Shoe Story 18: Walking

By Yoko Morgenstern

We tell our immigration stories. Well it was hard. Yeah we worked hard. Got a car and a house and OHIP for the family. We threw our children in daycare, children who knew no English and we say to ourselves, kids will be fine. During the recess at school my son had no friend to play with. “So I walk,” he said. “I walk and walk and walk for 10 long minutes.” On the schoolyard among basketball players and beyblade fighters I saw my son walk. Walk walk walk, staring down at his toes. Who’s going to tell his immigration story?

When we came to Canada in 2008 our children were 4 and 2. They didn’t know a single English word. A lot of people told us that kids would get the language quickly. That kids would be fine; kids would come through.

My younger son was outgoing, but my elder not. Kai was introvert. But he was good at languages. He started to pick up some words. He stayed in daycare for 4 months, and then moved on to Senior Kindergarten at a public school in Oakville.

At recess Kai had no friend to play with. “So, I walk,” he said. “I walk and walk and walk for 10 long minutes.” On the schoolyard among basketball players and beyblade fighters I saw him walk. Walk walk walk, staring down at his toes.

Who’s going to tell his story? Who’s going to pay attention to his muted voice?

How silly, how thoughtless I was to believe such a myth. Kids weren’t all right to be thrown into such a milieu. Recently I have learned from bilingually raised adults that being in settings where you don’t understand a word is torture.

It was January 3rd, 2010. My son, then in Grade 1, was supposed to go back to school the next day, and I to start my internship at a prestigious publisher in Toronto. Kai was grumpy the whole day. In the evening he started to weep and said, “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.”

I knew what he felt. I heaved him up in my arms and went to another room, away from my other son and my husband.

We sat on a sectional in a darker room, Kai on my lap. He stared at my face, wondering. His face was still wet.

“Are you afraid of school because you have to speak English again?”

He blinked. “Yes.”

“You know, I’m afraid of going to work tomorrow too. They may not understand my English.” My eyes welled.

“You, afraid?” His face faintly lit up, half amazedly, half dubiously. I knew how heroic parents would seem to young children. Afraid and parents didn’t match.

“Yes, I’m afraid.” I said. “But I’ll do my best. Would you also go to school tomorrow and do your best?”

He thought for a while, and nodded.

Three months later I was done with my internship and came back to the playground. Our playground was right beside the schoolyard and the parking lot, where most kids and moms would dawdle after school. I was sullen. I never liked being there. The playground politics seemed just too much to me. I usually read while waiting.

Summer was stretching out. One sunny day I was reading, as usual, curled up on the lawn. When I looked up, Kai was not there. I looked around. He was nowhere. I hopped up.

Seeing me prowling around, a mom, a stranger to me, said, “Kai went that way,” pointing at the school building.

I scuttled to the school. Another woman stopped me. “Are you looking for Kai?” And so did another. At last I saw him, together with a woman, walking across the parking lot. The woman waved at me. “You’re Kai’s mom, aren’t you? I found him in the washroom.”

Relieved, I chided Kai. “You have to tell me when you go away!” And then the three of us walked back to the playground. I didn’t know any of these women, but they all knew that I was Kai’s mother, and knew each other. “Oh, you found him?” Another woman yelled at us merrily. All this time while I was being afraid and wussy, slumping over books and shutting down, these women had built up such a caring circle.

The next day I stuffed my Rosenthal basket with cookies and juice boxes and went to the playground. I got to know Cynthia and Linda and Deepa. There was even another Japanese mom, Mayumi. The picnic went on till summer break, and continued in September. In winter we brought hot chocolate in thermos and waited patiently for our kids be done with sledding down the schoolyard slope.

Another summer has come. My son is now in Grade 2. He glides through the basketball court with rollerblades with James and Brennan. He’s not looking down at his shoes. I’m not looking down at my books. The boys come to me, hand in hand, and press me for a playdate. “Everyone in my class loves me,” says Kai. “Everyone loves me.”

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