September 30, 2016
School. The greatest cultural force in a country. It has been less than a month and I observe my girls imbibing their new culture each day they go to school.
The first week: Colette repeating French sentences without understanding the words: "Le lundi est tout gris”
The second week: Using French words in her English sentences. Grimace, parcours, gilet
The third week: full sentences “Je veux celle la, Papa” “Je suis dans la groupe des papillons"
Colette sounds like an American making a real effort to speak French at this point. Overplaying the ruh in the ‘r’ in her throat. It is very sweet.
She was invited to another birthday party last weekend. Xavier dropped her off, not giving any context on Colette’s current cultural position. He is easily read by strangers: 100% French. Apparently, Colette observed much of the party and then occasionally said a thing or two (sounding two years younger than she is: “Aime le train! Aime le train!"). The parents were slightly confused when Xavier picked her up. It was clear they thought she was slow. Xavier, good old Xavier, simply said merci and brought Colette home. He cracks me up. I asked why he didn’t clarify and he said that they must be slow if they didn’t understand Colette was just learning French.
Romy’s take is often more musical - French songs - phonetic, incorrect, but the sounds are all there. Zero accent when she pronounces French words. I went to pick her up the other day and she was outside with all the other children. She was hovering over something, cradling it in her hands. The kids were gathered around. She hadn’t seen me yet and I called out to her. She looked up and grinned a wide grin, “Escargot!!!” she shouted again and again. The instructors informed me she had been holding it all afternoon - coaxing it to come out of its shell - not letting anyone else touch it. So funny. She has a good friend, ‘Carla’ at school. ‘Carla’ said with a sweet French accent from little Romy.
We’ve already run into a bit of tension with Colette’s maîtresse, a very typically French teacher with posture that reflects her general approach in her classroom. She held a meeting for parents a few weeks ago. She began the meeting by taking a deep breath (almost theatrical, but not at all her style otherwise), sitting straight up and placing her two hands on the table in front of her ceremoniously - fingers taut and and in straight lines like pencils.
Then a statement about the children: “There are some children in the class who are still very “bébé” - others are clearly ready for the work of school. You know where your child stands.” She quickly proceeded to the subject of fire and earthquake drills. Then to the cantine, which she complained is completely overcrowded, hot and loud, and could we please pick up our children and feed them lunch at home from time to time? Next was “la collation" at 10:00am - snack - which is comprised of only fruits and applesauce (without any sugar added).
And then the sacred subject of writing: "I insist on a certain method of writing, of holding the tool. If the children form poor habits now, it becomes a nightmare. They lose the ability to be fluid in their cursive. Writing is a moment of calm. It is a moment where the children must be correctly installed. Take a deep breath first and have proper posture. I insist on these things.” She was the perfect visual illustration of her point.
Xavier asked a few questions throughout, which la maîtresse found rather disruptive. At some point, Xavier queried whether or not there would be field trips. She punctuated her remarks about the subject with a reproach: “And I will be choosing the parents who accompany the class on these excursions, Mr. Colette.”
Throughout I was so amused by the serious tone. I admired her professionalism and her devotion to her work. The classroom is perfectly organized, well-equipped. Her groups and programs (she outlined the cadence of the day - everything in 20 minute intervals) meticulously constructed. All in all - a very good environment for a personality like Colette’s. To that point, Colette is adapting and doing very well at this point.
Colette did make a request recently - “Can you ask the teacher if I can hold my pencil the way I want to hold it?” I cringed a bit and asked her to give it a try the teacher’s way. The second time she brought it up, Xavier and I agreed we should talk to the teacher.
Xavier went to school a bit early one morning and asked if he could have a word with la maîtrsse. He asked politely if she might allow Colette to hold her pencil they way she finds most comfortable. Direct affront. Absolutely not and her method comes straight from specific recommendations given by the French National Education System. Would Xavier accept an amateur walking into his professional domain giving advice? Of course not. Please respect her domaine.
He put up some resistance - pointed out that in the past left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand. “But Colette is not left-handed,” she responded - literal like her posture. She basically hung up the phone, in person - informed Xavier that she had a classroom to attend to, turned around and walked away from their conversation.
I was nervous to drop Colette off at school the next morning. Madame maîtresse’s posture grew even stiffer when she saw me coming (I am already somewhat awkward. I always remember my bonjour before anything else, but some parents give the teacher bisous and I will never know with whom I should share this ritual - it feels intimate, not at all impersonal).
I said bonjour and brought up the subject directly, saying I knew she and Xavier had spoken on Friday. Rigid puff of air from her. I told her I wanted to emphasize the many things in the classroom that we admire - I named 5 things specifically. I told her that Colette’s difficult transition is going very well, largely due to her efforts and accommodations. I thanked her. She softened. She even said that my words had touched her heart (unexpected). Thinking we had made some progress, I turned to Colette to say goodbye and send her off.
The maîtresse continued, “After all, it isn’t an American who will explain to me how I should run my classroom!”
I smiled and held my breath a minute. I turned back to her, “Indeed not. This is your domain.”
Took a deep breath and tried to walk away with very straight posture.