It’s impossible to look back on your formative years without reflecting on one or two teachers that permanently influenced the trajectory of your life. They believed in you, pushed you to be your best, and helped carve the person you became in adulthood.
At international schools, the impact educators have on students (and their parents) is exponentially amplified. The exclusiveness of the “together abroad” community that forms often increases interaction and intertwines teachers into the family unit. Their frequent afterschool presence at the dinner table — celebrating birthdays, holidays, milestones — morphs their role into trusted aunts or uncles.
Can you see the trouble brewing?
For the fourth part of our Expert Series, Dr. Ettie Zilber joins us to share her ground-breaking research into the paradigm of international schools. In addition to having authored several books on the subject, Ettie pulls from her direct experience as an educator having taught in six countries.
It’s my pleasure to welcome Ettie as we dissect the complicated dynamics involved with the international school system. She exposes basic human behavior to help us understand what’s broken, and what we can do to make it better for our teachers, children, and ourselves.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- Trespassing & blurred societal roles
- Surmounting suspicions of nepotism
- Pacifying the “rabid tiger” parent in you
- Respecting children’s right to privacy
- Fishbowl gossip & over-communication
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
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- Thinking of joining the Expat Coach Coalition? Don’t hesitate to hop on the interest list here
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- Third Culture Kids: Children of International School Educators by Ettie Zilber
- A Holocaust Memoir of Love & Resilience: Mama’s Survival from Lithuania to America by Ettie Zilber
- Ettie Zilber’s Website
- Episode 146: Hidden Hierarchies in International Schools with Danau Tanu
- Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- Facebook Group – Expats on Purpose
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello, it is 9:30 am in New York, 4:30 pm in Johannesburg and 9:30 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I’m a solution oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
So I was at a parent-teacher conference and at the end the teacher said “Hey, if you have a flexible schedule, would you be interested in coming into the class and reading with the students?” My son glanced over at me with laser eyes. I knew he was not super in favor of this idea. We walk out and he instantly says “Mom do not come to my class and read.” And I realized that he’s at this age where he’s embarrassed to have his mom at school.
But what if your mom works at school? What if she’s a teacher? What if she’s your teacher? Or she’s, even worse, your friend’s teacher?
This is the reality for kids of International School parents. What today’s guest calls EdKIDS. It is my pleasure to welcome the author of Third Culture Kids Children of International School educators. Dr. Ettie Zilber.
Sundae: Dr. Ettie welcome to Expat Happy Hour
Ettie: Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and I had to chuckle at your little anecdote about your son. That was lovely.
Sundae: I know I’m not alone. I really hope I’m not alone.
Ettie: No, no and that does happen quite frequently with children of educators in the international school. And there are quite a few anecdotes that I got in my research from those children who are now adults looking back at their education and their childhood living under the same roof where their parents work.
Sundae: This is such an important topic. So let me tell the audience more about you because you bring with you immense experience. So, Dr. Ettie Zilber has lived and worked overseas for the major part of her life, is a veteran American and International School educator. She served in schools in six countries, including the US., Israel, Guatemala, Spain, China and Singapore. And this topic Third Culture Kids and global nomads is close to her heart because both personally and professionally she’s been involved in teaching and raising children, her own three children across the world. And engaging with thousands more in her roles as an educator and a speaker.
Not only that she has really groundbreaking research which is the result of this book about the impact that this family and school paradigm has with International School educators and their children. And I know it’s received acclaim from around the world.
So it’s so great to have you here and for you to share your wisdom with us. Tell us why EdKIDS need to be talked about? Why did you write this book?
Ettie: Interestingly when I was doing my doctoral studies, we all had to choose a topic for research and I was having some difficulty honing down on a topic of importance. I wanted it to be important. And one day at lunch one of my colleagues and classmates said to me, “You know, my wife and I are thinking of having children as we’re teaching overseas. Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing to have children while you’re an educator in the school?” And the little light bulb went off in my head and I said “That’s the topic. That’s the topic.”
Because it is a very important question. And particularly for those who want to go overseas with children. And for those who are overseas and are considering having a family. And of course the element of the Third Culture Kid, which was of great interest to me as well entered into the picture. That’s part and parcel of the experience. So I realized at that moment, that this is an important topic. And I started to delve into it and actually learned a lot more than I bargained for about this unique, I call it the unique family paradigm. Because you really don’t have any other families that live in this kind of world, so therefore it is very unique.
Sundae: So for example families that are traveling around the world for corporate or Foreign Service don’t necessarily have their mom or dad in their close proximity all day long in their professional role. It’s an interesting dynamic that the International School system has to offer.
And I’ll tell you as an outsider. I am not an International School teacher obviously, but I’m a parent of kids that go to an International School. And what I’ve noticed is, it’s interesting in let’s say hardship posts or small communities with a small expat base. You become friends with the International School teachers because you’re a small community. So now your kids are in school being taught by your friends, which I get from the outsider perspective how that’s interesting. I cannot imagine what the teachers are navigating in that context as well as the kids.
So tell us a little bit more about what you discovered in the research that surprised you?
Ettie: Well, first of all in my research I interviewed Third Culture Kids who I subsequently named EdKIDS after they were already adults. So they were all out of the house. Those were the limitations of my research. They were already out of the home reflecting back on their childhood. And so they were older. And they were very very keen to talk about it or write about it because I interviewed them through email which gave me reams and reams of data.
They were very keen to talk about it because nobody ever really looked into their status. And when I give presentations at various conferences internationally invariably there is a teacher in the audience who was an EdKID and they come up to me very often with tears in their eyes saying, “Gee I wish I knew this when I was growing up.” or “I wish my parents knew this when I was growing up.”
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad experience. Oh contraire as they say, on the contrary. It was an excellent experience in most cases. But they always talk about certain moments that were very uncomfortable for either the parents, the kids, the other teachers, the kids friends. So had they known some of these guidelines that I recommend they would have had an easier time.
And so that’s the objective of my research is to understand the paradigm, understand the beauty and the wonderful environment that the International School offers to this family unit and also to minimize some of the angst.
Sundae: So here’s the thing. We’ve got people listening who are parents and International School teachers. We’ve got people who are listening who are parents whose kids are in International Schools, but they’re not the teacher just regular parents. We’ve got probably parents who are listening whose kids are going to an International School, but they’re not there from the host culture.
So I want to talk about what should each group know, what should we know that we don’t know? Or what should we recognize that we might be ignoring. Let’s start with the teachers at the International School, whether they are the parent or not, what do we need to know?
Ettie: Well the teachers need to know first of all that this is an important topic for everybody, whether they have kids in the school or not. Many times when I give presentations, I give the statistics of that particular school to show that typically, universally there’s about five to six percent of the teachers might have children in the school. So you would say “Oh that’s not a big number, so who cares why is this important?” Well, when I ask everybody who comes in contact with children of educators almost everybody in the audience raises their hand, because they all have contact with a student at some point in their working day or working week.
So it is important for everybody to understand what is going on within the life of the student themselves. What is going on with the parent who is your colleague, who is an employee of the school. So basically I try to explain that the difficulties come with what I call trespassing. When you are trespassing your role or the role that you’re expected to play.
And this is the challenge in this environment. Everybody’s got a role in society based on the family. The children have their role in school. The parents have their role at work. You have your role in the community, whether it’s with your expat community or your church or synagogue community. Everybody has a role. What happens under the roof of the International School, sometimes these roles get blurred. And this seepage from one roll into the other role. That’s when problems can arise.
Sundae: And I can see as a parent, like when it comes to my kids I could become a rabid tiger in about three seconds. When you’re trying to protect your kids it’s like you’re blind to other things. So I can imagine how hard that is for the educator to stay in their role when the rabid tiger parent wants to attack.
Ettie: Yeah, and add to that if the rabid tiger parent is also a friend in the community.
Sundae: So stakes are high.
Ettie: You’re a friend of that teacher. Because like you said earlier, the International School community, parents, teachers, students and the administrators, they become surrogate family. And the kids and I interviewed, they talked about other educators in the school as literally like Aunts and Uncle’s. And they remain in touch with them forever afterwards. It’s an amazing dynamic and you have to understand that dynamic. But when something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way.
Sundae: So what advice do you have because this is it? Can you give us a scenario, tell us a situation that usually happens when something goes wrong and then what they can do about it.
Ettie: Well, I don’t want to only stress the negative. Because when we stress the negatives, it makes the whole paradigm sound like it’s a negative and that’s not the outcome of my research.
In fact just to show what a positive experience it is on the kids, my research showed that thirty percent of the children of International School educators become educators in their career. That is unheard of in any other field. So following in your family footsteps. And that is a compliment I would say, that the child thinks that the parents career was valuable and important and worthwhile. They will then choose a career like that and many of them do go overseas as well. So I don’t want everybody to think that this is, only negatives at all.
Sundae: We want to know what we can do better so it doesn’t go wrong.
Ettie: Absolutely. Okay. So imagine this scenario. You are a parent and you become very very friendly with one of the teachers, which is very common. And very often you celebrate holidays together and you celebrate birthdays together, you go on to your travel together with the children. I mean, this is really more than family quite frankly. Then you see each other every day at school. You drive together in the morning, you might even carpool in the morning to school and back home after school.
But perhaps your child is having some difficulties. Either academic difficulties or behavioral difficulties and you are the parent educator in the school. And your friend is your child’s teacher. And you feel that that friend is not doing the best they can for your child.
Now under ordinary circumstances, like you said, you’re the tiger mother, you go right in there and you tell it like it is. Well, if you are the International School educator, you have to think ten times before you go in and tell it like it is and speak out or complain. Because at the end of the day, these are your colleagues and this is your place of employment as well.
Sundae: Right and you’re navigating your parental role, your friendship, your employment status.
Ettie: Exactly. Yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Sundae: I’m stuck right now because I’m thinking back to some of our good friends in Ouagadougou that were teachers. And I have always respected them. And after we’ve talked and I know more about your research, I have an elevated respect for them on how they were able to navigate that. And I feel like we don’t do enough to give those educators credit for all that they navigate.
Ettie: Absolutely. Absolutely, whether you have children in the school or not, this is a very unique role in that, well think about it, here back home, wherever home is for you. Teacher goes to work, does their job and goes home and has another life. Here the life is intertwined with the work. It’s intertwined with the family. It’s intertwined with the sponsoring group. The school now is your sponsoring group.
So it can easily be mixed up. And that’s where I call the trespassing of the roles. And you hit it on the head when you mention the roles, because in society we each have a role. And typically those roles are separate. But these roles are not separate here. So for example, everybody in the audience always laughs, an audience of educators laughs when I bring up this topic. The head of school who is your employer, your boss, your supervisor or one of the principles, has a child in your class. All I have to say is that and everybody in the audience starts to chuckle, especially if that a school has a kid in the school. Everybody looks at the head of school. Or they don’t look, they look down at the ground. And if that child is doing well academically and there are no major behavioral issues everything is good. And that’s the way it should be. But if there is some kind of a problem everybody is in an awkward position at that school.
Sundae: Kind of like the pastor’s daughter, I don’t know if that’s stereotype cross culture. The pastor’s daughter is always the wildest girl.
Ettie: Exactly. Well that’s not you know necessarily true. But let’s say it is true. Well here you are. You’ve got the kid in your class. You have to have a parent-teacher meeting with your boss and you have to figure out how to navigate this. Because on the one hand you’re the teacher but on the other hand you’re sitting there with your boss in front of you, you’re the employee.
Sundae: I have so much respect for that. I mean, let’s all just pause for a second and respect the teachers who have to navigate that everyday like that’s incredible.
Ettie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So that’s sort of the worst-case scenario.
Sundae: But there are worse things too. What if they’re the ambassador of your country? Or their the head of a huge corporate sponsor that sponsors something for the school soccer team? There’s a lot of stickiness that can be happening.
Ettie: Oh, yeah. Now there have been other things, and again, I interviewed the kids as adults. I interviewed educators on their perspective on this and I also interviewed counselors to triangulate some of this data. And they pretty much all aligned with their stories. It’s quite amazing. Here and there there are some outliers where kids mention certain things.
But one of the issues that the kids had with their own parents, was the issue of not going to bat for their child. Now you said you would run in there like an aggressive mother, fighting for their little bear cub. The teacher parent might not be able to do it, knowing full well their child is right. Let’s say if there was a fight or let’s say the child didn’t do well on a test and the parent sees the test and says “This is a test?” But they’re not going to go in and fight because in the back of their mind they’re saying “How will I be perceived by my colleagues? How will I be perceived by my administors and my bosses?
Sundae: Right, and “What does it mean when a kid goes to the next grade and I have that perception?” It’s almost like if they don’t want to go back to bat for their kids they feel like they’re failing their kids. But maybe they’re also protecting them because they’re going to be in grade 3 next year and that’s going to be that parent there. That’s so hard. I’ve so much respect.
Ettie: So these things can happen on the downside. You know, I could give a million anecdotes because I had about twenty tons of information from all of the stakeholders in this. But the kids feel that they are very very visible. Now on the good side, everything that I found had the flip side. There’s the good side, the benefits and then you flip it over, it can become a negative.
It’s very well known who the kid of Sundae, if she is a teacher at the school. “Oh that’s Sundae’s kid.” And you know that, and it’s wonderful. And everybody says hello and they take care of you and if you’re not feeling well somebody is there to take care of you. It’s a very very loving environment. The kids remember it very fondly as everybody took care of them
Sundae: What it makes me think about is, sort of the general paradox of expat life. That the advantages of expat life and the benefits of expat life also have a flip side and we have to hold both at the same time.
Ettie: That’s right. And you want to embrace the good and mitigate some of the bad things. And that’s why people do training. That’s why I come into a school and I develop programs to help mitigate the bad things. Now not all the bad things are visible.
Sundae: What is the biggest secret that you share. Like what is like the insider information that you have that people go, “Oh, I never thought of that.”
Ettie: I think the trespassing of roles is the big thing. And what I do to emphasize and help mitigate some of the challenges is I literally bring different hats to my presentations to my workshops. As I pull out the hat everybody gets it. So you put on one hat, that’s your parent hat. Then you change hats, that your educator hat. Then you change hats and now it’s your colleague hat. And you change hats and now it’s your employee hat.
Sundae: How do you do that though in real life, like in your education?
Ettie: I tell them to put on a hat or if they can’t physically put on a hat then joke about it saying “I’m trying to try on my educator hat now. I’m putting on my parent hat.” So for example, if you have a parent-teacher conference and you are the principal, you are a boss or even a board member, board members fall into this category too. And you’re coming for a parent-teacher conference. The first thing you should do, obviously you might not put on a hat, but you would say literally “I am here wearing my parent hat.” So that’s supposed to help the teacher on the other side of the table relax a bit and think “Okay, this is a parent like any other parent.” Now that’s really hard to do when it’s your boss sitting opposite you and that’s why I highly recommend that the boss send in their partner instead.
Sundae: Right great strategy. So I’m hearing, just pulling out two things here for the audience.
I am hearing, to be transparent about the role that you’re speaking from and make that clear so it’s not mixed.
I’m hearing, if you are the one who has power over the individual and you’re in the parent role you can send your spouse so it takes a little bit of the pressure off.
Those are great strategies. What are some other best practices? And that could be for the educator. It could be for someone like me, a parent who just sends their kid into an International School. Or it could be even for the kids. What are some other best practices that we should know?
Ettie: Well, another example, one of the things that the kids really felt strongly about is “Okay so Johnny just had a math exam. Oh and Johnny just blew it. I mean he failed the math exam.” Okay, Johnny’s mother is Mary and Mary is good friends with the math teacher. So before Johnny even gets home tell his parents, “I just failed my math exam.” The colleague finds Mary in the hall and says, “Oh by the way, did you know that Johnny just failed his math exam?”
So two things happen now. Number one, Johnny never gets a chance to tell his parents himself that he failed his math exam. Number two, the colleague now has to go into her work room, which is her classroom and teach her class, being upset now that she was told that her son just failed the math exam in the hallway. Now that doesn’t happen to other parents. You usually have to wait. If not the same night at home. Then you know the next few days when you discover that your child did something wrong or failed the test. But here the parent knows before the child even has a chance to tell them and the kids go ballistic on this, because there’s no privacy for these kids.
Sundae: And I’m also hearing a trespassing of roles. Because the teacher moved from teacher role to friend role and that is confusing for the relationship.
Ettie: Absolutely, absolutely and the reverse also can happen. And this can be a positive because teachers in the school, you have contact almost every day with your child’s teacher. Well, that’s a good thing because you know how things are going for your child. I mean, you don’t have to wait for a parent-teacher conference to find out how your child is doing in school. You can very informally, in the teachers lounge or over lunch, you know, you might be chatting about your child. Now, is that a good thing? Not necessarily but it’s very helpful sometimes to keep tabs on your child. And educators are highly connected to their children and they know exactly what’s happening with their children unlike other parents who don’t see their kid all day long.
So this can work both ways. So the good thing is, you have a lot of communication with your child’s teacher. But then the flip side is over-communication. You shouldn’t be hearing this stuff in the hallways during your work day. You should be hearing it from your child when he comes home from school.
So this is another example of the flip of the good. And once you trespass it becomes an anxiety-producing moment and that’s not good.
Sundae: I would feel, if I was the child, I would feel I was monitored.
Ettie: Yes, they call it the fishbowl. Everything that happens to them is known by everybody else and that’s and sometimes very personal things. Imagine if your two parents are working at the school and then there’s a divorce. And this has been known to happen. Everybody in the school knows about it, everybody. And so it’s difficult.
Another example, you wanted some other juicy ones, another example, it works in the opposite direction sometimes. Regular parents, when it comes time let’s say for the school play or awards for MVP for sports. If the award or the main role, the leading role in the school play is given to the child of an educator. Bingo, there’s this suspicion. Mmm nepotism here. Favoritism here. There’s a feeling of suspicion. So what happens sometimes for the educators themselves, they will purposefully not give their own child those opportunities.
And this has come out with administrators for example. Let’s say the principal’s child is an outstanding singer or actor for the school play. They might not get the lead role. They might give them the second or another role. MVP award came up for sports, so the child of the educator, no, sorry he was also a coach. He was a principal and a coach and he didn’t want people to be suspicious that maybe this was favoritism. And his son actually deserved the MVP award but he gave it a parallel with another kid so that it wouldn’t look like favoritism.
So it works against them too. And that’s what the kids remember. And actually that came from an educator himself. He told me this story with great pain in his voice. Because he knew that he jipped his kid. But he had that inner conflict between “What will the community think? What is my role in the school? What’s best for my child?” So this doesn’t happen to regular parents.
Sundae: It’s making a connection for me. I am thinking of the interview I did with Danau Tanu about hidden identities. And we talked about how minority identities and majority identities are playing out in international schools as they are on the global field. We are not immune to these dynamics. And now we’re looking at another layer, you know one deeper on the professional level and the role level. Things that are going on that we don’t see.
So first of all, I just want to say thank you for your research because it helps us see things that are there but are hidden until we look at the research. So I think that’s an incredible contribution for the International School community and those of us who are part of it.
I know that our time is limited. There’s one more thing. I wanted to ask you about before we go, and that’s about the kids who are participating in International Schools but our from the host country. How is that a unique experience in the international school system?
Ettie: Well, actually it’s becoming less and less unique because more and more International Schools are opening worldwide. When I started in this world, there were about a thousand five hundred International Schools worldwide. Right now we’re coming close to 9,000 International Schools. And what’s driving that is the host country population.
So more and more of our International Schools are right now, or will be populated by host country nationals. Because they’re the ones who are driving the enrollment. They are the ones that are pushing the market to open more schools.
So that’s one characteristic that has changed. So to find a school that is majority International people is going to change. It is going to change. The paradigm we used to see where it was, you know, some schools even had quotas. They don’t have quotas anymore because they have to also pay the bills. Some schools had quotas and so you would have, let’s say 80% foreign nationals and you would allow admissions for maybe twenty percent. So those statistics are changing.
Sundae: So what does that mean? Why does that matter?
Ettie: Well, if you’ve got the majority, for example in China, many of the schools might have Chinese Nationals as the majority of the population. In Korea for example, many of the schools have a Korean majority population. So now who’s the majority and who’s the minority? And it and it flips because sometimes you’re working with a foreign curriculum, you’re working with teachers who have been recruited and brought over from other countries. And so it’s not the same as it used to be in some of the International Schools.
So that’s just to start out. This minority and majority status is changing. But in any case there is a hierarchy. I listened to the interview with, forgot her name, (Danau Tanu). And I would agree with many of the things she had to say. Minorities are minorities and kids always want to be like everybody else so they will start behaving like what they think is the cool behavior to be. And they will start imitating and that plays out on the world stage, it plays out on a national stage and it plays out on an International School stage.
So my there are hierarchies in the International School for sure. And some of the hierarchies might be based on language, might be based on nationality, might be based on socioeconomics. And that’s another thing that came out of my research is the socioeconomics of being an expat. Because there’s a hierarchy in the expat community, who’s the highest? Who’s got the nicest homes? Who gets the highest salary and perks? And then another layer to International School teachers families.
Because many times they’re good friends with kids whose parents are working. Let’s say in the corporate world and their sponsoring group offers them a lot more than their parents can afford. And that plays out in any school where you bring in two different socioeconomic groups under the same roof. That’s difficult for kids because they see that their friends have everything and they feel like the poor cousin from across the railroad tracks. So that plays out all over the world. Minorities have more challenges than majorities.
Sundae: So let’s step back and look for our listeners here some of the things I am taking away from your wisdom today.
Is that one, when we think about the dynamics that are going on in International Schools is what we’re hearing from your research, is it’s worth paying attention to. Because the parents who have their own kids at school are put into a multi-role dynamic that is hard to navigate. And that people who are engaging with parent educators are engaging in that interconnected web whether we are aware of it or not. And it sounds like to me it’s important to raise awareness so we don’t put people in that uncomfortable position. Or we’re better able to talk to our people from the role that we need to be speaking in.
I’m hearing from you trespassing is a danger and that what we can do when there’s a trespassing of roles, whether it’s as an educator, a colleague or a parent, is to be transparent about which hat you’re wearing.
I’m excited about this too, because I think that ultimately the kids benefit when the educators are under less pressure, when the parents are under less pressure. Then people are able to better focus on what’s the best thing for our kids.
Ettie: Absolutely, and for ourselves in this case because this is where the conflict comes in. The inner conflict is, for whose benefit are we making a decision? And that gets blurry many times with this particular paradigm.
Sundae: That’s wonderful, so thank you so much for your time. For people who want to know. Where can they go to find out more about you and the work that you do?
Ettie: Certainly my website. And if people are interested in this particular topic about the children of International School educators, I’d encourage them to read my book. Many of the school libraries already have a copy of my book, but if not, I would encourage the school to buy one or get an individual copy. The stories inside are not only for the educators. But in fact the kids enjoy reading some of the anecdotes because they can identify with the voices of other EdKIDS. So I’ve gotten letters from the EdKIDS themselves giving me tremendous feedback and encouragement and gratitude for doing this research and they see themselves in the pages of the book.
Sundae: I love that, it’s so wonderful. And I know that’s not the only book you’ve written. So if you’re interested in this topic definitely check out the website, which is in the show notes. You’ll also discover that Ettie is doing amazing things to raise awareness around culture and the impact of migration around Holocaust topics. So also very relevant from the International School setting in terms of curriculum.
So you’re doing wonderful things. Thank you so much for being part of Expat Happy Hour today.
Ettie: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation and I look forward to hearing the comments from your listeners.
Sundae: So you’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour with Sundae Schneider-Bean, thank you for listening.
I will share with you our final quote, a poem that actually is in a Ettie’s book called Wings and Roots, it Is by Gail Schappert. “We thought we couldn’t give them Roots. We gave them Wings. The things that nurture children can be named. Although they’re not the same in every home. When you choose to roam outside your native land and you have children be prepared for them to grow up special and grow up quick. Here is a word of hope. We have raised three children overseas and I am proud of all the many things they’ve done because we gave them wings. And what I thought was a minus really was a plus. They had to find their roots in us.”
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