Mar 2 2011

The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.


Mar 12 2009

The Assignment II

As I write this post, Short-pants is probably standing in front of her class, side-by-side with her two little colleagues, transmitting her recently honed expertise on the history of Paris. Yes, today is the exposé.

A few readers have actually inquired about the status of this assignment, which I chronicled here, so I suppose an update is in order.

Last weekend the triumvirate was assembled; Short-pants and the two boys she’s been teamed with got together to hammer out the details of their presentation. This project has had more than a few hiccups. We made no progress during the winter break. It was an arduous task to find a time when all three students and mothers could coordinate a meeting. This pushed us to the last minute. On top of that, further dialogue with the teacher revealed that the topic was not exactly the history of Paris, as we’d thought, but the gargoylehistory of Paris’ quartiers. I’m not sure what that means: how Paris came to have its little neighborhoods? Or how the nautilus of arrondissements spiraled out into what it is today? That all three mothers failed to notice this distinction in the original assignment is another satisfying indicator that I am not alone in my failings. The other mothers didn’t think it was a problem to ignore this little detail, since the kids had already bought into the idea of telling Paris’ history through famous monuments. A part of me thinks we should have readjusted; we hadn’t made much progress down the other track. But another part of me just wanted to be done with this thing. You can guess which part won that debate.

Assembled around the table, we became a study in contrasts. Edgar had already written up a 3-page report on the Eiffel Tower. Even I was intimidated by his even, deliberate handwriting on the pages of feuille quadrillée (graph paper). He’d also underlined the headings with different colored felt-tip pens. Impressive. Lucas and his mother brought a variety of colorful cards on weighty paper stock and a roll of light-brown craft paper, with an idea for the visual component of the presentation. Short-pants, well, let’s just say she’d had a lesson in Wikipedia.

Going to a French public library was just too much for me to fathom. I’m no stranger to French bureaucratic services; I’ve done my time waiting in line at the préfecture. But it’s been a cold, bleak, winter. I just couldn’t face another functionnaire.

Besides, I’m not convinced that honing the children’s library skills isn’t a bit like teaching them to speak a dead language. Sure it’s nice to know, but will they use it? I can still picture the card catalogue in my high school library, a boxy wooden piece of furniture. And those little labels, typed on the secretary’s Corona and inserted into the tiny square frame on the front of each of its long drawers. You’d flip through the index cards, worn and dirty from years of fingering by semi-curious students, all the while repeating, like a mantra, the title or author you were actually looking for, half the time forgetting and having to start over. All this to find one book, so you could look at its bibliography in order to do it all over again to get another book.
arc_de_triopmhe
I’m not saying that knowing how to research in a library isn’t important. Or maybe I am. If Short-pants becomes a serious scholar in need of original historical texts, no doubt she’ll be forced to develop her library skills. But even that’s not certain: a friend doing PhD level research at the Bibliotèque Nationale told me he wasn’t allowed in the stacks. He was pointed to a computer connected to the library system and told to write down the titles he wanted. This list was then handed to a smug librarian, who disappeared, returning 20 minutes later with his requested books.

If you have time (an hour), it’s really worth watching the video of this lecture, A Portal to Media Literacy, by Michael Wesch. He’s an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnographer at Kansas State University and the same guy who produced the famous (and much shorter) video about Web 2.0, The Machine is Us/ing Us. Wesch wants us to test the assumptions we make about teaching students in today’s digitally powered world. Our education system was invented in a different century; it might be obsolete. This is why I believe developing a skill-set for researching on the internet is important.

Or maybe I was just too lazy to take Short-pants to the library.
notre_dame
Prior to this meeting of the troika, we spent about an hour Googling her monuments. She seemed to like Wikipedia the best. I explained the whole Wiki phenomenon. “Really?” she said, “Anybody can add whatever they know about Notre Dame?” That didn’t sit right with her. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s why you always have to double check the facts.” I’m sure I’ll be having this conversation with her again a few hundred times during her scholastic life.

We printed out a several pages of information for each monument. We read through them together and then I asked her what she thought were the key points to put in her report. She wasn’t sure. We read them again. She shrugged. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead before we meet with the others,” I said, sliding the printed pages in a folder. Then I had a beer.

Later I asked De-facto if he thought Short-pants ought to be able to read a few paragraphs and then summarize, or if I was expecting too much. “In my experience,” he said, “7-year olds usually plagiarize.”

The craft-paper is being put to use to create a large map of Paris, with its quartiers (aha!) outlined in dark ink. We used the colored cards to draw a notre_dame_pinkpicture of each monument (six in total), to be tacked on this map at the start of each oral report. Each child has composed his or her own texts to read. The teacher wrote in the initial assignment, “you may help them research, but do not do the work in their place.” That’s a tall order. I spent every evening this week nudging and prodding her along. I did my best not to help.

This morning, Short-pants was giddy. I asked her if she wanted to practice her presentation or just wing it. She wanted to test it out on us. Standing tall and straight, she held her notes in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. De-facto, who goes to Toastmasters, coached her a little about remembering to look at the audience, about timing, and how and when to pass out the photographs (downloaded from Google Images). She was receptive to his suggestions.

At the door, I buttoned her coat, and gave her a big good-luck hug.
“I’m excited,” she said, “and a little nervous.”
“Nervous is okay,” I said, repeating some advice my father gave me more than once, “it means you respect your audience.”
“Oh, I do,” she said.
Then she turned and headed down the stairs.