Monday, March 15, 2010

My Child is an Honor Student at Aups Elementary School

In case you were wondering, parents here in rural France do not put bumper stickers on their cars that advertise their children's scholastic progress. There is no PTA (at least as far as I have been able to discern), no weekly parent bulletin, and no individual parent-teacher conferences. No "volunteer opportunities." The portail holds firm. This tall green mechanized gate that swings open and shut twice a day is a clear dividing line: school on one side, and family on the other.

One or two teachers do stand outside the portail to have a cigarette with a select few parents they have deemed worthy. For awhile in the fall, I tried engaging some of those parents in conversation, and tried saying bonjours to the smoking teacher. But when the gathered adults started up with just a tiny hint of gossipy complaining about one of the students, I saw the group for what it was. I have an almost allergic reaction to hearing any adult demonize another person's child. So I quickly gave up on becoming one of the ones lucky enough to be gossiped with over the teacher's Marlboro light. Now I know my place, and wait far away from le portail, just near enough so that Abigail can find me when she walks out onto the street.

I've also struck out in my attempts to try to learn about the school by talking to my own daughter. As a parent of a child who is not particularly inclined to share details of her school day under normal circumstances, I often go for weeks without any real sense of what she's been up to. And since Abigail still doesn't fully comprehend the language, even after seven months of school, she herself has hardly any idea what is going on in class. The entire enterprise is more than a little opaque.

When we arrived here as a family, planning to send our kids to this small public school, I knew full well that school would be very different from what we had left behind. I knew that nobody here would speak English -- with the kids or with me. I knew French families were tight-knit, and therefore often closed to outsiders; and I recognized full well that we had compounded the effect of that insularity by choosing to live in a tiny town without any other Americans. We knew that -- unlike in America -- parents in France have not battered down the schoolyard gates, expecting and even demanding access and information about every aspect of their children's school lives. We knew all this, and chose this life for ourselves and our kids: both despite and because.

I knew all the risks, but also recognized that there would be a good side to all of this distance between home and school. Part of me had been utterly exhausted by having my professional and personal lives so deeply intertwined, and I fantasized about a return to the Bad Old Good Old Days of Yore, when parents knew zip about school. We wanted the benefit of being in a place where we couldn't easily escape into English all the time. We wanted to be thrown together as a family. We wanted a different kind of challenge for our kids and for ourselves. (And we wanted it with good weather and even better food.)

But as you might imagine, I'm more conflicted about the difficult parts of all this than I had hoped I would be. Perhaps Bill and the kids should all start wearing t-shirts reading, "I'm with Conflicted."

Back home, the girls attended a school I knew inside and out, believed in, and even loved. Although neither of them was ever particularly forthcoming about the details of their days, as the head of their school, I had plenty of ways of knowing how things were going. For one thing, if I wanted to know what they had done on a given day, I could just reach in my desk and read their classroom schedule -- but really I already had a pretty good sense of it in my head, as I had created the darn thing myself. I could stop by Abigail's classroom almost any time of the day, as long as I was ready to submit to one of her gargantuan hugs, and thought that wouldn't too badly interrupt things in the room. I could stop in to sit near the kids in the lunchroom. I could spy out the window during recess.

So when it came to feeding my own parental curiosity/anxiety, it was always an issue of managing way too much access, rather than not having enough. I'm sure some of the teachers and other parents thought I was way too over-involved and intrusive, while others thought me too neglectful and hands-off. Being both the boss and a mom in the same school, I almost couldn't help drawing everyone else's critiques on the topic of my own flawed parenting. But since I quickly realized that whatever I did would draw simultaneous forms of opposed criticism, (always too much; never enough) I tried my best to try to strike a balance of involvement that would honor the teachers' expertise and be healthy for my growing girls.

Who knows whether I ever managed to do so. At work and at home, I could only do my best.

But even had I not been there at school all the time, with such extraordinary access, I would have had plenty of ways to know what was the what. There were classroom newsletters a few times a month, regular notices home from the main office, plenty of paper and electronic communications from and meetings with the parents' association. There were formal school social events, concerts and curriculum nights. There was also a circuit of kids' birthday parties just about once a week, at which the parents would all stand around and talk (usually about school!) for two hours while the kids bowled or made pottery or ran around Chuck E Cheese like hooligans.

In addition to all of this hefty communication, every single family in the school was asked to sit down at least twice a year with their children's teachers for half-hour formal conferences, and then were mailed reports detailing every aspect of their children's academic, social, and emotional development. And believe me, they were detailed. Because I read every page for every kid, three times a year.

But here? Abigail was invited to precisely one other child's birthday party. We heard about it from the boy's incredibly sweet mother, our neighbor, late in the week, but it happened to be on a Sunday in September we had planned to be out of town. Since then, nothing. I still have not had the privilege of hearing a full sentence spoken by her teacher, or of seeing her classroom. By way of paper communications, I got a Xeroxed notice once -- on the topic of how to treat head lice. We were happily nit-free, but I have saved it as a souvenir. There is no school website to check, nothing beyond a tiny bulletin board at le portail that reminds us when all the many school vacations start and end.

On the day before winter break, the school sent home a lengthy government-printed report card, a list of all of the skills that Abigail was to have acquired during her hours at school. The teacher had left the entire document blank, aside from two sentences in a tiny comment window. She wrote only that it was not possible to evaluate Abigail, as she remained silent in class and had not integrated herself into the classroom community.

That particular day I was not conflicted. Instead, I was so angry I cried. After how hard this all was for my kid, after how hard she had tried, she got two paltry sentences? She could only do her best, but her best was not good enough.

But then I remembered. We're guests here, the beneficiaries of someone else's school system, someone else's educational philosophy. This is France, so the school is not really set up to reach out to foreigners. Rather, it's set up to make children into French citizens, a task it takes seriously and does effectively. It is certainly not set up for me or for my benefit, or to earn my approval.

There will be no bumper stickers, no warm fuzzy conversation with the teachers, and no PTA. Get used to it, Madame.

I would like to be a bigger person. I would like to have the wisdom to figure out how to make this all work better. I would like to be Julia Child, just throwing herself at France with her enormous besotted enthusiasm, charming everyone by being herself so completely charmed. I ask myself, again and again, What Would Julia Do? I would like to have figured out how to help Abigail be successful, even popular. I would like her to like it here.

This all still escapes me. So rather than having things be great, or beating myself up for never being Julia, I've learned to settle for things being pretty much fine, and for noticing the ways in which Abigail is growing, because of and despite how different things are here.

She kicks and screams on Monday mornings, angry and miserable that she has to go to school. On these occasions I remind her, and remind myself, that she is not the only child -- either here or back at the school she can't wait to rejoin -- who doesn't like Mondays. But she's fine once she gets out the door, and by lunchtime she's back to her usual equilibrium, skipping down the lane and back.

She copies all her answers from whatever child has been unlucky enough to be seated next to her. She doesn't know what she's writing, but it has been terrific practice for her cursive handwriting. The teacher must have picked a smart child to sit by the American kid, as Abigail's answers on the worksheets and in her cahiers are pretty consistently correct. Plus, since she's been in class all year with students learning to read aloud, she can pronounce just about any French word more perfectly than I ever will. (Teachers these days call this skill "decoding," although when we were kids they called it "sounding out.") While she's still damn near mystified by almost any spoken French she hears, it's a pretty cool party trick for her to roll those r's and correct her parents' pronunciation.

We take her to French classes in a neighboring town once a week at the behest of the French educational authorities. I am assuming this is a useful activity. But since she refuses to tell us anything she does there (aside from being allowed to draw flowers on the blackboard with Fatima, the girl from Spain) I have no earthly idea.

Once we drove the half hour to Lorgues and dropped her off, having stupidly missed a telephone message from her French teacher that she would not be able to teach the class that day. The French seem not to have heard of substitute teachers, at least not in this small town; when the teacher isn't around on a given day, parents can just take their kids home. Any students who remain are farmed out to other teachers, and spend the day completing worksheets, or doing elaborate coloring projects.

The day we missed her teacher's call, Abigail stood there in the schoolyard until she realized that her teacher was not coming to retrieve her. In a panic entirely uncharacteristic of her, she then burst into hard sobs. This drew the attention of another teacher, who also made the uncharacteristic move of asking her if she were OK, and then inviting her into her classroom for the morning.

The school didn't call us. Either they assumed we didn't care, or figured we just didn't need to know that Abigail was spending the morning sitting in a random classroom for no particular reason. She spent the morning coloring, and proudly showed us her creations when we arrived to get her. After those few awful moments, I think she had a day that was slightly better than usual. "The teacher there spoke English," she told me, pleased and gratified. "She was very nice to me," she added, as though this had been a welcome surprise.

Generally, Abigail deals with the troubles of the world, and of the schoolyard, with a steely sort of privacy and unshakeability, flashing a little anger now and then, but only showing any trace of the intensity of her emotions when she is back home with us. But the traces are rare and oblique indeed. Once, when she was barely three years old, she fell off the jungle gym at school and broke both of the bones in her right shin. She cried like crazy just until I got her in the car, at which point she fell sound asleep. She woke up at the hospital completely silent.

After that point, she treated her broken leg as though it were a regrettable inconvenience. If somebody asked her about it, she was liable just to turn her head away, as though she were a queen being asked about something distasteful and beneath her notice, like flatulence or warts. She seemed simply to prefer to pretend that the large purple cast, immobilizing her from ankle to hip, did not exist.

For awhile, it seemed that Abigail would spend the year treating all of France as though it were that large purple cast. She wasn't going to kick and scream about her distress in public, and she wouldn't be caught dead misbehaving in class, but she was not about to let herself make the number of mistakes she would need to make in order to learn to speak.

It's clear to me what I could have, should have, and would have done had I known earlier what I have learned now. First, I would never have told her how quickly she would learn French. Pretty much every adult (including her parents) who had talked to her before our trip had promised her that it would come easily to her, that she would start to understand and speak almost effortlessly. When this didn't happen as quickly or as magically as she had been promised, when she went months in the schoolyard without really making a single friend, she just seemed to decide to hunker down to wait it all out.

In the meantime, almost despite how hard school feels to her, she is learning a ton, but she's just too darn ornery to admit it to herself. Or perhaps she's too much of a perfectionist. She learned the names of the numbers almost immediately, and while she still can't fathom "the weird way they add and subtract here," she came home and asked us to show her how to regroup tens and ones so that she could do the harder math problems of second grade. Now, she raises her hand to answer math questions nearly every day, and has even learned to multiply big numbers, like seventy two times six.

The other day I was shocked to overhear her singing a little tune in French, and asked her about whether she had had a music class. No such luck -- aside from a video about jazz that the class watched back in December, the teacher has stuck tight to reading, writing, verb conjugation and mathematics. Her French teacher in Lorgues had taught her the song.

And that French, that so bedevils us both? Well, despite her protestations, despite the way she still frowns and cringes when I speak to her in French, she usually seems to catch what I have said. She's trying her best to keep this hidden from us, but if I'm crafty, I can catch her understanding more than she will let on.

And then there was The Great Week. The week when I would have gotten my bumper sticker, if the school had had one to give me. It happened a few weeks ago, maybe mid-February. Abigail had just started in on a binge of serious hand-raising in class. I am embarrassed to admit that this was initially inspired by Bill's having bribed her to do so with the promise of Euros she could spend at the candy store. But with parenting, particularly when you've got kids as stubborn and unique as ours are, you've got to go with whatever works. She was still only willing to say numbers, but that still gave her plenty of opportunities to rack up the big bucks.

She had also seemed that week to have made a real friend. She and Claire had started playing during recess a few weeks before, little pretend games that did not require a whole lot of speech. Abigail had initially won her over when she started to bring a shiny purse to school each day (thanks, Zaro), full of markers and coins and little plastic toys from her room. Sometimes she brought the catalogue from the American Girl Store, which drew the other little girls like honey. These were dangerous gambits, for sure, as she had to weigh the social clout she could gain with her little trinkets against the serious likelihood that they would be broken or end up in someone else's pocket. It took me rather longer than it should have to allow her to take anything at all -- I had so fully imbibed our old school's attitude towards kids' bringing extra crap from home. But once I realized that all her tchochkes were helping her connect to the other girls in her class, I almost packed the bag for her.

We asked, all fall, who she would like to have come over and play. The answer, week after week, was "nobody." She really enjoyed playing with Jessica and Gerard's kids, and with the sweet boy who lives next door, but she couldn't make a new friend in school. Maybe she had a clear and realistic sense of her social position, and thus knew better than to be rejected. Perhaps she had simply had had enough of being yammered at in words she couldn't understand, and didn't want that to continue at home. She had met a younger British girl at the French class in Lorgues, when she had to go on a different day, and we invited her and her family over one afternoon. The kids all seemed to have a good time, and we all promised we would do it again, soon, but then the mother never called us back.

So when she mentioned Claire, several times over two weeks, saying that she was "fun, and wild and crazy just like me," Bill and I asked her if she would like Claire to come and play. She would, and so Bill wrote a note for Claire to give to her mom. She would come over after school for an hour and a half or so on Friday.

That was The Great Week. All week, we all looked forward to Friday. Emboldened by her success, Abigail even played with the boy next door a few times, asking if she could go ride her bike with him.

On Friday, when she came over to play, the little girl turned out to be incredibly sweet, and clearly really smart. She -- like all the French kids I have met -- was incredibly polite with Bill and me, and seemed to enjoy talking to us as much as she enjoyed playing with Abigail. The girls played dress up, and carted around the American Girl dolls. Abigail took her up to her room, and they played some tinny-sounding music on the ipod.

And then, as the girls were sharing an afternoon snack in the kitchen, Claire proudly told us that Abigail had -- just that day -- received the class's weekly honor of Felicitations ("Congratulations.")

Jessica had told me about this tradition of weekly Felicitations -- essentially, one child per week in this class was singled out and congratulated for some sort of meritorious conduct or academic achievement. There was of course the opposite possibility as well -- kids could be called out in front of the class for doing something bad. It struck me as stingy just to congratulate only one kid per week, and mean to correct a little kid in front of his or her whole class. But there I go again with my weird American expectations about the educational process.

You would think that Abigail might have mentioned the Felicitations herself, not waited for Claire to tell us that she had been publicly congratulated for her progress in school. That, in essence, she was that week's honor student in the Aups Elementary School's second grade class.

But when you're as self-contained as my little girl, it's not just the bad stuff that stays locked down tight. Apparently, the good stuff is also a big fat secret. As Claire filled us in, Abigail just looked down, and off to the side, as though averting her eyes from the large purple cast of her own achievement. But I could see a tiny smile playing at the side of her mouth. While she was not about to admit it, she was proud underneath her embarrassment.

That was the best moment ever of The Great Week.

But then Monday came, and the next week rolled our way. Bill teased Abigail sweetly that maybe she would be the first student ever to get Felicitations twice in a row. Claire's mom had been super friendly when Bill dropped Claire off at the end of their playtime, and she promised us that she'd call and have Abigail over. But something must have gone wrong, something none of us could see or understand. Abigail didn't mention it at first, but when we asked how things were with Claire, she told us that Claire had started spending recess playing with her other friends. This was OK with her, she said. She understood, and just went back to her former habit of privacy and containment within herself.

As did I.

The easiest way to look at this whole thing would be to tell myself a simple story: my school was great, and our kids were always happier there. But really what I'm dealing with -- what we're all dealing with -- is the fact that this is still just so astonishingly different. It's not about better and worse, but about a lifetime of cultural expectations so ingrained that I am only seeing them now -- raised in the harsh relief of feeling myself and my kids being so very out of place. In school, for God's sake -- the place I've always felt so at home.

That portail is not just out there, green and forbidding. There's also a portail in my mind, dividing me from here. To say that the portail is in my own mind is not to say that it's imaginary or unimportant, but rather to recognize that part of what makes this so hard is a lifetime of expectations shaped by my experiences back home.

When we moved here, we moved with deep and powerful cultural expectations about how people behave. About schools. About friendships. About how and when you smile, and who gets kissed and when. Even if the language barrier were to fall -- magically and fast -- the cultural ones would remain, ones it could take a lifetime for us really to comprehend.

We don't have a lifetime. We don't really have more than a last few months here, as I'm on the cusp of buying our return tickets for the middle of June. What Would Julia Do?, I still wonder, as though seven months were enough to help me figure out how to embrace a place that so resolutely resists my affections.

My American mind gets in on the wondering as well, wondering what it would take for me to overcome my own confusion in order to be more usefully intrusive on Abigail's behalf. Now that I have learned to hold my face stern and unsmiling, what would it take to loosen it back up, to call Claire's mom and see if we all might try again? Even as I ask these questions, I realize that the only sane response is to fall in with the French parents, and stop worrying so much about what happens behind the green gate. It's none of my damn business.

I curse my own hungry need to know, my insatiable curiosity/anxiety. It's always too much; it's never enough. I try my best, but I can't just let go.


  1. Hey Launa, Tony Asdourian here. You probably don't remember me; I taught at Poly for 3 years from 2000-2003. You were part-time then, and I talked to you occasionally in the lunch room , where you were entertainingly alternately bitter and funny, and you told stories of Chris Lehane as well.

    Great to read your blog. Very honest and interesting stuff; I have a 10 year old with my wife Susan, and know exactly what you mean. I was actually born in France, but left at 6 months, so I have no way of confirming(!) your insights on that front, but they sure are fun to read.

    Take care!


  2. Again, a lovely piece, Launa. You are so very insightful and thoughtful and willing to take all the time it takes to get to know and love and support your children. They are so very blessed to have you as their mother.

    Abigail is quite the brave girl. Strong. Determined. Being closed-lipped will continue to serve her well, I imagine. Congrats to her for her accomplishments beyond le portail.

    And to you for remaining behind it.

  3. Maybe you are a lot like Abigail?
    Why don't you try again.
    What do you have to lose?

  4. Better said-maybe Abligail is a lot like you?