Monday, September 24, 2007


In our area there are several international schools that are English-speaking, where the children learn a little French but receive an American or British education. Then there are French public schools: English as a second language once or twice a week. And then there are two schools that are French-based but in which the children are taught in English for about eight hours each week. We chose, after many long walks and late nights last year, to send the girls to one of these latter schools.

Our school--the College des Vignes--is a private Catholic school that is operated under contract to the state. This means that the school follows the national curriculum and approximately the national school calendar but maintains some control, exercised mostly in the admissions process. It is called a college because that is what comes after primary school in France, and before high school. The school is housed in an old perfume factory, halfway up a hill in the perfume capital of Grasse. It is less charming than it sounds--think more factory than perfume--but also reassuringly solid. The buildings are old and a little crumbling, but there are several busy women in blue pinafores who always seem to be sweeping up, and the teachers look serious and intent, and there is a gardienne who guards the gate to the school and has spiky magenta hair of a shade that I don't think you can purchase in the U.S., and she will only let the children out when she has checked their agendas and been convinced that they are finished for the day.

We did not know the girls would be in the Vignes international section until two days before school started. Miss Clavell, who heads up the international section, was concerned about the girls' level of French: she thought that it might be kinder to the girls to immerse them completely in the language so that they could learn it more quickly, and avoid the additional course load that the international section students carry. The girls wanted to be with other English-speaking children: the horror, at age 12, of having no one to sit with at lunch pretty much precludes intellectual considerations. As for us, we were just worried. Sometimes we worried about them being lost academically, sometimes about them being lost socially, sometimes about them being lost period. After a meeting between the five of us a week before school started, Miss Clavell decided that we all needed to reflect on the matter over the weekend. Two days before school started the following Thursday, we got the phone call: she had reflected, and if it was all the same to us, she thought the girls would be ready for the international section.

Much rejoicing ensued from the girls' end of the house, and we could now focus our worrying. What if there was too much schoolwork in the international section? Would we never be able to travel to Rome for the weekend? What if all the children were the scions of wealthy Brits who had moved to the South of France for shady reasons? Would this be the girls' first step on a road to a life as Eurotrash? What if they could understand no French at all, ever, and they were miserable and had to be in therapy for decades and never came home for Christmas?

The first day of school dawned. The girls were due at the College des Vignes at 8:30; we had gathered that we were to accompany them, and that the headmaster would say a few words before the children began class. We parked at the bottom of the hill and joined the families walking up the street. G. and E. immediately pointed out who the popular girls were--their social radar picked up the girls who were talking to boys. Those girls looked the same as their counterparts in the States--somehow a little more pulled together, a little more self-aware in some indefinable way. Our girls slouched a little more into their soft sweatshirts, reaching out to walk hand in hand with me and then dropping hands, trying to figure out how to be in this new place.

We found the girls' names on the class list of the international section and followed the crowd into the courtyard. In a little while the headmaster, who looks a little like Steve Martin, if Steve Martin were the head of a provincial French Catholic school, took a staticky microphone and said a few words about the beginning of the year in rapid, staticky French. Then each teacher came up and called roll, and the children came forward as their names were called. They were being sorted into classes, and instead of Gryffindor, Slytherine, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, the classes were known by letter.

The International Section was known by the letter I, and it was the last one. The courtyard gradually emptied until there were only about 30 children and their families left with a few teachers. We four could barely breathe. I thought about leaving the girls at day care for the first time when they were babies, and about putting them on the bus for kindergarten, and leaving them at camp the first time, and every time I've ever walked out of a room and hoped that while I was gone someone would be kind to them, and make sure that they were warm, fed, safe, looked after, cared for. I thought about the day we will walk away from some college dormitory. I thought about all the days in the future when I would put my girls into someone else's hands, and into their own hands, and hope for the best. And I thought that none of those days could possibly be any harder than this moment in this French courtyard right now.

Then I looked over at Miss Clavell, and she winked at me. The girls' names were called, and they walked away.

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