Goldfish, Cowboy Hats, and The Hokey Pokey – America 101
My phone alarm sounds at 11:25 a.m. – ding ding ding ding ding. I throw on my coat, adorn my earphones, and head into the cold – popping a King Mint into my mouth as I haul the empty stroller down our front steps. The sun is shining – that bright globe I’ve missed so much. My boots click on the cobbled road as I cross the street, passing by a lane of Antwerp city bicycles ready to transport anyone from here to there. I walk at a clip place – I have a habit of always cutting it close. The playlist streaming through my ears has been created by a friend from Texas. Pat Green, Shakey Graves, and Shane Smith & the Saints accompany me on my walk through my Belgian neighborhood. I hang a left and weave through the park – nodding at the crazy IjsBeers as they swim in the frozen waters of Boekenberg Park on this chilly Tuesday morning.
I pass through the main gates of the school and push the stroller to gather with the other parents and grandparents picking up their children at the mid-day hour. The bell rings and we weave through the bottlenecked gate like cattle. My son is in his tiny red jacket and he runs towards me as I enter the classroom.
“Hi honey! Did you have a good morning at school? Did you go to gym?” I ask. The class is a flurry – just a handful of kids go home at the midday hour – the others are lining up to go outside for playtime. My son has full days twice a week, half ways twice a week, and Wednesdays are half days for everyone. Even the “big kids” leave at noon on Wednesdays throughout Belgium – and the Netherlands too. He smiles and gives me a big hug.
His teacher approaches me. “Ah yes, so. We are going to go on a journey. Around the world,” she smiles at me. “For three weeks. . .” (She studied in England for a while. Her English is awesome.) “So yes. We have kids from Thailand, Morocco, China, and of course. . . America – so I thought maybe you’d like to do a presentation for the children about your country,” and her smile spans the width of her face – ear to ear.
Do a presentation about America for a bunch of three-year-olds? Sure! That could be fun. But. . . where to start??
“You know, there’s an American store in Wilrijk. . .” she begins and she shrugs a shoulder. I squint with a smile tugging at my lips.
“Of course, we go there about once a month,” I nod. The wheels. Begin. To. Turn.
“Ja. So. You do a presentation and it will be nice,” she continues. “Songs, books, dances, food, whatever you like,” her hands wave the air.
I purse my lips. I have new project. “Okay! I’ll do it,” I smile at her, sweep my son up off the floor. I head back into the sunshine and strap him into the awaiting stroller.
A few weeks later I’m in the kitchen after the kids have been put to bed – measuring, stirring, and baking. The smell of American Chocolate Chip cookies wafts through the house. In between batches I’m in the living room, rehearsing in front of my husband.
“Hallo. Ik ben Celeste. Ik ben de moeder van Brecht. Ik komt uit Texas in Amerika,” I practice. The words are like chewing gum on my tongue. But those Dutch lessons are paying off. Speaking to a bunch of three-year-olds is probably the best place to start.
“Goed zo, Mama,” my husband encourages. I flash him a weary smile.
“It’s going to be great. You’ll be great. Have fun,” and I nod. I look in my bag. I have ideas. I have props. I have Chocolate Chip cookies. This is going to be fun! The timer goes off and I waltz into the kitchen to pull out the last batch.
The next morning, I take the kids to school, my magic bag of American culture hanging from the stroller. My cowboy boots click over the cobbles. There’s nothing that says, “You’ve got this,” like cowboy boots, I must say.
“Mama, you gonna read to my class?” my son asks me when I enter his classroom. His eyes are sparkling.
“Yes baby, I’m gonna read to your class, but go sit down first,” and the teacher calls the roll. Each child pops up from their seat and flips the magnet over on the board when their name is called. My son snatches three hugs in the middle of the class opening, but the teacher doesn’t mind.
She introduces me. “Dit is de moeder van Brecht. Waat taal zij spreken?” I smile. I know what she’s saying! Even I can answer her question!
“Engels, zij sprekt Engels,” the class says. And I begin by showing them where America is, and where Texas is, on the map.
“Texas is grote. Texas is heel warm!” I say – Big and hot. That’s a pretty good place to start.
I sit in the teacher’s chair, and I put a CD in the player. When the teacher asked me to share a typical American book with the class I first thought about Eric Carle. But a lot of his books have been translated into Dutch anyway – we have a handful at home. I perused the shelves we had at home. My kids’ favorites? With simple words for the Dutch kids – colors and numbers? Yes!
Brecht climbs into my lap – “You gonna read Pete the Cat, Mama?” and I nod and push play. The kids’ eyes widen when they hear and see Pete the Cat, I Love My White Shoes for the first time.
“He stepped in strawberries – Aardbei, right?” and the kids nod. Most stay silent – jaws dropping and eyes as wide as bicycle tires, but a couple catch on.
“Pete stepped in a large pile of mud. Did he cry?” the CD and I ask.
“Goodness no!” a few of the braver boys shout – and it was so cute.
We count to ten – in English – with the Dinosaurs. Then I can see them getting restless. Books. Check. Next plan of attack. An American favorite. “Do you guys know the hokey pokey?” And we dance along with a video on YouTube – my son’s teacher and I laughing and wadding through the kiddie pool of three-year-olds at thigh level.
With their energy level back to manageable, I bust out the best pre-school snack I know. Goldfish Crackers. Compliments of the American Store in Wilrijk. They hold out their tiny hands and I feel like the messiah feeding fish to the masses. Most of the children approve. Grin. Ask for more. Others tug on my sleeve and return the little yellow crackers back into my hands. My brows wrinkle with confusion. Preschoolers not liking goldfish is a thwart to my American brain, but it’s okay. Cultural difference. Homemade chocolate chip cookies though? Ah, they all gobble them up.
As they nibble I bust out the final bit of my presentation. It’s not so American as it is. . . Texan. “This is a Texas sunset,” I explain and I show them the framed photo my good friend from Waco sent me a few months ago. They ooh. And aww.
“This is a photo of Texas bluebonnets,” and I show them photos of my family we took last spring. “Just like the tulips in the Netherlands, the bluebonnets stretch forever,” and Brecht’s teacher translates for the children. But she doesn’t know the word for bluebonnet. I laugh.
“I don’t think there is a word for bluebonnet because there aren’t any here.” I say with certainty and nostalgia. I then I unearth the final party trick from my Mary Poppins-like bag.
“And these are cowboy hats!” I announce. I have three hats in my hands. One is from a kindergarten rodeo party. One is my 20-year-old cowboy hat – all wonky and scarred – from a Willie Nelson 4th of July concert in Dripping Springs. But the other. . . is Cosette’s pastel pink cowgirl hat we bought in San Antonio the summer before we left for Belgium. It’s pretty. It’s perfect. And it’s the favorite. I snap photos of most of the girls and all the boys in it.
My presentation concludes, and I repack my bag. “Very good! I like the book, too. Some of them, they don’t translate so well, but that one. Pete the Cat? Yes, that was a good one,” Brecht’s teacher says, and I smile. “I think he liked it too. His face brightened when you shared all these things with his friends, yes?” and she nods towards my son, Brecht. I nod too.
He’d been having a hard time since January – to be fair, we all have been. But I look at him. And how happy he is in this moment. How happy he is to share Pete the Cat and Goldfish crackers with his friends. He climbs on my lap and he is the star of the day. At three years old or 99, isn’t it nice to share something of yourselves with the people who surround you? I repack my bag and it’s time for them to head outside to complete their morning routine. His teacher thanks me and I thank her. For the opportunity. And for her awareness to create a lesson plan that expands and embraces the world. I hug my son and walk the empty stroller back towards home – crossing the bridge that spans the water in the park.
That afternoon I am back in the classroom with my husband – for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher agrees he’s had big improvements since January. He’s calmer, happier. He understands the language, but still isn’t that comfortable in speaking it. Fair. We continue to chat and as we stand up to leave, I notice some large print outs over her shoulder. I cock my head.
“Ah yes, after you left, all the kids wanted cowboy hats – so I print them off and we color them,” and I laugh. I’ve taught a bunch of 3-year-old Belgian children to love Texas. I’d call that a win.