Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The sill of the world

The girls have passed a virus back and forth all winter. E had it earlier this week and stayed home from school. The main symptom is a low fever that goes away with some medicine--as long as the ibuprofen is working, the fever is gone, and she feels fine. Or not completely fine, but functional.

Of course I worry when either of the girls is sick. But I have to confess that having one of them home during the day is a side benefit. When I was working, when they were younger, rearranging my schedule to stay home with a sick child was stressful and frustrating. Now that they're older and sick less often, and I'm not working, I like the quiet hours we spend with the under the weather girl under a blanket in the big chair, reading, and me puttering, cooking, reading, coming in and out. I like the quiet time together.

Yesterday E stopped on her way through the kitchen to say that some of the kids in her class are exactly like the mean rich kids in books. The kids who make fun of the new girl, the main character, she said. In those books where the main character goes to a boarding school where she doesn't know anybody, and she's not like anybody else, and these rich kids pick on her. That's what the kids in my class are like.

She said it not with a sense of injustice. I don't think she's the one they're picking on. Being identical twins inoculates the girls to some degree--there are two of them; they look just alike: it gives bullies pause--and so, I think, does their American-ness (they're the only ones with two American parents, which makes them exotic). And then, they're fairly savvy socially: they can both read the dynamics and figure out where not to be standing.

So when E told me this it was in the manner of a social anthropologist reporting on field research. I've read about groups like these in novels, and now I'm seeing how they play out in life. She knows how the popular girls move, how they hold themselves differently. She knows how social power plays out: when the queen of the rich kids was called to the board and ridiculed by their math teacher, the class was silent. If it had been one of the unpopular girls, E explained, the class would have laughed.

The girls' class of the International Section at the Collège des vignes has about 30 students. The group she's talking about makes up around a third of that number. And she's right: they really are rich. Many of them come from families in which neither parent works, parents that moved here from England because it's easier not to work here, as one of them explained to me. The children have a different attitude toward school. They don't study much and have the grades to show for it. They bring their ipods and iphones and other bits of technology to school to show them off. They ignore their teachers. And their parents have a different attitude: most of these kids take the regional bus back and forth from the stop at the train station down the hill from the school. The bus leaves at 5, so the kids stand around outside the train station for anywhere from 15 minutes to 45. There's a grocery store cum newsstand cum betting parlor across the street, and the kids buy candy and sodas and stand around in clusters.

I see them when I pick up E and G, as I do every day. The girls are in miniskirts or tight jeans and expensive boots, their hair blown straight, eyes heavily outlined in makeup. The boys have gelled their hair straight up, or else wear it hanging down in their eyes; their bluejeans are slung so low they defy gravity. The North Africans who live in the neighborhood steer around them, the women in their headscarves pushing strollers with a toddler holding on to their skirts, the men with their dogs, sitting on the low wall by the bus stop. And I pick up E and G, the three of us acting out our own suburban American ritual, just as out of place in this French market town as the dissipated aristocrats in training and the immigrants. Which means, maybe, that none of us is out of place. If no one belongs, then everyone does.

This started out, though, about E, and her talking about her class. She is taking it all in, watching, observing, weighing. She knows where she stands in the pecking order, and she's begun to speculate on how her sister's and her departure will effect the social strata in the class next year. And I'm sure, too, though she hasn't mentioned it, that she's wondering what the social order will look like next year, in her American school. I wish her a lucky passage.

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