Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Today is the last day of school. I'll collect the girls and one of their friends from school at noon, and summer will be upon us. I've not had much to say about the Collège des Vignes, not because it hasn't been a central part of our lives, but because it's more E and G's business than it is mine. Or, to try to put it better, school has been, pour la plupart, the girls' experience, and writing about it and them has felt like an intrusion on their privacy. It's difficult enough to be 12 without your mother writing about you.

But this particular collège story is not so much about them as it is about what it's like to be their parents. C and I both carry a long string of academic accomplishments behind us, beginning with C's star turn as the Tin Man in primary school and ending with a couple of doctorates from a university that thinks pretty highly of itself. At the girls' previous school there were plenty of parents who shared our malady and we watched as they breathed down the necks of their grade-conscious sixth graders. Not us, we thought (probably a little smugly). School was an exercise in socialization more than in academics; the girls' grades were not something we followed too closely. Better they should learn to be kind and generous than that they compete overmuch with their friends on multiple-choice tests. Of course the fact that both G and E routinely brought home nearly straight A's made our laissez-faire attitude quite a bit easier.

Our hopes for the girls at the Collège des Vignes were that they not be too unhappy and that their French would progress; a friend or two would also be nice, but we did not want to tempt fate by asking too much. We resolved not to fret about grades. Over and over last summer we said: it will be hard. You will not be the best students, and that will be okay with us. It will get easier over time. Eventually the girls began to roll their eyes when we rolled out that speech. No kidding it was going to be hard.

So off they went to school, and the first weekend they were invited over to another girl's house for swimming. (Nearly everyone has a pool; it's the equivalent of air conditioning.) The weekend after, a sleepover with another new copine. Academics were tough, and we made some emergency runs to the bookstore to buy pochettes and encres, and there were some tears--on everyone's part. We were all of us disoriented. There's nothing quite like going from knowing all the ins and outs of an academic system to not being able to buy school supplies without help from the shop assistant.

By the end of the second term, the girls' grades had begun to take on a pattern. The grading system is different here. It's a 20 point scale, but the 20 point scale doesn't correlate directly to the American 100 point scale. Almost no one ever gets a 20. In fact, a 17 is considered remarkable. Anything over a 10 is not bad. So when the girls began to bring home 12s and 14s, we thought, well, they're getting the hang of it. The occasional 17 would show up and we would think: good, okay, that seems about right. Now what about that 14? Which is not to say--at least, I hope it's not to say--that we didn't praise the 14s adequately. I hope we did; I think we did.

A week or so ago the girls came home with their final report card, or bulletin. (Yes, we got their final grades a week before school was out, but the teachers continued to assign homework until yesterday. And the girls continued to do their homework.) C and I studied it--more 14s, a 17, a 15 or two, the odd 11.3--and after supper went for a walk. As we talked about the year, we realized that we had no idea how the girls were doing. In their class, there are 31 children--a lot, I know, but normal here--and we had no sense, aucune, of how the girls were doing in relationship to their classmates. Were there kids who had straight 17s? Did we need to worry about the 11.3? It was hard to hear each other speak because the academic baggage we were trailing behind us made such a racket.

The next morning I made an appointment with Miss Clavell, directrice of the International Section, and Mme Dupin, the girls' prof principal. When I went to school for the meeting it was hot, outside and in--no air conditioning and no pool--and the three of us clustered around the fan in Miss Clavell's office, pulling our skirts up above our knees to try to catch the breeze.

The teachers took out E and G's annotated bulletins, which we'll receive in the mail in a week or two. A few times a year the teachers meet and review each child's progress. They decide on the class rankings, based on each student's number grades, and write a note to the parents on the student's progress. I looked at the bulletins. G had received félicitations; E was on the tableau d'honneur. Both had been given a bravo for their progress in French. I took it in, nodded, and said, Okay.

Miss Clavell laid her hand on my arm and shook her head. No. No. This is not okay. This is super--and you have to read that in the French way, with a strong accent on the second syllable: suPER. You must understand. Only four children in the class received félicitations, and it is extraordinary, extraordinary, that G should be one of them, after only one year in French school. And E only missed it by a tenth of a point, and tableau d'honneur, only a few children received that. A bravo in French, that is excellent, excellent. They have worked very, very hard and done vachement well. You should be proud, pleine de fierté, in your girls.

Chagrined, I nodded. Of course I was proud of my girls--googly-eyed with pride is how I generally feel, completely awed and humbled that it's my task to look after these two--but I was also awash in disorientation. Félicitations just means congratulations for me, as in: oh, it's your birthday? Félicitations. Finished the kitchen remodel? Félicitations. And tableau d'honneur: just about every kid we knew in our other life made the honor roll. Yet here it clearly had a specific and special meaning. I had the impression that I could walk into any brasserie in any town in France and mention that my Anglophone daughters had received félicitations and tableau d'honneur in a French collège and the locals would nod sagely and say, Elles ont progressé très bien, Madame. Félicitations.

And bravo. I did not try to explain to mesdames that bravo is, for me, a silly word, an ironic word. It's what your pretentious colleague says when he leaps to his feet at the end of the mediocre opera. But here it had a clear, precise meaning. Some kids got a bravo, and others--at least two dozen others--didn't. I didn't understand what that meant, and I don't think it is just a matter of translating the word. You've got to figure out how to translate the culture, and I can't do that yet.

C and I knew how things worked in America. We knew how to calibrate all the honor rolls and presidential scholar certificates. We were oriented; we knew where the school compass points pointed and why. So we could luxuriate in paying attention to what we tell ourselves really matters more to us: that they grow up to be good people.

Miss Clavell and Mme Dupin weren't finished. Les filles, your daughters, they are toujours très gentils avec les autres enfants, Mme Dupin said. They look out for their friends, they are always helping them. Toujours smiling, toujours understanding and paying attention. It is lucky for us that they are here. They have des très bon coeurs.

I had planned to ask more questions, about the academic rigor of the courses, about how the system worked, about the culture of the class itself. But those questions seemed, somehow, beside the point. My girls were happy, they were kind, they were doing well. These two women were besotted with them. They said my girls had good hearts: what parent can resist that? As for the academics--well, I will probably never intutively grasp the significance of bravo, but it sounded like it was a good thing. Something to be proud of. So I said thank you, and they, being bien élévée themselves, said, Mais non, madame, merci à vous. Then we all kissed each other goodbye, and wished each other a happy summer.

This morning, while the dogs and I were on our walk, I thought about my conversation with mesdames. I don't mind most of the disorientation that comes with living in a foreign country; in fact, I like it. I like not being quite certain what the system is, and having to work at figuring it out. The satisfaction when I get it right is worth the anxiety when I get it wrong. What's so difficult about sending the girls to the Collège des Vignes is that we don't know the system, and we really don't want to get it wrong. I don't mind for myself. I've got my string of academic baggage, and whenever I need to, I can open a suitcase and pull out a degree. But my girls are children, here because C and I put them here. If we can't crack the school system, they are the ones who will suffer for it. If I think too long about it, my chest contracts and it hurts to breathe.

It seems, though, that all is well. As the dogs and I walked back down our hill this morning, I remembered the story of Doubting Thomas. In it, Thomas didn't believe his friends when they told him that Jesus was back. When everyone told him that they'd seen Jesus, Thomas probably said sarcastically, Well, bravo for you. Félicitations, and then went back to feeling disoriented and wishing he'd never left home. Thomas didn't understand, and wasn't taking anybody else's word for it. Jesus had to show up and shake hands, which is, you know, the proper French thing to do, before Thomas would believe it. I haven't shaken hands with the French system yet. I am vachement confused about the brevet and the bac levels, and I've just realized that I have no idea what courses the girls are going to take next year. Unlike Thomas, I've still got to go on faith alone. What I have seen is that my girls are in a school where they are loved, and they are thriving. I think I understand enough to say this: Bravo, mes filles.

No comments:

Post a Comment