Thursday, October 15, 2009

Being Wrong (and Not At All Happy About It)

Back in Brooklyn, when we said we were going away to France for the year, we heard two things over and over, a chorale of feedback that I somehow managed to ignore or repress.  The refrain I heard on an endless loop was how unbelievably lucky Bill and I were to have such an incredible opportunity – that we would love France, and cherish all the time we would have to spend so much time with our girls.  

The dissonant note layered into the song was how hard it was going to be for our kids to leave home and go to a French school. 

It’s one thing to be lolling about in France, age forty.  Another to be ten, in school all day long.

Way back then, I managed to find ways to deny both of these (now obvious) truths.  I thought I was going to miss Brooklyn and my job so much I wouldn’t be able to enjoy being here.  Or maybe I was so uncomfortable hearing that slight tone of envy and anxiety in other people’s voices, and tried to wish it away. 

Conventional wisdom has never been our family’s strong suit, aside from Abigail, who has it in spades. But here I will say it, with awful chagrin: your conventional wisdom has turned out to be true, damn you all.  I love, adore, cherish, and am thriving on these moments, days, and weeks here embedded in the natural world – so far from home that home, and sewn so tightly into this one, close to my family. 

And as much as I dread the new song I am going to hear from now on (“We told you so, you idiot,”) I have to tell the rest of the truth, the unhappier part.  The girls, to put it frankly, often flat-out hate school right now, in their own individual ways.  And while I think Abigail’s going to push through it, we are holding out the possibility that we might eventually be in for a change for Grace.

Today, after almost two weeks of misery, she played with the popular little girl who also speaks English, and even gave her a little present.  But not all of our days are so sanguine, and the day started in tears.  I would like to imagine that good days are the shape of what is to come, but I know that they may not last. 

You may have been reading between the lines, as hesitant as I have been to write about this directly.  But we are finding that it is proving so much harder than we had thought for them to speak French and to break into the tight social world of a small town in a foreign language.  We have made it harder for the girls by not insisting forcefully enough on their learning French in advance, and now I feel I squandered and wasted all the time this summer when they could have been doing so.

But what is worst, the children (and parents) of this small rural town have hardly embraced us, or them, and we haven’t exactly figured out how to reach out and improve the situation either.  Our usual bag of tricks, honed back home, don’t work here in a new place.

Things were pretty great to start with.  We had one first day of fear at the portail, followed by several weeks of relief and ease when Grace was immediately pulled into a little girl clique, despite having no French at her disposal.  There were two other children in her class who spoke English, and the principal pledged that they would help her out.  He insisted that they would be just fine, learning French quickly and with the generous help of the French government providing regular instruction.  Her teacher at first seemed pleasantly aloof, the kind of guy who stand around gazing benevolently while she got into the swing of things. 

It took Abigail a few more days to get with the program, but she quickly turned to her strengths (tag, mostly) to engage kids to play with at recess.  She has since employed her practical wisdom in the classroom as well, learning to sit next to our landlord’s son, an incredibly sweet boy who speaks English, and to copy everything he does.  When one boy picked on her, she fretted for a day and a half, then took care of him as swiftly and silently as Tony Soprano.  Her teacher speaks a little English with her, just enough to help her to figure out what to do, and clearly takes an interest in what Abby is learning.  Abigail’s starting to be able to pronounce French nicely when she reads.  Some days she even runs ahead to school to get a chance to be independent and strong. 

But in the last few weeks, the bloom is well off the rose, most obviously with Grace.  First the bossy girl who adopted her early on lost interest in playing with her and skipped off to other pleasures.  Then we missed the grade parent night, our only apparent opportunity to hear directly from her teacher.  (This was not sloppiness on our part, I promise you:  there was literally no official communication from the school on this one.  None.  Grace wrote “V” in her book for the date (who schedules a meeting for Friday???) but since she didn’t know what it meant, we didn’t either.) 

We found that we could never understand Grace’s homework, once the teacher stopped sending home plain old worksheets.  We also didn’t understand that the list of art supplies the teacher sent home was something for us to buy for her (as the Mairie had promised we wouldn’t need to do so) so she spent the day she could have been painting sitting still and watching.  Perhaps it was just as well, because that day her teacher ripped up the painting of another child when it displeased him.  

Art is treated with enormous reverence back home, at our old school, and Grace’s art teachers have long been her idols and gurus; the shock and contrast of somebody ripping up a child’s work was a little too much for her.  So the whole “old school” approach went overnight from being a curiosity to being just plain scary.

Additionally, Grace has never been able to bear the sound of other people coughing, her particular pet peeve.  For you, that pet peeve might be nails on a chalkboard, or cat posters, or overpowering cologne.  For Grace, it’s cold season.  So once she realized that she not only couldn’t understand any French, and no children would be willing to translate it for her or let her even see their work, she spent all of her time in class hearing only the sound of a little boy’s hacking bronchitis.  Instead of seating her next to a kid who could speak English and translate for her, they seem to have seated her next to some sort of eleven-year-old tuberculosis patient.

The French lessons that were promised have turned out to be just great, but as they started late and happen only once a week, the girls have had only a total of three so far.  The magic of foreign language immersion has yet to take hold.

But perhaps the worst thing, the possible nail in the coffin of Grace’s adjustment to school, happened when the one little girl with whom she had played for several weeks, and on whom she had pinned most of her hopes, dropped her as well, in just the sort of painful way that children (and grownups) across the globe do to one another.  She not only cast her off, but did it with that crossed armed finger waggle that we all have come to dread.  And suddenly, there she was sitting alone in the schoolyard, left wholly out of the loop.  I can’t be sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that she didn’t understand enough French ever to have any idea why. 

So here we are, the beneficiaries and victims of our grand plan, coming face to face with every single shoulda coulda woulda we heard and managed to ignore.  We shoulda chosen a bigger town.  We shoulda found a bilingual school.  We coulda pushed the French so much harder.  We woulda (if we coulda) figured out how to set up opportunities for the girls to play outside of school with other kids in their classes.   We shoulda realized that with all of the pleasures of being together as a little family unit all the time would come the social isolation of being together as a little family unit, all the time.  We coulda realized that the portail, the language barrier, and old-school French formality not only limits our ability to shape her school experience in any way at all, but prevents us from really knowing what goes on there for her.

Or, to listen to Abigail, we just never shoulda come here at all.  Just as I am finally reconciled to all of the losses we forced on ourselves in the spring (our Adirondacks house, our Brooklyn house, my job, the kids’ incredible school and their attentive and gifted teachers) and have figured out how to stay in touch with my friends, she is suddenly mourning all of it. Why did we sell the Adirondacks house?  Why did I give up my job?  She misses her school, her friends, her favorite teachers.  She is notlearning French, she insists, despite steady evidence to the contrary. 

For Grace it is even worse.  A lot of days she simply doesn’t want to go to school, or can’t get herself back there in the afternoon.  At all, despite our forceful and supportive efforts.   The boys throw erasers, and maybe even little rocks, when the teachers aren’t looking.  We never know what the homework is.  She is so busy holding it all together that not a word of French seems to be getting through all the blah blah rip-up-that-painting blah.  And when you sit alone in the schoolyard at recess, you might as well be in a jailyard. 

So we’re at a turning point.  When we came here, we told ourselves that we had just a few goals:  the kids would learn French.  They would each make just one friend.  Their math skills would not dissolve and dissipate, because we would work on that at home.   But while Abigail seems to be on her way with both French and friendship, it might be time for a change of direction for Grace.  While it’s not yet time for the quatrieme sortie and packing up to head home, I can’t see that we’ll keep going straight ahead either.

To be fair, today was a fantastic day.  We complained to the principal about the boys who were throwing erasers and little pebbles at Grace, and he seems to have convinced everyone to be extra-super nice to her.  She cried bitterly this morning, but before Bill and I had walked away from the schoolyard, she was already playing hopscotch.  She had all sorts of tales to tell us about her new friendships, and Abigail has pledged to beat the stuffing out of anyone who bothers her big sister. 

I would like to imagine that this is the roadmap for what is to come.  But up ahead, I see a familiar sign, marking a roundabout with roads leading off in different directions.  Straight ahead is stay in school, limp along, hope and pray that things stay more comfortable, and help her along the best we can.  Appeal to the principal when things get tough, and give her lots of candy and hugs at the end of each day. 

There have been years of our own lives, even as adults, when each of us has had to do just that, and we did our best to help each other through.  But we always had so many more resources available to us for those years when things just couldn’t go right.  Here, we are the resources.  Poor girl.

So off to the left is the turn we always talked about but didn’t think we would take:  bringing her back home for school.   Yes, that school: homeschool.  We would still be required to teach the French curriculum, and she would somehow still have to learn the language and make a friend.  She has already made several friends this year, just none yet her age.  But if I pull her out of a class that is clearly a terrible fit, she might learn a lot more, as she will no longer have to cry and freeze up as I force her back into the pointless exercise of listening only to other children coughing all morning. 

I am sure that if and when I post this, I will hear from you: with pity, well-meaning concern, or those dreaded I told you so-s.  Better yet, if you’ve got a few I told you so’s, enjoy the small pleasures of keeping them to yourself.  Or just head somewhere to gossip about your crazy friends Bill and Launa, and how people get what they deserve.  We’ve got enough chagrin and guilt here to last us awhile. 

Still, we are all hearty little travelers; don't lose sleep on our behalf, because we are learning how to grow stronger rather than crumble and fold as we face the world's challenges.  Stay tuned for news of which road we all take, and how exactly we will get to where we are heading. t 


  1. I am saddened to read that things are hitting a snag in some areas of your experience there. But I see so much good coming out of this particular schooling situation.

    I am a homeschooling mother, Launa. My almost 16 year old daughter, who would be a junior in high school, has never gone to school - except for a couple of photography classes and two summer school classes on writing. My 13 year old son spent sixth grade at a local Christian school and then decided he wanted to come back home. Otherwise, they have always been at home with me, all three of us learning together.

    So I am a HUGE supporter of homeschooling Grace. Let her learn with and from you and your friends. Let her learn to cook and paint and take photographs and journal and everything else she can - in French where possible, in English, and always growing in love for this amazing experience you have offered to her. You can let her take private French lessons two or three times per week. The stories you have written of reading to each other, your great library at home, the shops and markets in town, and the adventures you go on to buy your food - what better learning experience can there be? Let her order the meat at the supermarket and the bread and your morning coffee in French. Let her decide on weekly "field trips" you can go on together and let her figure out how to read maps and deal with the GPS in the car... my head and heart are overflowing with joy over this opportunity that you have to bond with your daughter in this special way in that amazing place.

    As for Abigail, you go girl!!! Show those arm-crossing, finger-wagging kids that you are there to stay!!! That is your school as well. Live it fully and enjoy every moment.

    As each of them has her own experience, celebrate with them. Listen to their stories. Wipe their tears. Laugh with them. Cry with them. And stay the course. At the end of this year, you will all be enormously proud of the way that you adapted yourselves to this new way of life and adapted this new way of life to who you are, as individuals and as a family.

    (Can you tell that I LOVE homeschooling and helping each child have her own learning experience?)

    What a great year is still to come, dear Launa. I believe it with all my heart.

  2. Do you remember the falling water you wouldn't let us cross with our children this summer?
    Well you are in that raging river right now, all four of you holding hands. Each of you searches for the secure rock to place your foot to maintain your balance. The rocks you choose may be different. One of you picks the solid flat dry rock, one of you moves swiftly to the narrow wet and slippery rock, one of you moves to the peaked rock just above water, and the last does just fine on the stable flat rocks under water.
    Rock by rock hand -in- hand you'll all make it safely to the trail on the other side to continue on your journey.