le retour

I wasn’t expecting my first week back from Christmas vacation to be filled with joie. 

Le retour is always difficult, and here there were two: the return from vacation, back to life in small-town France, and the return to teaching.

My first day back didn’t deserve to go so well. I’ve been there before. This time, though, I made the opposite mistake. Instead of turning up a day early, staring into an empty school like a lost freshman on the first day, I almost…didn’t show up at all.

I had planned for Wednesday. Wednesday I could do. It was Monday. I deep-cleaned my room, organized the kitchen, went on an epic grocery expedition, did my laundry. I eschewed nothing but lesson plans, which were to be Tuesday’s focus.

Another morning to sleep in, tranquille. And then I heard a voice from the next room. Mary said slowly, “I think we work tomorrow. Let me show you why I think that.” She had seen something online.

My heart dropped to my toes. I was ready to protest, but instead I rifled through my things with a manic energy for the deceptively casual paper I had again forgotten to consult: my work schedule for the year.

Retour : mardi le 3 janvier. 

Tomorrow. What a nice start to the new year that would have been: unintentionally playing hooky.

My neat, comfortable little plans flew out the window. The stress I felt doubled, which, unfortunately, had no affect on my productivity. What would I teach these children, all 250 of them? What could I plan with no plan? It was going to be ugly.

I procrastinated most of the day, did the faintest bit of preparation, and found myself at 10 pm before an early morning waiting for my glossy manicure to dry as I watched a Patrick Swayze movie.

I walked into school the next morning like a prisoner to the gallows.

My mood was lifted, though, as one teacher after another came up to me and wished me a bonne année. These wishes were surprisingly warm, not a throwaway “happy new year” but rather a list of meilleurs vœux: good health and good luck and a bon séjour in France, all delivered with a genuine smile. I was offered various pâtisserie and asked in detail about how I spent the holidays.

And then to class, the first of seven that day. After a ten-minute rocky start in which I wondered if I had completely forgotten how to teach, I got my groove back and managed to keep it up with every class: from the wriggling six-year-olds to the super-competitive fourth-graders.

Teaching feels to me like an athletic event. It reminds me of when I played tennis in high school. During long, tough matches, I would often manage to get in “the zone,” running after every surprise drop shot with energy I didn’t know I had. Sweat was running down my face but I just cared about the next point.

Teaching is like that. I may be exhausted, with the beginnings of a killer headache throbbing at my temples, but I stand up to start a new lesson and all of that slides away. When I get home I may crash, but in the moment I’m too busy solving the dozens of little conflicts that arise when working with children to think about myself for one second.

It’s kind of invigorating.

I was worried that two weeks away from the job would undo some of the progress I’d made, but it turned out to be a perfect refresh. The lessons, as a whole, went more smoothly than ever before, and I realized I’d really missed those French baby faces.

It’s kind of a relief to have a good start to the year. January to me usually feels like November Part II: the chill of winter without Christmas lights or anticipation. January is malaise, ennui, and other bleak French words. January is a good month for a crisis: existential or quarter-life, take your pick.

This week I saw a cartoon by an illustrator I like, Gemma Correll. She’s jokingly designed a paint palette for January, shades that range from gray to black with names like “Forgotten Joy,” “Frozen Puddle,” and “Broken Light Therapy Box.”

That’s how I might describe the “light” outside my window most days this week here in Montluçon, and most years, how I would describe my hibernal attitude.

But this year is different. It feels good to be working instead of pacing around the house and eating butter cookies on the too-long college break (though I do miss morning coffee and crosswords with my parents).

in which I ‘faire des bêtises’

It’s weird to put myself in a new category: teacher, the mysterious breed that one is always shocked to see in a public place.

Recently I spent the whole day in town, working on lessons and then meeting Mary for dinner and drinks. I had my laptop and a stack of books, my hair in a bun. I glimpsed my reflection on the way into a popular bar, whining: “I look like a teacher.”

“You are a teacher,” Mary reminded me.

Oh, right. I’m now the kind of person who watches Blue’s Clues-wannabe videos: a jolly thirty-something man singing “this is my favorite pumpkin” in an attempt to teach autumn vocabulary.

But I’m rolling my eyes. And that’s the secret. Teachers have lives. We may be writing lesson plans, but we are also making Korean bibimbap and dancing around the kitchen to the Ying Yang Twins.

I think I have successfully maintained a professional image in the classroom. Out of it, though? If they only knew…

Faire des bêtises is a French phrase I enjoy. It’s a more charming way to express you’ve done something stupid. It also describes my morning.

It was my first day back after les vacances scolaires. I had stayed up late the night before, watching more pumpkin videos and planning drawing activities for the younger students; writing practice dialogues for the older ones. I woke up very early this morning, after four alarms that incorporated themselves into my dreams (which quickly turned to nightmares). I double-checked that everything was ready to go: lesson elements organized with time estimates and saved to a flash drive in appropriate file formats. I left no time for morning rituals like drinking water or using the bathroom. I chucked a mini pumpkin in my purse as a last-minute prop and hoped for the best, setting off in the freezing fog for the brisk 1.5km power walk to school. Physically, of course, I felt like actual death, but I was prepared.

I neared the school just before starting time, expecting to greet dozens of students streaming inside. But there was no one.

Lights off. Doors locked. I had a horrible feeling I had missed something…like the date school started again. November 3rd. It would help if I had looked at a calendar once in the past two weeks. The early bird gets the…headache from lack of sleep?

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Me: tired, amused, relieved

Back home to pajamas and tea.

Later, I ventured out to get groceries, always a complicated undertaking. (It’s at these times I most miss my car). On my way back, I was starving. You don’t see people walking down the street eating, here, and though I usually try to observe social decorum, I just went for it, rifling in one of my bags for a covert (and generous) handful of moutarde chips. It was at that moment the heel of my boot slipped and I flailed with all the groceries, my five-ten frame dangerously nearing the frozen ground, the handful of chips so close to my face I could smell the spices, now crushed to little pieces in my palm.

I had to laugh at how it must have looked. In case anyone was wondering, I am not a French woman.

confessions of a brand-new teacher

I was so nervous, all weekend. Friday we had a planning session for the primary school teachers in our département (composed of Montluçon, Vichy, and Moulins) and honestly I think it just stressed everyone out. There are just four of us this year, representing England, Ireland, the US, and Puerto Rico (four different accents!). We’re each at 3 or 4 schools, working with all classes. This means, for example, that I’m teaching seventeen! That was not what I envisioned for this year, not even a few weeks ago. img_1785-1

When I thought about it on an individual class level, I felt really excited. I sat down and wrote out ideas for the progression of the first day, lesson plans for later on. And then that scary number would pop into my head again: Seventeen. Seventeen. Seventeen. 

It seemed an organizational nightmare. I hadn’t known, see, until Friday, that it would be up to me to plan all of the lessons, for each class, for the entire year. We are called assistants, but at the primary school level, it seems the job’s a little bigger. In my schools, the students’ English instruction is left entirely to me; I learned today that most of the classes haven’t yet covered any English this year, maybe because their teacher doesn’t speak it or because they don’t want to, as one teacher told me today, teach it with a strong French accent.

It might have been different had I known the extent of my responsibilities months ago. A few classes? No problem. But this many, ages 6-11, all at different schools with different teachers with perhaps different expectations? Cue freak out. I bounced between a glum resignedness, a calm optimism, and sheer panic. I ate too many Nutella tartines, paced around the house like a caged Mizzou tiger.

C’est pas possible! I thought, again and again.

Saturday night saw me sobbing to my parents over Skype. I informed them that it was, in fact, not possible.

They informed me that: it was indeed a challenge, but I love those. I need a little pressure and stress to function. I am a bit of a perfectionist, meaning I am quite hard on myself to get things just right, and when I feel underprepared it throws me. I am completely qualified for this, though, so I just need to show up and do my best, and learn as I go along.

Their advice and reassurance cleared my mind and helped me calm down, stop being so fatalistic about it.

I mean, I am young, as one of my French ten-year-olds remarked. There’s going to be some trial and error here.

Sunday I met with Yanice, and for a good two or three hours we talked through ideas and compared our resources and materials. We both exclaimed over a little Halloween worksheet with clipart cats and pumpkins–ooh, look, this is perfect! Oh yeah, I love that! I’ll make you a copy–and I thought, huh. This is what being a teacher feels like: excitement over clipart pumpkins and alphabet games. That was fast.

I woke up today feeling inordinately calm. Even when my presentation wouldn’t save to a flash drive. Even when I realized I was going to be twelve minutes late.

For my first class, the teacher said: they’re all yours! As I walked to the front of the room, I felt my nervousness dissipate. There is a real kind of relief in facing the things you’re apprehensive about. I told them that, normally, we would be speaking English and only English, but today was a little different so that I could introduce myself properly. In French, I talked about the United States and Missouri, making it interactive with questions about geography, sports, currency…a wrinkled one-dollar bill that I found in my wallet proved a surprisingly strong visual aid. They were all too happy to participate.

One interesting thing I learned is that England and the US are very conflated in their minds. Questions about the royal family, the queen; a comment about how the US really wasn’t so far away, just a bit north…a guess about my nationality, after I said I was from the States: anglaise? Etats-Unis-ienne?

After that I switched the séance to English. I asked them first what English words they knew, and that turned out to be a good way of getting them engaged. Even the shyest child was happy to pipe in: “fish! dog! blue!” And of course it gave me an idea of where I would need to start.

I then focused on some very basic conversation-what’s your name? how are you?-and from that exercise I realized that many of them are very afraid! They’re so sweet, with shaky voices and big eyes, scared of getting it wrong. We talked in the orientation about this, the fear that many of the students have. It’s really important to praise effectively and encourage even the most timid effort. I hope to create a learning environment that’s fun and engaging, a place where mistakes are pas grave.

I ended the session with a short lesson about the weather, and then, just like that, my first class of the first day was over.

I had been worried that since I’ve never trained as a teacher, it would surely be obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. How would I maintain authority? But I have had some experience: nannying and summer camp and immersion school, and it kind of just came together. The gestures, the facial expressions, that teacherly walking around the room. I felt natural, not like an imposter.

Not only did I survive it, I had fun. I’m thrilled for this job, now that I’ve actually started. I know it will be challenging and engaging, different every day, nothing like the kind of bland office job I would loathe.

I taught a few more lessons and then of course I bought some pâtisserie to celebrate.