In Paris, parents are more or less locked out of school. During the maternelle years – ages 3, 4 and 5 – there’s a convivial morning ritual of accompanying young children to the classroom and returning at the end of the day to retrieve them. But once they hit the classe primaire, or CP – the equivalent of first grade – entry to the school building by parents is almost prohibited.
Children are dropped at a courtyard in the morning, and met outside the doors at the end of the day. French teachers do not make themselves particularly available to meet with parents. It’s not impossible – and when you do manage a consultation all the right things happen – but the maitresse does not go out of her way to distribute her phone numbers or email address. If you call to make a rendezvous with the school principal, getting past the gate-keeping secretary is a colossal task. A written letter is required, which is usually met with a written response. Something has to be really wrong to get an audience with the directrice.
This is to say what happens behind the school doors is a mystery.
This may have to do with the fact that the French believe that the state is responsible for educating the children of France. The state runs the school, so the school is in charge. Parents meddle as little as possible, sometimes because they believe the school administrators know best, but just as often because they know it’s futile to try and make changes. Being the squeaky wheel only threatens their child’s reputation and ends up being a waste of time.
So at the beginning of the school year, when the parent-teacher meetings are announced, we clear our schedules to attend. It’s the one time we get a peek inside that secret school world, the only time we get a hint of what really goes on in there.
I’m not your over-involved PTA type of mom (more like Harper Valley PTA) but I do harbor a slight curiosity about the curriculum and activities of my offspring. I also have a propensity for mild forms of activism and random acts of problem solving. I remember a few years ago when Short-pants was in the maternelle. The teacher – during that one, precious beginning-of-year parent meeting – lamented that a musician had approached her about working with the students, but unfortunately there was no budget for a music class.
I felt my hand rise up from my lap. I didn’t want it to. I knew it was in vain. But I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t we do some kind of a fundraising activity in the neighborhood?”
No pin was dropped. But had there been, it would have been audible. And I knew what they were all thinking: “Oh that’s the American.” I wanted to scream out at them, “Listen, I can’t believe I just said that either! But shouldn’t we at least try to do something?” Needless to say, there was no special music class that year.
I don’t mean to suggest that French parents don’t help out. They do. They bake quiches for school parties, attend special functions and performances and join the school advisory councils. Of course they care about their children’s scholastic welfare. But where American parents might be very involved in their children’s school, French parents are usually less involved, maybe just enough involved.
I imagine if we lived in the United States, I’d probably be complaining about all the meetings and activities and fundraisers I’d feel compelled to be involved in (or guilty about not attending). Here in France, I get to complain about how it’s hard to be involved in what’s happening at school – or harder to complain about what’s not quite right at school – because the school prefers that you stay out of their hair.
Yesterday, the first of three school meetings I’ll attend over the next two weeks: this one for the parents of bilingual students who take English classes in addition to the rest of their curriculum in French. The parents assembled – an eclectic group of mixed-culture marriages, or like us, English-speaking couples who’ve chosen to live in Paris – are used to volunteering to help with the English Section’s activities, like the Halloween party and the Christmas concert. Still, when the request was made soliciting a parent-liaison for each class, there was an awkward quieting in the room. Pins could be heard. Eyes were averted. Everyone wants to help, sure, but do we want to be that involved?
After the meeting, they served cocktails (yes!) on the school terrace (surnames A-M brought drinks, N-Z contributed food) and I mingled with the other Anglo parents, puzzling together some of the differences between French and Anglo schools. Everyone agrees it’s a little too rigid in France, but maybe it’s gotten bit too loose in other places like America.
Except of course when it comes to the school subject of the week: the windstorm about President Obama’s address to school children. It’s hard – sitting over here – to understand the vitriol directed at Barack Obama, a smart, even tempered, articulate man who wants to involve himself in the education of children by encouraging them to study hard and stay in school.
If I lived in the United States, I’d be grateful that the President wanted to talk to school-aged children. I’d have been one of the parents calling the school to plead for as much access to the speech as possible. I’d have offered to come down and facilitate a post-program debrief for the students to perpetuate a dialogue about his speech, about education, about the process of government – or maybe about the whole controversy and freedom of speech and the right for people to (intelligently) express an opposing view. I’d have been psyched.
But since I live in France, I’ll just watch the back to school speech with Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and we’ll have our own little discussion. Even on this side of the Atlantic, it’s pertinent. Obama’s message is universal.
Tonight there’s another school meeting – this time with the Buddy-roo’s main teacher, the French one. I’ll get to see the classroom. I’ll learn about the weekly schedule. I’ll get the explanation of which cahiers are for what and which colored pens are to be used for which homework assignments. I’ll be reminded about getting to school on time. Questions will be asked and answered. Chances are good there’ll be no solicitation for volunteers. I’ll leave the school still not really understanding what happens, but at least I’ll feel involved enough.