Sep 22 2012

The Devoir

I pressed my knees together and wedged them under the tiny desk, perfectly sized for a nine-year old but more than a tight squeeze for me. The other parents, their long legs jutting out into the aisle and chairs pushed back to accommodate adult-sized thighs and bottoms, looked just as uncomfortable. I suppose hosting the parent-teacher meeting in the children’s classroom gives us a sense of their day-to-day environment, but it does put parents at a disadvantage. Hunched over and stuffed into hobbit-sized furniture, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in school, cowering under the teacher’s strict supervision.

I remember in grade school, every year, on a night in early autumn, my parents would go to school after dinner for a meeting with my new teacher. During the day, we’d have been given a few minutes to arrange our books in our desks and we’d all work to tidy up the classroom. My father would always return from these meetings shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “Your desk was a terrible mess!” he’d say. The next day, I’d find my notebooks and papers turned sideways and mixed around, the handiwork of my father. Somehow I can’t picture his long legs bent under my primary school desk – I think it was more of a standing around, open-house kind of meeting – but I can picture the smile on his face while he was making mischief inside my desk to complete what was his very predictable annual prank.

These school meetings are important because you actually get to see and hear the teacher. French schools are very much drop-your-kids-at-the-door-and-stay-out-of-our-way. Last year, aside from the initial school meetings, Short-pants’ teacher never once spoke to me, and Buddy-roo’s rather humorless teacher and I had only a handful of exchanges, mostly about logistics. At these meetings you also get data that you might not otherwise pick-up, like how that sheet of paper that you thought was scrap and almost threw out is actually the assignment to research and prepare an oral presentation on Vikings, due next Monday. And with some assurance, you get to see that the other parents – even the fully French ones – are just as overwhelmed by it all as you are.

As the teacher described the work that would be required for each subject, I sank lower and lower in Buddy-roo’s already low-to-the-ground chair. The school meeting is like the door to summer slamming shut behind you. Gone are the blissful evenings of after-dinner walks for ice-cream and a family game of Mille Borne. Now our nights will be spent conjugating verbs, memorizing math tables and reading about Merovingians and Carolingians. The curious what-do-you-feel-like-doing-tonight? is replaced with the commanding fait tes devoirs. The word devoir means to have to, an auxiliary verb that means must or ought. When used as a noun, it can signify an obligation or a duty, or, as in this case, homework. Plenty of it, despite everyone’s complaints and the feeble call to ban it.

So far Buddy-roo’s devoir has been rather reasonable. But supervision is still required. Not so much on the three math problems due for tomorrow, but on the tricky “look-ahead” assignments: the test for next Wednesday which requires more than Tuesday night’s review, or the poetry every other week, which takes several evenings of practice to be able to recite by heart. It is still beyond the capacity of my 9-year-old to take responsibility for anticipating the due dates of these longer-terms assignments. As far as she’s concerned, next week is ages away.

Every evening, then, after a compact day of anticipating my own deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time, I find myself having to anticipate their deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time. I must survey Buddy-roo’s agenda and manage her homework, pressing her to start memorizing earlier rather than later, to cement her appreciation of Clovis and Pepin the Short and Charlemagne and to place them via historic timeline and accomplishment tonight, even though the test isn’t until next week.

Short-pants is more self-reliant, but she still needs nudging. Her speech on someone she admires wouldn’t have been completed in time had I not elbowed her, twice, to get started on the script. Her science report, identifying and describing the three types of tree leaves she was asked to collect, requires a decent amount of research and it was at my behest that she got started early. I get to be the raised eyebrow behind them both, with my new mantra, “I know it’s not due until next week, but you need to do a little every night…”

Some of the assignments seem, to me, beyond Buddy-roo’s capacity to be finished independently. Then it really starts to feel like homework for me. Maybe I should leave her alone, and let her sputter through and suffer the consequences of failing, but that’s not going to teach her how to do the assignment or help her learn the content. So I give in and help, always starting out as the facilitator, “Why don’t you read those paragraphs and then tell me how you’d summarize it in your own language?” Two hours later, I end up not-so-gently suggesting the answer so we can just get on with it and go to bed.

My greatest concern, beyond the burden this puts on me or De-facto, is the lack of time and freedom for them to imagine, invent and play. I remember coming home from school when I was in 4th grade and going for walks in the woods, playing with neighbors, making up stories and games, reading for pleasure. I rarely had homework at that age, unless it was a special report or project. My mother was happy to help because it happened once a month, not every night. My daughters, in contrast, sit at desks and work all day long, and then are compelled to use their evenings to do the same – and my evenings too.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Buddy-roo’s new teacher exudes warmth and compassion – a welcome change after the last year – and I think her classroom is going to be a much friendlier learning environment. But there are still a lot of musts that come along with the rules of a French classroom, so even though I considered re-arranging the books in Buddy-roo’s desk, just to mess the order up a bit and follow a family tradition, I decided, for her sake, I really musn’t.


Sep 13 2012

What’s His Name

“I have to tell you something,” Short-pants said. “It’s about my life.”

She’d been waiting for hours for me to get home and she could hardly contain herself. I promised to give her my undivided attention – something about her life deserved at least that – if she could wait for me to set my big yellow bag down, put my keys on the shelf and take off my shoes. Her eyes remained fixed on my every move.

“Upstairs,” she said, lifting her chin upwards, towards her room.

I followed her up the narrow, curving stairway and sat beside her on the edge of her bed.

We’ve had a lot of talks these last few days; Short-pants is mindful of the gravity of her passage from primary school to collège – middle school – and she’s been expressing her enthusiasm and her trepidation in equal measure.

“There’s a boy. In my class. We hung out together a lot today,” she said. “I think he likes me.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

She looked at me, surprised. She shrugged.

“Well,” I said, trying to let her off the hook. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

She went on to tell me the context of their conversations, and how he’d asked her to have lunch with him, what they’d talked about and how his friend told her later, “I think there’s some dragging going on.”

I noticed her cheekbones seemed higher, more pronounced. Her eyebrows have started to frame her gray-blue eyes in a kind of glamorous way. It’s like her body had assumed a different stance, the poise of someone who is admired. She wasn’t the same girl I sent to school that morning.

“Do you like him?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she lied.

And so it begins.

The good news is, she wanted to tell me about it, and she claimed she’d told me more details than she told her sister. The good news is, somebody seems to like her before she likes him. The good news is, she could tell that he liked her. The bad news, well, there really isn’t any bad news, except that her indifference to boys meant one less element of drama in our household. Those days are over.

After dinner, Buddy-roo asked me if we could have a moment together, too. She keeps track of the time I spend alone with each of them, always keen to keep it even. I joined her upstairs in her little garret room, where she’d been setting up the Fisher Price dollhouse, the one that used to be mine.

“You know how I’ve been in love with…” she stopped and gestured with her hands, as though she’d been in love with Voldemort and didn’t dare to utter his name out loud.

“Well, there was this other boy in school today, a new boy,” she looked at me, straight on, “and he’s cuter.”

I can’t say I’m too disturbed that her last-year’s crush might be have run its course. I’m in no hurry for her to have a steady beau. Not that she’s had a deep relationship, let alone a formal date with the one who won’t be named. Remember these childhood romances? They’re just verbal agreements, made during recreation, to be in love. At the same time, I do want to discourage her from treating these little boys as dispensable, trading an old one in for a newer, cuter model. I tried to convey this to her but her eyes glazed over in the middle of my little lecture.

“My grandmother used to tell me that boys are like buses.” I said, trying a new tack. Buddy-roo likes family stories, and this kind of an opening gets her attention. “If you miss one, another one comes along in ten minutes.”

It’s true that my grandmother used to say this to me, rather often, though it wasn’t with a condescending or man-hating tone. She meant it in a matter-of-fact way, simply, don’t get too invested because at your age there’s a lot ahead of you. She just wanted me to keep my options open.

“But when you’re getting off the bus,” I added, “you still have to be polite.”

Buddy-roo considered this without looking at me, moving the furniture around in her dollhouse.

“And this new, cuter guy,” I said, “what’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, a little embarrassed.

“Well,” I said. “I guess knowing his name isn’t so important just yet, is it?”

I ought to tread carefully here, as my mental acuity isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and I have my own challenges remembering the names of people I’ve just met. It’s easy to get distracted when meeting someone new, thinking about what you want to say rather than listening and locking in on their name. I even get my own daughters wrong, calling them by each other’s names. But when I was the same age as Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I had glue between my ears. I heard and remembered everything, especially if it had to do with a boy I had a crush on. What’s up with my girls, who both seem to be infatuated with unnamed boys?

I know better than to tease them about this. It’s a surefire way to get them to stop talking to me about their burgeoning love lives. But it takes a certain amount of self-control.

On the way to school today, Buddy-roo grabbed my sleeve and pointed out the new boy.

“Oh,” I said, “That’s whats-his-name?”

She nodded.

I didn’t say it to her, but you know what? He is cuter.


Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

At what age do we start to tell our children about the terrible things that could happen? We try to keep them innocent for as long as possible, perpetuating stories like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage their kindness and fairness, wanting them to believe the world is a kind and fair place. We build a magic bubble around them so they can grow up feeling safe. I’m never sure if we’re investing in their optimism or shielding them from the harsher truth. Maybe a dose of both.

Buddy-roo thumped down the stairs for one last goodnight kiss while De-facto and I were watching a movie, arriving just in time to see the scene in which a bold manservant attempts to force himself upon a young maid, who, fortunately, manages to push him off her and escape.

“What was he doing?” she asked as I steered her back upstairs.

“He’s trying to hurt her, but she got away.” I didn’t elaborate, partly because I wasn’t sure how much of the attempted rape scene I wanted to explain to a not-yet-nine-year-old, but also because I wanted to watch the movie, not talk about it.

The next morning she descended for the morning cuddle – these are still happening – and after a moment of wordless staring at the ceiling and listening to the familiar morning sounds of cleaning trucks spraying water in the street and pigeons cooing outside the window, she brought it up.

“Why was that guy trying to hurt the girl in the movie last night?”

These are the conversations I wish we didn’t have to have, but I won’t avoid them. One of the reasons I’ve told my daughters how babies are made is so they know how to protect themselves. I can’t warn them to watch out for strangers, without telling them what strangers might do. They cannot defend themselves from an atrocity like a rape if they don’t know what it is or what to watch out for. I hate to frighten them, but I don’t want them to be in the dark.

I took a deep breath and explained that the mean guy was pushing himself on the young woman because he wanted to have sex with her.

“Why was she fighting him back?” Buddy-roo asked.

“Because she didn’t want to have sex with him.”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I explained how there are in the world some arrogant men – boys, too – who think it’s okay to force themselves on a woman. They think if she says no, she doesn’t really mean it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to ask.

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, you have the right to say no. Say it loud and clear, and then get out of there.”

I am lucky to have never encountered such a scenario, but I imagine it isn’t always easy to scream no and get out. The whole subject – whether its date-rape or an attack by a stranger – is much more complex and there is no one right way to escape. You’d want to protect your sexual dignity, but you also might have to save your life, if a weapon was involved. Difficult choices might be required. Things could happen.

~ ~ ~

An exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, C’étaient des Enfants, chronicles the story of the children who were deported to the war camps during World War II. A number of these children disappeared right from our neighborhood; almost every school within ten blocks of our house has a plaque to commemorate the children who were taken. Just a few streets away is the address of the apartment featured in Sarah’s Key, the story of a young girl separated from her family during the Vel d’hiv Roundup when, in the course of just two days, 8,000 Jews were collected and deported.

Last week I took the girls to see it. I could have waited a few days until school started and gone on my own or with De-facto. I knew there’d be haunting images, the kind that can produce nightmares. I knew I was putting a sad and frightening story in front of them, but despite the picture of horrific reality that would be revealed, I felt they should see it.

I had to explain, as we toured the exhibit, why only some of the children in the class photographs had stars sewn on their clothing, how in one case an entire class of students completely disappeared, how some families were surprised in the night and then separated and sent off to camps, how the French police cooperated while many neighbors turned a blind eye.

“How could they let that happen?” Short-pants asked, earnestly.

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could they, a modern society, allow a paranoid politician to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could ever have happened, and to such extremes. But it did. And not so long ago.

~ ~ ~

These days I read the news, and I must admit, some of it seems just as preposterous to me. For instance, it’s become commonplace for white-haired male politicians to sponsor legislation that has a negative impact on a woman’s right to reproductive health. A candidate who knows little about a woman’s anatomy, let alone the reproductive process – and who, remarkably, sits on a science committee – proclaims that a woman’s womb won’t allow fertilization if she’s raped. Another lawmaker proposed legislation that would criminalize miscarriage and make abortion completely illegal, without exception. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even suggested, that it could possibly be considered illegal for a woman to choose to end a pregnancy that was a result of a rape, this seems barbaric to me.

These social conservatives would insist a woman give birth to a baby that she never intended to have, whether the result of a rape or a broken condom, and that she cannot afford to raise. Yet they would cut a welfare program that would support her when she doesn’t abort, and they would un-fund an organization like Planned Parenthood which – except in the case of rape – might have helped her avoid the pregnancy all together.

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

I live in a country where abortion is legal, where a big mistake or a violating incident can be remedied. It’s not without angst – abortion is never an easy decision for a woman – but at least it’s without felony charges. If my daughters stay here, they will have the right to choose. But I fret about what’s happening now to women in the United States, how the rights our grandmothers and mothers fought for – my mother was a supporter of Republican Majority for Choice – like the right to make choices about our bodies, the right to obtain safe birth control, all these aspects of reproductive health that, incidentally, contribute to our economic health, that these could slowly be stripped away. How could we let this happen?

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could we, a modern society, allow paranoid politicians to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could happen. But could it?