war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

kids’ stuff/next steps

I have five more weeks of teaching left, and it feels…manageable. Like successful organization might be possible.

I really enjoyed teaching this week; the time away made me feel like myself again, energy and optimism available in large quantities. It was a week where things got done. We talked about pets, we talked about objects in the house, clothing, new grammar. I was impressed by many of the students’ good memories even after the break, particularly one class that rattled off Robinson Crusoe vocabulary from weeks before. Parrot, gun, saw, axe, island, canoe! 

Color me impressionnée. 

I still get such a kick out of their faux-sophistication, the way they rattle off French phrases and verb tenses that took me years of study as an adult to master. The way a class of baby-faced 7 year olds clad in sweatsuits chide each other for not paying attention. Eyes rolling to the ceiling, that French sigh: pffftCan you believe this guy? He’s not even listening. 

At this age, it’s still cool to do what you’re told, to make the teacher happy, which is a relief for me. I make them laugh; they make me laugh, genuinely. It reminds me sometimes of my job this summer, where I watched a sweet “four and a half” year old and his baby sister. Not only was I getting paid, but I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these small people. Their delight at a frog or a feather, their un-self-concious laughter and dancing. It reminds you what it is to be human.

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It’s the same at school. Almost never do the kids bum me out, on the contrary, they’re what I love about this job. They’re so cute, with huge personalities and creativity and curiosity in spades. I jive well with that.

We have fun together, like in our games of mime where I show them a flashcard of animal words we’ve been learning and they act it out for the class. This week, the enthusiasm was off the charts. They good-naturedly hopped across the room like a rabbit or dropped to  the ground, much to my surprise–you really don’t have to do that!–to wriggle across the floor like a snake.

They clearly don’t mind looking silly, which is an absolutely essential part of learning a language. It saves so much time. For example, French kids don’t tend to hear a difference between angry and hungry or teacher and tee-shirt.

Everyone say ‘shhhh.’ Now everyone say ‘ch- ch- ch-.’ We go back and forth for awhile. Teee-chur. Teeee-shhhhirt. And they get it.

There are so many little moments, little epiphanies: Jessica! ‘Turtle’ is like ‘tortue’ but backwards! It’s the same word!

I am summoned whenever there are questions or comments about other languages or places. I might be going to les États-Unis this summer, Jessica! Maybe I’ll see you there! 

Did you know my mamie lives in Spain? 

Is it hot in England? Do kids study French over there? 

At recess, I am offered a piece of homemade birthday cake by a grinning little girl (8 today!) waiting for a few teeth to grow in.

Two little boys come up to me as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood collection. On the front is a drawing of a crow. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure we have that book at my house. Oh really? I try not to laugh. Wow, she’s old! When they see the author photo.

I am asked to translate their little sweatshirts and backpacks adorned with inexplicable English phrases. Smile cat love! Always energy dream! 

 And so. It’s the stress, the planning, and the inconvenience of life here that occasionally get me down, but almost never the kids.

I wouldn’t do this job forever, but one more year? I think so. So, I’ve applied for a contract renewal for next year in a new académie in a new region.

As I’ve said before, this experience is not easy but it’s worthwhile; I haven’t regretted it once. I’ve complained, anguished, and stressed, and here I am, signing up to do it again. So that tells you something.

I also got into a French graduate program at Middlebury College that comprises a summer at the Vermont campus and a full year at the Sorbonne in Paris. This program interests me because it’s really intense, like a serious bootcamp for the language skills, and it would allow me to study things I’m really interested in (French culture, linguistics, instead of medieval lit, for example). Besides the skills boost, I would finish the year with a Masters in French. Is this private college and this degree worth the high price tag? I’m not sure yet. I’ve yet to figure out what I want to “do with my life,” but one idea is French-English translation. I want something exciting, challenging, useful, and conducive to traveling. If I want to be competitive in this realm, my French will need a serious upgrade, something I would get with this program.

For awhile I was stuck between the two options, but pragmatic Mary forced me to send a bunch of emails and I think I have my answer. I feel good about it, anyway. While Middlebury doesn’t offer an official deferment option, they will keep all my application information for two years. So, should I decide to go for the Masters next year, it seems I will basically be all set. In the meantime, I can research scholarships. That way, I don’t have to pay a hefty deposit (due this week!) for something I’m not totally sure about.

For now, I’m excited to hear back about next year: who knows where I’ll be then?

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.

bringing missouri to montluçon

Many of my students have never met an American, so I didn’t want to teach cliches.

Burgers and fries, big cities and celebrities? They’ve seen enough of that, maybe only that, on TV. I wanted to share what think of when I think of home.

So rather than trying to introduce the whole country in one go to children who think I regularly hang out with Obama, I took a local approach. There are now dozens of small-town French children learning about float trips, caves, the Gateway Arch, and gooey butter cake.

I’ve explained the term “America’s Heartland” and shown pictures of KC barbecue and played black-and-white YouTube videos of 1920s jazz.

I’ve told them how to say St. Louis with an American accent and shown them a picture of the arch at sunset, city lights glowing against a purple sky. That one always elicits gasps of awe. Mais c’est trop beau!

I’ve shown them a photo of Mizzou’s Jesse Hall and the columns that got the same amazed reaction. A university?! You’d think it was a castle! Does the president live there? When I tell them the enrollment number (30,000 to keep it simple), they think I must be mistaken. Trente-mille ?!  One little girl wondered how on earth so many students could fit in that building.

Of course I had to talk about sports, showing a picture of the MU Tigers. Ah oui! Le football américain! 

I even talked about armadillos, those prehistoric-looking creatures that now line Missouri roads.

The presentations have gone really well and I am mobbed at recess and in the halls. When they’re not talking to me, trying to impress me by saying a word they know-blue! fish!-or a phrase–my name eez Akim-I hear them talking about me. Mais elle est belle ! Oui, elle est belleElle parle anglais ! Elle est anglaise ? Elle vient des États-Unis en fait ! Elle parle français aussi !

They’re kids. And they’re French. So naturally, frankness abounds.

But the attention is enough to make a girl feel like Beyoncé.

At the TAPIF orientation, we were told to always link language with culture, and it makes so much sense now that I see it in action. I get why they brought us here: the kids are naturally curious about us, so we can help translate the enthusiasm about us into enthusiasm about English. We can show them that learning a language is a real, worthy pursuit that goes far beyond scholastic exercises.