Oct 2 2010

La Maîtresse

My children go to Hogwarts. You wouldn’t think so just looking at the primary school building, a fairly nondescript 20th century construction. But just across the street, adjacent to the courtyard where children clamor uncontrollably during the récré, there’s an imposing, majestic building that houses the school’s cantine and the classrooms for the older students. Classified as historic by the city of Paris, it screams of Hogwarts. Standing before it at dusk on a blustery autumn evening, its façade is severe and intimidating; Harry Potter could easily be sweeping by you in his invisibility cloak, escaping the punitive snarl of Professor Snape.

France’s education system is known for its severe and intimidating structure, one that places academic performance above things extracurricular or social. Short-pants and Buddy-roo’s school feels particularly rigorous; they have homework every night, the book-bags that they carry home each day weigh as much as they do, they are tested often and their class ranking is public.
I have the sinking feeling that the girls have learned far too early to see mistakes as something to fear rather than to learn from. At the same time, they are getting a solid education. I’ve heard too many troubling stories about US schools passing students just to move them along. That won’t be happening here, at least not at our beloved Hogwarts.

This stern ambiance is palliated somewhat by their participation in the English section, led by two creative and ambitious teachers who also care about the learning climate and the community. They invite feedback, they ask us to help plan a Halloween party or a holiday celebration so that the kids get a feeling about the culture, not just the structure of their parents’ language. The English teachers are accessible and willing to engage easily with parents. They even use email. How modern.

This is a stark contrast to many of the French teachers in the school, in particular the new teacher assigned to Buddy-roo’s class, whom I’m call Madame Deville. She’s replacing a teacher who was a bit of a cold fish, so when we first saw that there was a new, younger teacher, many parents rejoiced. Not for long. The homework assignments those first days were barely cloaked barbs at the adults for not assembling the full complement of school supplies or turning in the paperwork in a timely fashion. The homework the next week was daunting, with explicit and rather complicated instructions about which cahier and in what order to learn twenty random words that appeared to have little in common, plus the “house of 10” multiplication table and also this week’s poem to illustrate and memorize so that it can be recited in front of the class. To a second grade child who’s all of a sudden terrified of making a mistake, this is overwhelming.

Just getting Buddy-roo to sit down and concentrate has always been a bit tricky, but now there is a particular angoisse to her procrastination. She constantly has a reason to interrupt her work; to sharpen and re-sharpen her pencil or get the right pen or re-arrange her papers or to double check the cahier for the length of the assignment or get a drink of water. I know nagging will not help and I don’t want to add to her stress, but my best efforts to remain cheerful and encouraging have already been stretched to the max. Make it fun, I keep telling myself, inventing a game to inspire her to put those words in alphabetical order. But who am I kidding? That’s not her idea of fun. Not for hours every night.

(The other night at a neighborhood bar, a friend of ours who’s son is also in Buddy-roo’s class performed an hysterical monologue demonstrating how he’s ready to hang himself after helping his 7-year-old son do homework for two hours one night. We’re not the only ones who are suffering.)

I don’t expect Buddy-roo to display a seamless scholastic-competence at the young age of seven. But I do want to help her avoid getting stereotyped in an education system where your reputation gets cemented rather early, where teachers are inclined to point out your weaknesses and hold you to them. It makes me wonder if this school is right for her, for both of them. But if not here, where? Where can they get this rich bilingual, bicultural experience and strong academics plus the social and emotional support?
Does any school offer all that? Any school we can afford, that is?

At the class meeting, Madame Deville counseled the assembled parents complaining about the homework to set their worries aside, citing a French law that states it is illegal to force school children of this age do written homework. The children won’t be graded on their homework, she assured them. But if they don’t do the homework, will they be able to keep up in class? She shrugged.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meeting – I was away on business – but I feel as if I was there because it has become the talk of the school, especially this particular moment: “Veuillez avoir de la bienveillance,” Madame Deville scolded, warning that when notes in the cahier de correspondance don’t use the formal French politesse, our “aggressive words” put her in a bad mood and she’ll it take out on our children. Stunned parents are still hashing this over as they cluster together at morning coffee klatches and the afternoon sortie d’école. One father asked me if I thought this meant that if he wasn’t polite enough it would cause the teacher to be more punitive to his son in particular, or to the class in general? In general, one hopes. But no-one is sure. Everyone is reeling from this.

De-facto, bless his soul, steps empathetically into her shoes and reminds me how much we dreaded hosting a dozen kids for not even three hours at Short-pants’ birthday party. It’s not an easy job to spend the entire day, every day, with 31 young children. If she receives a scribbled, annoyed note from even a handful of the parents on any given day, that would certainly put her in a bad mood and impact her ability to tolerate the antics of the children. He has a point, I suppose, but I don’t think it calls for a pronouncement to the parents in such a finger-wagging way.

I should go on record: not all the French teachers at Hogwarts are so persnickety. Buddy-roo’s teacher last year was absolutely lovely. At a meeting this week, Short-pants’ teacher praised the class and told us she wouldn’t test the children on their reading assignments because she wanted them to experience reading as something one does for pleasure. So they’re not all prickly.

I am attempting, against the tide of tirades about Madame Deville, to keep my mind open. I cautiously address her each time I write a note in the cahier de correspondance (she mandated the parents, at the aforementioned meeting, to use her surname; the salutation of “Madame,” without her last name was insufficient). I use all the little flowery phrases from my book about how to write French letters. It’s already a challenge for Buddy-roo to like school. She doesn’t need an overzealous schoolmarm bearing down on her because her mother is too proud to play along.

Last week I politely requested a private meeting with the Madame Deville; I have been granted a ½-hour appointment with her next Thursday morning before school starts. I’m eager to see her close up. Is she the wicked witch of Hogwarts-Paris as everyone has begun to believe? Or is she just trying to get her “I-may-be-young-but-I’m-strict” stake in the ground so she doesn’t get pushed around? That’s what I hope to find out.

Any tips on a good strategy for this meeting?

Sep 4 2009

Second Day of School

All at once, the streets are busy. Those late August mornings, tranquil and traffic-free, fade into an end-of-summer reverie. The city re-awakens and stretches her sidewalks to welcome the armies of small school-children carrying larger-than-laws-of-physics-should-allow backpacks. Their parents walk in step behind, sleepily pressing little ones along – or march brusquely in front, dragging sluggish children forward toward school courtyards that lay quiet and dormant all summer and now shriek with the collective noise of playing children. Everyone’s a little foggy, still operating on summer-speed, shaking out the cobwebs, rousing slowly to the reality of the rentrée and the routine of school and work. No matter the degree of excitement or trepidation any child might have about the return to school, the parents wax enthusiastic with proclamations of how great it will be to return to the groove of learning new things and seeing school friends. Inside, these same parents are thinking, “free at last.”

Who could imagine that after a nearly jobless (and rather agreeable) summer, an assignment would fall into my lap, a project coinciding with the advent of the first day of school? And that then at the last minute, De-facto’s assistance would be necessary too? Another nomination for negligent parents of the year award; we both missed the first day of school.

It wasn’t Short-pants we were worried about. She knows the drill, having been through more than one rentrée at this establishment. But it’s a new start for Buddy-roo, who not only changes schools this year, but gears up for the rigor of the first grade after lollygagging about in the ecole maternelle for three years. It’s the real deal for her: new school, new teacher, new classmates. The strong hand of one of her favorite adults would ease the transition, but she’d have to make do with the soft touch of her big sister.

The decision was not so difficult; De-facto and I cocked our heads to one side or another and shrugged. We do value the importance of rituals, and this is the kind of occasion that deserves to be ritualized. But when it was her real and true very – I mean very first – day of school, when she started at the maternelle, we were both there. We’ve helped her through lots of firsts. Isn’t it time she starts toughening up a little and handling her own? Aren’t we doing her a disservice by coddling her through the initiations of her life? And won’t accepting this work allow us to cover her tuition? (I think that was the clincher.)

“You tell her,” I told him.

Buddy-roo took it well. “Okay,” she said, “but will I still get a goûter?”
Assured that her snack would remain intact, she didn’t seem to mind. It may have helped that this all came down about the same time that I opened up the two shopping bags of school supplies to sort them between her and sister. Remember the excitement – a satisfied anticipation – of having new school supplies? Though these implements are used for schoolwork, not necessarily a favorite topic, when they’re just out of the package, unused and colorful, and the smell of a new school year rests upon them, it’s all good.

De-facto wondered why I hadn’t taken the girls with me to shop for the school supplies, speaking of rituals. Here’s why: the liste de fournitures provided by the school is so onerous, so entirely detailed and specific – down to the exact centimeter of each ruler (which must be made of transparent plastic and not metal) that it’s just plain easier to do alone. The first year I was tested in the art of buying school supplies, I took Short-pants with me and we fumbled around the paper-supply aisles of the BHV department store. “What’s this mean?” I’d ask her, but she had no more experience with French school supplies than I did. After reading the list again and again and getting nowhere, I finally nabbed a salesperson to help me decipher it. Short-pants stood by bored and restless. There’s nothing to choose. It’s all just a checklist of boring items: types and colors of pens permitted and not permitted, one of these being specific brand of fountain pen, refillable only with blue ink, notebooks made of a particular style of graph paper, paintbrushes of a stipulated size. Erasers are to be white. Blank paper sold in large pochette envelopes must be double-checked, to be sure it’s the correct centimeter size. It gives you a head-ache just to read the list, let alone to acquire its contents.

But it was all worth it when the living room floor was plastered with fresh packages of paper and colored pens and pencils, erasers, rulers, folders and books, and the girls jumped in a jubilant dance. Each time I pulled out a new item, a gasp of delight. “Wow!” marveled Buddy-roo, “I get my own glue-stick?”

Later I was busy drawing up a professional org-chart to navigate the girls from our house to school via several hand-offs – our early morning departure required Ricky and Lucy taking over the breakfast shift and then delivering the girls to the hands of other good friends in the neighborhood who have kids enrolled in the same school – the girls took inventory of their new supplies. And then one of those moments when it’s all justified, when the hassle and annoyance of being saddled with an tedious list of school supplies vanishes: “I’m so excited,” Buddy-roo said, wiggling her hips, “I’m going to school so I can learn how to read!”

That’s about as Alleluia as it gets, if you ask me.

The choreography of their first day worked flawlessly, thanks to reliable neighbors in the morning, and our trusted babysitter in the afternoon. An exuberant report that evening disclosed the details of the day: talk of old friends and new friends, who sat where and why, first assignments and new cahiers, and a whole slew of paperwork for me to fill out not once, but twice (but that’s another post) and in general we encountered a pair of enthusiastic students.

De-facto and I made up for missing the first day of school by walking them to school – the both of us, together, which is rare – on the second day.
walk_to_schoolBuddy-roo, having survived day one, knew the ropes. She fastened her shoes, hoisted her pink backpack on her shoulders, and sped down the stairs ahead of her sister. We walked along, the four of us, a family in full force, one amongst many in the army of families making the morning march to school.

Once there, we lingered, catching up with the other parents, waiting to watch the girls make their way into the building, waving back at them until the last possible moment. Then, hand in hand, De-facto and I turned and walked toward home, free at last.

Feb 16 2009

The Assignment

A short note pasted in Short-pantsCahier de Correspondence almost escaped my attention. It’s not the first time. I often forget to check. This cahier, not to be confused with her others – the cahier de poésie, cahier du jour, cahier d’essais (the notebook of tries), cahier de leçons – is designated for, as its title suggests, correspondence. It’s where you find school announcements or notes from the teacher. It’s also a vehicle for me to send information to the teacher, for instance to ask if Short-pants can be excused early to go to the dentist. It’s a 6” x 8” inch notebook, with sheets of paper glued on page after page, announcements the teacher handed out to the children, who dutifully took out their glue stick from their pencil cases and pasted them in. I think it’d be a lot easier if we could just e-mail, but this is how it’s done. France, for all its wonders, can be terribly archaic.

The only reason I found out about the note was because one of the other mothers – one who always seems to be totally on top of everything that happens to her son at school – mentioned it to me. For anyone who has (or had) school-aged children, you know the fence or bench or tree or wherever it is that parents congregate to wait for their children to pour out that main door at the end of the day – is akin to the water cooler at the office. Show up a bit early once a week, and you get the scoop on all the school news.


Basically the note says that the children have been given an exposé, or a report, to prepare with two other students. (The topic of this report can be found in another cahier, called, more simply, l’agenda). There are all sorts of rules about how the report must be presented, type of paper, supporting materials, etc. Oh, and the students have to meet together to make a plan, which the teacher wants to approve in advance.

Turning to l’agenda, I discovered Short-pants’ topic: the history of Paris. A fascinating but broad topic to cover in a short report presented by three 7-year olds. I asked her whom she’s been assigned to work with. She didn’t remember.

Let me tell you, I put that cahier de correspondence to hard use last week. Several notes burning back and forth with the teacher enlightened me about the task ahead. Two boys, Lucas and Edgar, share this topic with my daughter. I had to ask the teacher for their phone numbers and I made the calls. To my dismay (no, let’s be honest, it was relief, at least I’m not the only one), they weren’t totally up to speed on the requirements of this exposé either.

The pressure was on, since the winter break loomed and the deep research on this project had to begin. Or at least an outline had to be made. Edgar and his mom couldn’t make a meeting before getting out of dodge for the vacances scolaire. But Lucas and his mom agreed to come over on Saturday last, at least to discuss the project and make a plan for a plan.

Can I tell you how not looking forward to this I was?

My daughter is a self-starter. She does her homework on her own, she volunteers to set the table and other chores that earn her allowance without being asked. She spontaneously initiates spectacular drawing projects or writes a story and pastes the pages together to look like a book. But frankly, this exposé is a bit beyond her capacity. She doesn’t seem to be able to conceptualize it on her own, let alone collaborate with two other kids who are equally unmotivated for the project.

When the doorbell rang, Short-pants ran to greet Lucas (whom she hardly knows, but she was still thrilled to receive him) and his mother and I shook hands cordially. We sat around the table and started to talk about the topic. They’d brought books and DVDs (we hadn’t done anything to prepare, doh!) and Lucas was keen to do something around the Eiffel Tower. Short-pants’ said her favorite building in Paris is Notre Dame. Both moms now had an idea of how we might thread this report together, but should we suggest it? How much should we help? It was clear to me – I think to her as well – that we ought to be facilitative, inspiring the children to conceive the project as well as execute it. But even in this 1½-hour meeting, getting our kids to focus on the topic at hand was a bit like herding cats.

At one point I just cradled my head in my hands and silently cursed the teacher. If the kids were 14-years old, this would be a lot of fun. (Okay, fun? Who am I kidding? But at least it would be more, say, engaging.) I just think this assignment is not age-appropriate (to use an over-used American parenting term). I looked across at Lucas’ mother. “I think this assignment is more for the parents than the kids,” I said. She nodded in full agreement.

We did our best. As the meeting went on, Lucas’ mother and I became more interested in each other, sporadically abandoning the discussion of Parisian history to share a bit of personal information about ourselves. Then we’d turn back to the kids, who’d be playing a game with their fingers, making zero progress during our tangent. We’d try to focus them again. We’d ask questions. How about this? How might you express that? What happened there? I cannot lie: by the end we were pretty much summing it up for them. It was that, or sit around the table all day.

Now we have an outline, a rough draft we will share with the third child (I’m prayin’ there’s no objection). Six of Paris’ monuments have been selected, from different periods of her history. Another meeting after the school vacation will (hopefully) pull it all together – that is, of course, after we get Edgar’s buy-in and the teachers stamp of approval.

After they left, I asked Short-pants how she felt about the meeting. “Great!” she said, her usual response. She’s generally optimistic. “How do you feel?” she asked. I reviewed the morning’s working session in my mind. Lucas was pretty sweet, drawing all the monuments as we discussed them. I really liked his mother, a lot. She seems like a cool lady.

Curse the teacher all I want, a few good things might come of this assignment after all.