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.

 

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.

 

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).