Tag Archives: school

My dress-up rules: no to feathers, yes to weapons.

As I sat in the schoolyard of my kids’ school in Berlin last year, a blond boy wearing a feather headdress walked past me. Then another one. Then several girls in buckskin dresses with face paint and headbands. It was Karneval – a dress-up day – and these costumes made my stomach lurch. White kids dressing up as ‘Indians’? Haven’t we already figured out that that’s not ok?

We had left our home in Toronto to spend a year in Berlin so this was our first Karneval and we didn’t know what to expect. In the end, the kids said it was just like Halloween but without the candy and the costumes didn’t have to be scary.

It looked pretty scary to me, however. And before I even noticed all the feather headdresses, I had been nearly run over by a mob of cowboys, Jedi knights, ninjas and police officers brandishing every manner of gun, sword and sabre. They shot and slashed at each other. They aimed at innocent bystanders. I witnessed one pretend suicide.  My reaction was one of deep distaste. ‘No weapons!’ was the Halloween rule at the kids’ Toronto school where pirate swords and ninja nunchucks are confiscated by teachers and returned to parents at the end of the day with a look of righteous admonishment. Here in Berlin there was the unmistakable whiff of caps being shot off in the school yard. I felt like marching directly to the principal’s office and giving her a piece of my mind. How could they condone this level of violence?

Then a new wave of armed children swept past me and I saw the absolute glee on their faces as they chased and ambushed and shot each other. I decided to watch for a little while and take this in rather than try to stop it. I sat surrounded by the happy mayhem and started to relax. This was a good lesson for me. Things are different in Germany and even when I see something that strikes me as wrong, perhaps I should seek to understand it before taking action. I toned down the indignation.

When I looked around again I could see that there was no question this was just a game. The things in their hands were just toys. I thought of the tragic stories you hear about kids with real guns and the real damage they do, either intentionally or by accident. But that only happens in places where real guns are available. These kids can’t holster their cap guns and wander into a department store to buy real weapons and ammunition. Here, a kid with a gun isn’t going to be mistaken for a shooter and get one between the eyes from a police sniper. While we Canadians aren’t nearly as well-armed as our southern neighbours the proximity of a gun-mad culture has rubbed off on us and we’ve whisked toys out of children’s hands in response. But in Berlin gun play is still play. Shooting isn’t harming and as I watched the kids I began to see how obvious this was. There was no fear on the faces of the children who were taking bullets or being de-limbed by light sabers. The popping of caps was echoed by laughter, not screams.


I had walked into the schoolyard and been horrified to see both feather headdresses and an arsenal of weapons. But in a matter of moments, my horror at the toy weapons had fallen away. If I sat and watched some more, would my discomfort at seeing white children dressed up as ‘Indians’ fade too?

They’re just kids in costumes. And one could argue that they were not really dressing up as First Nations people; they were dressing up as well-known characters from German storybooks like Winnetou from Karl May’s books set in the American West. Couldn’t the kids dress up as their favourite storybook character? There were plenty of kids running around as movie characters, mostly from Star Wars. But the Star Wars universe isn’t real – it’s made up. Jedi knights and sentient droids don’t exist. But Native Americans and First Nations people do exist. The storybook story felt awfully thin.

I looked around and put the costumes into different categories. First there were the characters that don’t exist in real life: mermaids, Jedis, zombies, skeletons (yes, I know we have skeletons but they don’t usually walk around on their own like that). The second obvious group are animals: cats, rabbits, tigers. Fine. Then there were the kids dressed up as someone doing a particular job: police officer, pilot, cowboy/girl, pirate, flamenco dancer, soccer player. The princesses could arguably go here if one allows that inherited positions are also jobs. The last category were costumes that depict a whole people. There was only one example of that category on the schoolyard: Indians.

It’s ok to dress up as things that are not real or as animals or as a person doing a job. But dressing up in a costume that depicts an entire people – invariably an essentialized, stereotypical version of a people – that’s not ok. And the reason it’s not ok, even on this schoolyard in Europe where there weren’t any First Nations people around to offend, is because it perpetuates a view of indigenous people as stuck in a moment of time – in this case, the moment of westward expansion of European settlers into North America’s central plains. It erases the vast diversity of indigenous cultures and disregards their presence in, and contributions to, contemporary life. It allows these German kids to believe that indigenous people are just characters from the past or from storybooks; all sharing the same look and pretty much the same outfit.

I stayed quiet in the school yard. I didn’t march into the principal’s office and demand that the toy weapons be confiscated and that the mini-Indians be reprimanded and made to change into their gym clothes. But I did come away thinking that, for me, dress-up day had turned out to be much more than it first appeared. It had taught me something very unexpected: that a realistic looking plastic rifle is less dangerous than a soft leather headband gilded with feathers.


R is for rambutan

Akka has been learning to write Sinhala letters. She picked up where she left off with Achchi last summer and is practicing her handwriting at the daycare next door. Her teacher started her off with ‘ra’ because it’s one of the simplest letters:

On each page, the teacher draws a picture, then writes a letter with dashed lines for Akka to copy, leaving a few spaces for her to try the letter herself. Starting with ‘ra’, she drew a bunch of red balls and said “Ra is for rambutan”. Akka looked perplexed. What’s a rambutan?

It’s a fruit, very much like a lychee, that happens to be in season right now so we’ve filled our tummies with them and the kids still shriek “rambutan!” when they see the red spiky peels discarded on the ground.

Next letter:

for mala. Flower: easy. Akka recognized the drawing and set to work tracing the letter.

Next letter:

for tire. The teacher drew a black tire. No problem.

Next letter:

for udella. The teacher drew a tool, like a large hoe, with a shovel piece at a right angle to a long wooden handle. It’s for digging. There’s really no translation. Thankfully a new house is being built on the daycare grounds and the workers dig the foundation pits with udella. We showed her one, and off she went to draw her curly letters. Next was A for ala (potato).

So it went. Some letters stood for things she knew, and some stood for words specific to Sri Lanka, or to hot climates. Fruit are a favourite letter-teaching tool but where we Canadians use grapes for G and peaches for P, here it’s rambutan for Ra and labu (papaya) for La.

A is for apple. B is for baby. Or ball. Or boat. But not bank and never bum or bait. They’re always nouns and I suppose they’re words that we know young children will recognize. Even in English there are variations. When I was a kid in a British-English-speaking school, T was for flashlight (torch) and L was for truck (lorry).

Leafing through some alphabet books at the shop, I was made to realize that my Apple Ball Cat Dog Elephant Fish assumptions for letters in English are not necessarily widely-held. In two different books I found that A is for ass (ahem – donkey), G is for gun, P is for pistol and T is for tank. I was a little surprised; weaponry being mostly excluded from children’s books back home. U can’t branch out from uniform or umbrella and Q only ventures from queen to quilt or sometimes quill. X-ray feels like a stretch and I draw the line at X-mas tree. Xylophone gets no relief.

going public

Akka goes to a public school. A big one. We did a bit of searching around as her junior kindergarten start date drew nearer and we had to pick an institution of lower learning. We live pretty close to two elementary schools. We chose hers because it has a French immersion program. Then we heard of a new public alternative school opening up nearby. I went to the information night and came away convinced that the big old impersonal public school was right for us. The alternative school did sound pretty cool at first. Its focus is on environmental issues and social justice. Who can argue with that? But I was wary of having our daughter’s first school year coincide with the first year of the school. And shouldn’t I be instilling in her a sense of environmental and social justice? I need school to teach her French and fractions and fighting (I mean, not fighting). How to interact with the earth and its fellow inhabitants; how to understand injustice and exploitation, class and race; her dad and I can help her make sense of that stuff around the dinner table.

I also grew a bit suspicious of the new school’s stated commitment to diversity. If you want diversity, why start your own school? This is downtown Toronto – aren’t the existing schools diverse already?

Indeed, they are. This point was driven home tonight when Akka and I attended her school’s winter concert. It was hot and crowded. Eager parents were standing up with cameras and waving madly to their better-behaved offspring on stage. There were several painful choral pieces but there was also a lot of cheering and a lot of smiling kids and a lot of ridiculously proud parents. There were Christmas songs and reindeer songs and some Hanukkah songs thrown in. About halfway through the show things turned pretty fantastic. Ghanaian drumming. Then, Ghanaian drumming accompanied by Ghanaian dancing. Then, more Christmas songs including the only tolerable rendition of Little Drummer Boy I’ve ever heard. More than tolerable, it had me dancing in my seat because it was preformed by the senior elementary steel band! Any school that has a potential future spot in its steel pan ensemble for our Akka – with her German-Jewish middle name and her Sinhalese-Sri-Lankan last name – has the diversity card well in hand.


Akka started school today. Two and a half hours of her being cared for by someone we didn’t have to pay. It took four years and three months of being parents before we were able to take advantage of a publicly-funded childcare program. For two and a half hours a day. Still, it was nice to drop her off and then walk past the office without having to go in and write a cheque.

Rant aside, she loved it. She raced into the classroom grinning. No tears, barely a backward glance. I spent the afternoon trying to extract small bits of information about her day. I learned that she met two kids: Oliver and Nathan. They went downstairs to music class and sat in a circle and sang ABC while the teacher played guitar. They went to yoga class and sat cross-legged (“like Buddha”) with palms together, breathing in through their noses and out through their mouths. Eyes closed but it’s ok to peek if you want to.

There were various name-tag-making activities. There was a book about bunnies. The books go in the basket.

On meet-the-teacher day and the first day of school I’ve offered her her choice of breakfast. The first day it was grilled cheese, the next it was quesadilla. She eats without fussing and we’ve managed to leave the house without crying, dragging, threatening or pleading (the four reasons I gave up my job and stopped taking them to daycare in the first place). So that’s good. But I’m worried I’ve set a precedent for cooked breakfasts and I have no intention of firing up the stove for anything other than tea before nine in the morning. For tomorrow, I offered her cereal or a bagel and she chose pasta. We have leftover pasta so I’ll go with it but I may be setting myself up for a series of breakfast disasters. Stay tuned.