properly. She was crying again. What to do? I was in anguish, the host family was and Leona obviously, was too. We decided together that they should contact the teacher again. This time they were adamant: Leona needed to see her mom. She was ‘different’, not like others. The host mom even questioned the entire experience: “What is this program for exactly? Make them more independent?”
By then the experience started to completely fall apart and never got back on track. I saw her in the morning, spoke to her on the phone at lunch, tried to find food for her for dinner at a mall which was impossible for a celiac who doesn’t eat salads and everything available in this American style mall was Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway’s. I ‘cooked’ her favorite foods with the host mom (step by step guiding her through the process) - and was very grateful to her for that because I realized they didn’t quite understand what celiac disease was and what foods to avoid for her. We finally engaged the host school who supported the decision that Leona should spend the nights in the hotel and afternoons with the host family. Unfortunately the communication between the host school and our teachers could have been better as our teachers weren’t in the know of what was going on in our case until the next day.
And I still am not sure if the message that Leona stayed at the hotel actually was understood by her teacher even the next day when I spoke to her in person. Now Leona felt extremely pressured for not ‘trying hard enough’ and should go back to the host family. Or that her concern that she couldn’t breath in a smoker’s home was perceived as ‘excuse’ to get out of an uncomfortable situation too fast. And that may well be true.
The pressure she felt was strong enough to cause anxiety attacks so severe that I got called during school days to pick her up.
And then the pressure from the other parents started as well. Why was my child at the hotel when they were longing for theirs. Why was she in the pool after she did her homework? Why did she go and have dinner with the other child who didn’t do the homestay from the get-go and only did the school experience?
I tell you, it was awful. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed, I felt the pressure Leona felt and I felt helpless in the situation. A meeting between the host family, teacher and I felt terribly weird. They spoke in Spanish, I couldn’t understand what was going on but I realized that somehow nobody was truthful. They seemed to be aligned - the concern was for the host family and their experience and the aim to keep the program going for future trips. And the person who suffered most from it was my child. And that is not o.k.
What was my learning again? If something goes wrong: Don’t try to cover it up. Don’t play by the ‘rules’. Rules may be there for a reason but once they are broken - go and ‘crush’ them! Be truthful, be bold, be an advocate for what you stand for.
Because one thing that is a true success story here is this: My daughter made it to her Capstone trip! THAT is the big success!
Because that in itself wasn’t a certainty a year ago. Wasn’t a certainty in November! But she did it. She made it happen. She worked hard to get caught up from missing 6 months of school due to debilitating pain. She conquered her social anxiety after all that and go back to school and not only function but excel!
Have you been in a situation like that? Where it looks like there's no real winner but in fact there is? What was your learning?