All I Really Need to Know About Dutch Education I Saw on De Luizenmoeder.
[As printed in XPat Journal, Spring 2018]
Dutch TV has a real hit with De Luizenmoeder, set in a first grade classroom at a Dutch school. I’m pretty sure it’s based on a true story, possibly my own. Here are some of the most recognizable quotes.
“Hallo Allemaal! Wat fijn dat jij er bent!” / “Hello, everyone! So fine that you are here.”
Such sweet words to start every class, but sung with a snarl by a teacher with a wide-eyed menace that is ready to explode at any moment. They could have been studying my kids’ school. Every day started with a song, but the teacher was so high-strung we didn’t know who was more afraid of her: the students or the parents.
“Niet zo kinderachtig doen!” / “Don’t act so childish!”
It’s not just the TV show teacher telling the children not to act childish. One day my kid came home from school with a crumpled up artwork in the bottom of his bag. “The teacher said it wasn’t good enough.” Apparently the assignment was to draw a picture for a classmate whose father had died. My son drew a rainbow with a mini father and daughter under it. I thought it was lovely. But apparently he’d drawn the father and daughter in pencil, and the assignment was to use crayon. So the teacher told him it wasn’t good enough to give to the classmate. He was 8. Just when I was ready to form my conclusion “This woman has lost it,” the kids got a lesson in “Early Teacher Burnout.” In the middle of the school year, the teacher announced she was leaving, effective immediately, to go be a farmer in Costa Rica. I told her “Good luck” in Spanish; she didn’t speak Spanish.
“Luizenmoeder” “Lice Mother”
The Lice Mother is the parent in the class who combs the students for lice and – when lice are found – must tell the other parents they are failures as parents and as human beings. It always goes well.
Inter-parental judgments and eye daggers are a part of the any school experience. But the Dutch language has a way of tripping up non-native speakers, for extra punishment. Sometimes you come close to saying something that makes sense, but then – with one missed syllable – you’ve said something completely different. I was once referring to a decision by the school board, meaning to use the word Uitgesteld. But instead I’d said ongesteld, which means menstruating. It was the men who looked at me the meanest.
Then there was the time I was picking up my son from school during World Cup 2014. All the boys were outside, wearing orange and playing football. It was the day of a big match for the Dutch. I asked ‘what’s your prediction for tonight?’ But instead of using the word voorspelling, I said voorspel. Which means foreplay. Yes, I’d suddenly become the guy who goes up to kids on a playground and asks them about their sexual plans for later.
“Iedereen doet mee bij de Klimop.” “Everyone is included at the Ivy School.”
If De Luizenmoeder is a bit like The Office, then the school principal is David Brent. I’ve met this character in Dutch schools as well, always speaking as if there’s a hidden camera somewhere.
If there are school directors who are confident and optimistic, the system seems to snuff it out. My son went briefly to the iPad school in Amsterdam. It was a new school with a new school principal, who was refreshingly open and unselfconscious. And he was young. Soon, it was time for the first school inspection. Though it was announced in advance, he treated it like a surprise inspection. He wanted to give the inspectors an honest impression of what his school was really like. The result: he got terrible scores. The inspectors advised him: ‘Most schools put on a bit of a show, to impress the inspectors. In comparison, your school was terrible.’ Would our young hero get a chance to take the advice into account for the next time? We’ll never know. The school closed soon after.
“Dat is niet raar; dat is gewoon heel bijzonder.”
De Luizenmoeder teacher is politically aware, but still can’t bring herself to be politically correct. I myself have encountered some wonderfully politically incorrect rituals. When there’s a birthday, there’s the song called Hanky Panky Shanghai. This is a song, to the tune of Happy Birthday, in which the teachers will make slanty-eyed faces and make the children join in, including the Chinese adoptee Xiang Xiang. They’re equal opportunity offenders.
And – once at my daughter’s preschool – I was invited to sit in for a singalong of Berend Botje. There’s a part at the end with the refrain “America, America.” And – since American leadership was then especially unpopular – the teacher sang “America” with a big Thumbs Down gesture, she stuck out her tongue, and she encouraged the kids to do the same. I mentioned to the teacher later, “You know I’m from America.” She responded, “I know.”