the goldfish bowl

Just when I felt pretty comfortable with my role teaching English classes to French primary school children, life (or rather, the French Ministry of Education) handed me something new: a job at a maternelle in les banlieues of Cannes.

My new students range from barely three to six years old. The oldest are wonderfully curious, asking questions that inspire future lessons. The youngest struggle to hold pencils and blow their noses–quite the change from the fifth graders I taught last year. One thing I enjoy about this job is the simple preparation it requires: no more writing activities, no more neatly organized cahiers.

But it’s not an easy trade. With this age, we cover material at the pace of an escargot. The days bleed together like the watercolors in the art room.

Recently I wrote about how language-learning feels like a study of absurdism. Teaching, were it paralleled by a French art movement, would belong squarely to Surrealism. Time glitches like a stuck record. Repetition to make you doubt reality. I have lived this day before.

How many times have I explained that sequence of sounds, played that song, showed that same dumb picture of a rainbow? And they remember nothing? C’est pas vrai.

The little melodies in my head, purposefully catchy to increase language retention, become a soundtrack to the sameness. If I have to listen to the soul-killing “If You’re Happy” one more time…

A woman at the training day I attended in Nice called all this the goldfish bowl. I hadn’t made this analogy with teaching before, but she was right. Teaching this age often feels like swimming in circles with the same view: a monotony that is dizzying.

She had leaned forward, confiding. “I could never do it. I would go mad.”

I was relieved that someone understood. “Oh, I’m about to.”

They don’t learn they don’t learn they don’t learn. I am going to lose my mind, perhaps releasing a Munchian scream. “The Rainbow Colors Song” will sound like a death knell.

And then they do learn.

In little bits. Enough to motivate me, but just. It’s one child remembering a new vocabulary word or just gathering the courage to speak at all. It’s the way they run up to me in the halls and point at nearby objects, yelling out English colors they know. Jessica! Ça c’est blue, et ça c’est green, et mon tee-shirt c’est pink! 

It’s the delightful connections they make. Singing “Rain Rain Go Away,” a class of five and six-year-olds likened come on back another day to Camembert another day. (I did mention they’re French?) “It’s just un petit peu différent,” they told each other.

It’s a collection of little things: a lively conversation in the staff room, even my morning croissant amande– the boulangerie’s warm air and cheerful coin clatter providing calm before the storm of l’école.

It’s the sweet way the kids are still delighted and intrigued by my presence– and how a few of them think my name is English.

Regarde! It’s English! Where are you going, English? 

They are a bit confused about my age, too. Some ask if I’m married and have kids, while others ask if my mom’s coming to pick me up. Well, neither. And I’m confused too. Welcome to your twenties.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it to you,” I said to a group of six-year-olds last week, anticipating their shock, “but I’m still young, you know. I’m 23.”

Their wide eyes.“Vingt-trois !?” They didn’t know people could live that long.

One day this week I walked outside to spend one of the recess periods with them. They swarmed me, asking when they would get to come to English class again. Before long, a game commenced. One little girl sat on a bench and pretended to be la maîtresse d’anglais–me–while several other children, all from different classes, sat crossed-legged on the ground. “Hello, everyone,” she said in French, “it’s time for English. What should we sing today; who has an idea? No, raise your hand.” She led the group in a rousing round of “Hello, Hello, How are You?” complete with hand gestures.

That alone made my work worth it for that day (and probably for longer). I just need to remember those moments: my reason, for now, to keep swimming.

 

use your words: confessions of a part-time parent

They turn their tiny noses up at most of what I eat.

I eat coconut chips and turmeric lattes, sautéed greens and tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I try to share. An experiment with some zucchini ends with the zucchini reappearing in the toddler’s mouth after an uncomfortable three seconds where she looks at me as if I have betrayed her. I fetch a napkin, wondering if there was a time I was so averse to anything green, anything strong, anything with…flavor.

My groceries reflect my time with the kids. After a day of serving macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, my bags don’t include dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks or flavored yogurt. If I shop after a day spent with them, invariably my cart includes black garlic hummus and punjabi eggplant and Gorgonzola piccante so sharp it nearly burns the tongue. I sneak up the stairs, “late,” 9 pm when everyone is sleeping, and I stir turmeric and ginger and honey into hot milk. I sprinkle bright goat cheese onto salads and whisk tahini with olive oil for a dressing. For a midnight snack I sometimes eat kimchi from the jar.

It’s a curious thing, to live in a house with the children that you care for. They depend on me: for a set number of hours each week. I experience moments of tenderness, gently rocking the toddler as she drifts into sleep, and moments of relief: they are not mine. I will now descend into my basement lair and leave the tears and tantrums to someone else.

Taking care of a five-year-old and a toddler, at times I feel impossibly old. No longer the child, I am charged with putting someone else’s needs first, all the time. Their problems are so easily solved, their worlds small. They don’t understand, not really, that I, too, am sometimes scared and confused. That I sometimes long for a hug from my mom. That popsicles and band-aids don’t fix everything.

It’s strange to realize that I am not quite a person for them, or not in the way that I have learned to see people. The complicated interior life. The hopes and dreams. They have seen me cry and their faces don’t change. I wonder what they’re thinking. Empathy, I guess, is something we teach, something we learn.

In some ways, spending time with children is like spending time with people from another culture who speak a language you haven’t quite mastered. They will not understand, or maybe care, about the specifics of your day or just exactly what you think about the book you’re reading. And you, despite trying, cannot express these things. You learn quickly that political debates are out. Quoting The Princess Bride is out. That great pun you thought of, you’ll have to keep to yourself.

So, here, language fails you.

It’s frustrating. It’s strange. If you are really language-oriented, like I am, you’ll wonder who you are without your words. You’ll feel like a paper doll.

And you’ll find that it’s kind of refreshing.

Maybe you kick a ball back and forth or splash in a pool or dance or help cut vegetables for a pizza or play a board game: all things I did with my host family before I attained fluency in French. What I thought about these activities didn’t matter so much. I just did them.

So many times I swallowed that witty comment and I missed the joke and I contributed nothing verbally. And robbed of my words, I found I still existed. I was still appreciated, and loved.

I suppose that it is similar with the children. They don’t know what I feel or think, not really, not usually. But in this case I am not a mute but I am a provider. Of love, of instruction, of fun. Of cheese sticks and open arms and coloring books. Of discipline and library visits and tiny tiny portions of zucchini.

I feel impossibly old sometimes. But I hand them over and head downstairs and I feel young again, the kind of young where I can still be selfish and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The change from my college years is that for the first time, I don’t take this for granted, my freedom.

I can spend an hour on my hair. I can buy new and extremely impractical shoes. I can take my hair and my shoes and a new book to a lounge at a high-rise hotel, and I can sit and watch the sun set, the city a backdrop to my cocktail. And I can do this on a Monday if I want to. I can make last-minute decisions and I can stay up all night. My friends can do the same.

Juxtaposed with the responsibility of caring for the children, though, this stage of life seems for the first time finite. And it’s all the sweeter for it.