Saturday, September 12, 2009

French Lessons

(Today I have two entries for you, having missed posting yesterday. And this one has a special bonus in the form of an interview with the elusive Mr. Bill Lienhard.)

On Tuesday, Grace emerged from school with a phrase that struck fear into my heart: "The Principal wants to see us all tomorrow." She didn't know why, and she didn't know the hour, but according to her, he told her both in French and in English, and the meeting was very important. The next day was to be Mercredi de Trop, Mercredi Libre, our fun weekday off, and I loathed the idea of being called on the carpet and missing the market-and-picnic day we had planned.

You know how some people have authority issues? Like they meet an authority figure and they really need to tear him or her down in the cruelest and most puerile way? Well, I have the opposite of that. I've never met an authority figure I didn't wish (OK, need) to impress, even when I know full well that he or she isn't worth the effort. It's like a sickness, and recognizing it hasn't helped me much in combating it. Luckily, as the head of lower school, I have had only my own fickle self to impress in a school context for the past five years. So when Mr. Principal called us in, my stomach sank and I called my own self to task first.

My first impulse, of course, was to assume that we had misinterpreted the acceptability of our laissez-faire approach. I had been utterly mistaken, and the girls actually weren't OK. In fact, they were either discipline problems or being perceived as complete dunces for their lack of ability to speak French. "I am so sorry, Madame," I imagined him intoning, shaking his head slowly from side to side, "But zis is not going to work in the way zat I had planned." I don't know why I imagined him speaking English, since he doesn't. I entertained these sorts of fears all the way home in the car as Abigail sang John Denver songs, inserting potty talk words in new places in the lyrics.

Of course when I got home and opened his letter, his request was benign, sensible, and totally welcome. He wished to see us at 15:00 on Vendredi, not Wednesday, to meet the teacher who specializes in teaching French to non-francophones. At first I wondered if he were introducing the teacher to me and Bill to work on our French, then I remembered, with even more intense relief: this is France, and my child's education is just so not about me. I was in fact sort of honored that we were being invited to meet this wonderful teacher who would help the girls unlock meaning from all the blah blah blah.

Since Grace wasn't feeling well on Friday, I stayed home with her while the family language whiz went in to speak with the Principal. So to provide you with the following account I will interview Mr. William G. Lienhard, who has been otherwise deprived by this blog of his ability to tell you all his own versions of our stories.

When I interviewed Mr. Lienhard, it was early Saturday morning, and he was lying prone under the covers of our bed, dressed comme d'habitude in his best ripped t-shirt. The following is his voice, with my occasional commentary.

Bill: It all started with a note written in perfect connected print in Grace's Carnet de Liason. Actually, it was not a note, but a question and a perfectly generous welcome. "Would you please come into the office at 3:00 on Friday for a meeting to meet Grace and Abigail's new French teacher?"

Nonetheless, as I walked up the medieval streets, I noticed that I was so nervous that the bottoms of my feet were sweaty. I thought for the first time in months that perhaps I should be wearing socks, and real shoes. I wasn't sure if it were a sort of business meeting, but then I figured that given our previous experience, M. le Director might show up his biking shorts and a t-shirt with writing on it.

As I passed through le portail, I experienced something like what Grace and Abigail feel every day. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand anybody, and I was also worried that groups of little boys would make fun of me, since this is something that has happened in every culture I have visited: Guatemala; Russia; Spain; Warner, New Hampshire. There always seem to be groups of dirty little boys who are hanging around, waiting to ape me and point at me and laugh and make obscene gestures.

I was also dreading the lecture I thought was coming my way: why are you freeloaders dumping your non-French speaking kids into our system?

Of course, none of this came true. Once past the portail and in the inner sanctum of the school, I did see some children, but they were playing an orderly game of Canard, Canard, Oie, (Duck, Duck, Goose) in the French version of P.E. There was a very kindly woman standing in the door of the Principal's office, and she was actively SMILING at me. This fit my baguette theory about French social life: when you're on the hard and crusty outside, no smiles for you. But once you break through and are welcomed inside, it's all warm, mushy, and nourishing, with lots of smiles and hugs and bisous.

I went over to talk to her, and she welcomed me by name before I could open my mouth, "You must be M. Lienhard." She wasn't the French teacher, but she was from the Conseil General du Var. This cheered me, as only good things come from the Conseil, which is basically equivalent to a county authority in the U.S. Unlike back at home, if it's coming from the county, it's invariably of the highest quality. I immediately started pumping her for information. She got a little nervous under my scrutiny. I realized in the middle of the conversation that she wasn't that interested in talking to me, as I seemed to have interrupting one of those great 20-minute reveries people in France seem to enjoy so much. I experimented with falling silent for a moment, and she seemed perfectly content to stare into the middle distance.

I've realized that nobody has these little reveries in the United States. If you did, someone would come over to you and ask, "Sir, can I help you? Are you lost? Are you having a stroke?"

While I was conducting my experiment to see how long we could keep silent, and she was continuing her daydreaming, in walked a gorgeous young mother with perfect posture and long jet black hair done up in an intentionally messy updo. She had beautiful eyes, this woman, big blue eyes. She was also bringing this really cute 4-year-old guy with her, who was kind of sniffling into a handkerchief.

My first thought was, so much for my 3:00 PM meeting. I'm going to have to wait. There's no way that the director would see me first instead of this lady.

Launa: Was it because she was so gorgeous that you thought he would ignore you, or because you thought the kid had swine flu?

Bill: Oh, that's exactly what I thought: the kid has H1N1, and she's bringing him in to ask the Principal what to do. I imagined the swine swat team swooping down on the school to take it over, and immediately started planning our two-week vacation.

But instead, just like the nice lady from the County, she turned to me and said, "Mr. Lienhard, it's very nice to meet you," without saying her name. I realized that if this exchange followed previous patterns, I might not get her name until long into the conversation. She said, "Shall we begin?" but I still wasn't sure what exactly would start.

Then she explained that she was the French teacher, there to discuss Abigail and Grace's lessons. She led me to one of the school bungalows. This really satisfied my curiosity, because I'm starting to get obsessed with getting inside the buildings of Aups. Nearly everything takes place outside, or just on the external steps of the buildings. Now, I was finally being invited indoors. Squishy mushy baguette time, Baby.

She began her professional spiel with her perfectly cute, polite 4-year old sitting quietly next to her, sniffling now and again. The first part of the spiel was a long defense of why we should allow the school to provide Grace and Abigail with intensive, free language instruction. I said "D'Accord," and "Je comprend," several times to indicate to her that we were in heated agreement. I thought she understood, then the Principal came bouncing in (as I had expected, wearing his bike shorts and t-shirt.)

He and the French teacher smiled and gave each other big bisous: not the air kissy kind. The kind where you plant a wet one on the other person's cheek. I immediately started thinking I might get my own bisous at the end of the conversation.

Then the two started tag-teaming me again to convince me again about the free, high-quality French instruction. I shot out more "Pas de problems," and "Oui's" and finally said, "I completely understand. I WANT Grace and Abigail to have free, excellent French instruction. NO further explanation is needed."

After one or two more further attempts, they accepted my acceptance. I thought that was the end of the meeting. The director had already explained to me two weeks ago that we might need to take the girls to another town for these French classes, which seemed perfectly fair -- in fact, unfair to the French government, who is providing all this great stuff to us for free.

But the next part was a long argument, full of apologies, about why Audré (I finally got the name of the French teacher) would not be able to come to our school or to our house personally, and take them thirty minutes away to give them this free intensive instruction, and would we possibly mind driving them there ourselves.

Once again, it took a lot of d'accord and oui and je comprends, until I explained in full: "My wife and I both grew up in the country and attended public schools. We are not working this year. We have nothing else to do, and do not mind driving our children to intensive French classes. In fact, we are quite grateful for the opportunity."

At that point, they pulled out a document that I was to sign to release Audré from her duty to drive the only two students in Aups to their lessons. While I assured the teacher I understood what I was reading, she read the entire document to me slowly in perfectly accented Parisian French, with many patient hand gestures.

Launa: Are we getting to the kissing part soon?

Bill: No. Well just about. After the document was read and signed, they seemed ready to end the meeting. But I decided to fish for some private lessons from Audré. I said, "You know, I need lessons myself. Private lessons that I can pay for. So does my wife." They looked a little puzzled, and I said, "You know, somebody to practice with, to talk to…" Spending even more time with Audré seemed like a great idea.

Audré really didn't catch my drift, but they both said they would talk to their teams and get back to me. Audré gave me her personal telephone number, so I could call her in case Grace and Abigail got sick and would miss classes. She was clear, however, that this phone number was not to be distributed to "other foreigners" under any circumstances. Apparently only I was to be allowed into the inner circle, not all my weird foreign comrades.

The whole adventure just confirmed a theory I have had about France: if it is something you need (speaking the language, medication, fruits and vegetables, water, wine) it's going to be nearly free, and provided to you in an attractive manner by a professional, well educated, highly-trained person. Sometimes even with kisses.

They stood up, and first the director got the bisous -- the real, wet bisous. I leaned in for my kiss, but got the hand stuck out to stop me, and a nice firm handshake. I decided to be grateful that I had managed to get her phone number.

1 comment: