Today I walked into the French immersion school I’ve worked at for the past three years to pick up an old paycheck. I expected to grab the envelope and say a quick bonjour to some of my favorite francophones of the 5-and-under variety. I ended up staying for hours.
That’s what I love and have loved about this place. It’s busy and bustling and you’re thrown into it like the deep end of a pool: you’d better learn to swim. It’s uncomfortable at first, and your instincts tell you to get out. My first few months at this place were difficult. I didn’t know what to say, where to stand, what to do with my hands. I had pictured sitting in a circle, telling kids how to say the alphabet in a pretty French accent: ah, bay, say… It turned out that language immersion education was not a happy, clappy, can you say oui affair, but a serious job with distinctly right and wrong ways of doing, well, everything. I was a college sophomore, proud of my French essay A’s. It was sobering to realize–the very first day–that almost every member of the pre-K class I was assigned to volunteer with could speak better French than me. It was sobering to realize: I could not speak French. Being that this was a full-immersion school, that meant, by extension, that I was not allowed to speak. I did not know how to discipline children and resolve conflicts, and I did not know how to do it all publicly. I did not know how to do it in another language. I felt embarrassed and incompetent. One day a little girl told me, in English: “you speak French really funny.” She had been looking at me strangely, almost bemusedly. I am sure I flamed red. Even little kids know I can’t do this. Why am I here?
It is intimidating to be thrown into an environment you literally cannot understand. How often we take simple communication for granted; what horror when it doesn’t come. I visited the school twice a week that semester. While I found the kids absolutely adorable and the teachers classy and cool, I’d be lying if I said my stomach didn’t hurt before almost every session.
But I kept showing up. Now, three years later, I walk inside that building and it feels like home. This summer, I was the head assistant for a language camp with 18 kids, many of whom had never spoken a word of French. I made homemade vanilla ice cream with four-year-olds and ran around a park planting clues to a scavenger hunt. I smeared sunscreen on a line of wriggling toddlers and dealt with a young mean girl’s attitude problem. Several older children were terrified to speak French; embarrassed, unsure. My own experiences with later-in-life language learning have given me compassion. Oh how I understand how it feels. What works is not an attitude of: you will say this or else. Rather, it’s: don’t worry, you don’t sound silly, I promise. You can do it, tu peux le faire ! Essaies, try! And when they do, when they place that trust in you, when you hear that sweet wobbly French from a tentative little face, the joy is nothing you have to manufacture. They understand! And they are understood. And that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to share with someone.
Sometimes I forget just what I am going to do this next year in France. I get caught up in logistics, or travel dreams, and I forget how much I love to teach. It’s challenging and it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, in all its forms. And I cannot freaking wait for more.
I am still new myself. Not so many years away from my own wobbly French. But I speak fluently now. And though I don’t have years and years of experience or a teaching degree, I believe I have learned to teach. What works and what doesn’t. How to be simultaneously strict and kind. How to have both authority and compassion. How to see problems coming, how to avert them. How to think on my feet. I have learned–at least in this pool–how to swim.
I walked in today and heard: Bonjour Jessica, comment ça va, can you take these kids to the bathroom?
Oui, pas de problème, I said, and left my purse and paycheck in the hallway.