Monday, November 17, 2008

Civics lesson

So yesterday afternoon it was time to help the girls with their homework. C and I had spent the morning in an olive tree--this one was big enough and roomy enough for both of us to climb, so that we could harvest the olives from the inside branches of the tree instead of standing on the ground and whacking at the branches with bamboo stakes--and I was sitting at the table on the terrace separating olives from leaves and twigs. E and G appeared with their civics lesson.

At our house I am the designated humanities and social sciences tutor, while C handles science and math. I pretty much surrendered my math credibility the night that I assured the girls that long division was something that, once they finished school, they would never need to know again, and C, at his end of the table, said, actually, he used long division every day. (I'm still not sure I believe him.) That conversation happened when the girls were in third or fourth grade, and since then, I've stuck to my strengths. I mean, which is more useful, really, long division or being able to explain the Reformation? I find that the latter comes up in conversation all the time.

But I digress. The girls had told me that they were learning about analyzing documents in their civics class at school. They clearly found it a little mystifying--while they are pretty good at sorting out literary texts, working with nonfiction documents can feel like a different ballgame. They brought their textbook out to the terrace and showed me the lesson. It was called: Les Droits de l'Homme: les droits du travailleurs (The Rights of Man: the rights of workers).

The lesson was about the right of workers to assemble and to form unions. It drew on four documents which, taken together, led the students through the establishment of the right to unionize in France through to the role of unions in French society today. I started going over it with them, beginning with the first document, on the right of workers to assemble.

This means that workers can form unions, I translated.

They looked blank. Then G said, You mean, they can have dinner together?

It was my turn to look blank. No, I said, they can have meetings together about their working conditions.

G looked at me, and I saw her remembering all the conversations with colleagues from work that I've ever had about office politics over our dinner table. We were at a standoff.

Then the obvious hit me. My children didn't know what a union was.

I guess that while we were busy not talking about Air Force One and presidential lore at the dinner table in America, we also missed out on talking about the rights of workers. (But just ask my girls about the Reformation.) Apparently, it doesn't come up in American school curricula before junior high.

C came out and we spent, together, half an hour explaining the idea of labor unions--organizing for the common good, all for one and one for all, the kind of rosy, Pete Seeger-y version that I'm sure you would expect of us--and then C wandered off and we went over the documents.

I wasn't taught about unions in school. A family friend took me to see Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds, and afterwards told me stories about people who had tried to unionize the tobacco industry in the '30s. It all felt very mysterious and noble and secret, the sort of thing that it was risky, still, to talk about in the tobacco town where I grew up.

G and E are going to be quizzed on unions today in school, asked about the limits which striking worker must respect (no kidnapping; no hijacking ferries; other than that, it's pretty open), and asked to trace the history of the right to assemble. In France.

Education, I suppose, is largely about making the world a more textured and complicated place, a place where there's always another layer beneath the surface. When we are in the States at Christmas, I'll ask that same family friend to tell the same stories to my girls that she told to me decades ago. I wonder if the stories will feel mysterious to them.

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