Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The patron saint of Thanksgiving

I volunteered to run a weekly atelier d'anglais, an English Club, at the Collège des vignes. The club was to meet for forty minutes during the Monday lunch break; 17 children signed up. The first meeting was scheduled to take place the Monday before Thanksgiving.

So I prepared a Thanksgiving lesson. I made a list of Thanksgiving vocabulary words; I found paintings and photos of Thanksgiving activities online and in books; I read through stories of the first Thanksgiving. I planned to give the kids a lesson in American culture (15 minutes), teach them some vocabulary (another 15), and then do a Thanksgiving word search (10).

All 17 of the children showed up. Desks were lined up in rows the width of the room. At the front of the room, the teacher's desk sat on an elevated platform in front of a white board. I took my place on the platform. The children looked at me.

I spoke in slow, non-idiomatic English. Do you know what holiday Americans celebrate this week?

Blank looks. A few whispered comments in French.

I tried again. In America this week there is a holiday, une fête. Do you know what it is?

The French word seemed to get their attention, and they knew the word America. America, holiday. A few suggested, timidly, Noël?

I gave up and translated: Savez-vous quelle fête célébreront les Américains cette semaine?

Now they understood, and it was clear they had no clue. (10 minutes gone.) I decided to move on: C'est Thanksgiving, I said. It's Thanksgiving.

Ah, oui, le Thanksgiving, they said, nodding, like it had been on the tip of their tongues the whole time.

And what does Thanksgiving celebrate? I asked.

Hands went up. At last I was getting somewhere, I thought. I called on one of the younger boys in the class.

Le Thanksgiving, he said, tripping over his words in his eagerness to show what he knew, c'est pour célébrer quand le Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande. Thanksgiving celebrates when Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. He subsided, pleased with himself for giving what he clearly believed was a perfect answer.

I smiled encouragingly, although I imagine I looked a little bewildered, and said, No, it's not for Saint Patrick. Does anyone else know?

An older boy raised his hand. Mrs, Mrs, he said. (French schoolchildren, when they want their teacher's attention, say Madame, Madame instead of the American Ummmm. My student was translating.) I called on him and he spoke in clear, non-idiomatic French.

Le Thanksgiving, he said slowly, articulating each word carefully for my non-French ears, célèbre le travail du Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande.
Clearly, he seemed to think, the first boy's French had been too much for me, because otherwise, why would I have dismissed the well-known origins of Thanksgiving? He was merely restating the obvious.

I shook my head. C'est pas le fête du Saint Patrick, I said. It's not the feast of Saint Patrick. It celebrates--il célèbre--the first harvest--la première récolte--of the Pilgrims--des Protestants.

C'est quoi, someone said, les protestants? What's a protestant?

I began to despair of ever getting to the word search.

I was the only person in the room getting a lesson in culture. While, statistically, most of these children did not come from religious families, they had spent their lives in a culture that was imbued in the traditions and presence of Catholicism, from the village church towers that struck the hour to the firemen's calenders with their saint's days to the school canteen that served fish on Fridays. French holidays either commemorate a national event--like the fall of the Bastille, or the end of World War II--or mark a day in the church year--like Chandeleur, or Pentecost, or Christmas. In the French national story, everyone is French. And in the residual Catholic culture of the country, everyone is Catholic.

The notion that I was trying unsuccessfully to convey, of a national holiday that commemorates an event held by a specific and minority religious group--leaving aside, of course, the relatively minor problem of language--was unthinkable for these kids. Holidays are holy days, and a fête is a feast day, and for a feast day and a holy day, you have to have a patron saint. That's the way it works. Nothing else made sense to them. There was nothing in their experience that they could draw on. Where Saint Patrick came from I have no idea, unless it's that Miss Clavell, English teacher and head of the Section internationale, has a thing for Ireland and has been known to throw parties for Saint Patrick's Day at school. In March. They knew that there was a holiday for Saint Patrick's Day somewhere in the anglophone world, so that must be what I was talking about. And as for protestants: that was truly beyond the pale. What's a protestant?

I went home and wished, for a while, that the brain cells that store all that information about the Reformation had, instead, something to offer on teaching English to French children.

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