Off topic

So I have decided to start a new section in my blog, entitled Back in the pond. I have been back in Paris for more than two months now, and the family is happily settling in. A cardboard-free life is on the horizon – soon, we may even be able to find space to hide the clutter and receive people in a respectable setting.

I will leave the topic of adaptation into a French school, freshly experienced by my kids, for another time. I’ll just say that I can’t really remember why I thought, some years ago, that no other education system could pretend to rival ours. Not that I don’t like French schools anymore, I can just see limitations I wasn’t aware of at the time, or didn’t understand when I heard about them. I was probably, as a child, the most school-adapted pupil you could find, and it took me some years of teaching before I could start to grasp the complexity of the difficulties many kids find themselves in. I needed to feel them experiencing the angst and the confusion in front of me, as a result of my own and other teachers’ mistakes, clumsiness, blindness, whatever you call it, by which we failed to see the path we should have chosen to convey meaning to those children. There is obviously no simple answers to those protean problems, but at least I finally knew they existed in reality, I could imagine from my own feeling of helplessness and unsatisfaction what some of my pupils were going through. Yet, I also encountered many cases of extraordinary and almost frightening resilience : pupils who were very far behind, unable to understand what was expected of them, to whom we asked candidly to choose a profession in their mid-teens, as an emergency exit from an education which was now inaccessible to them (I can’t even start to say how wrong all of this was), but behaved as if they were totally oblivious to the seriousness and the sadness of their situation. I never managed to know what they really thought of all that – on my side, I tried to sound calm and positive. They were probably right to consider the school’s advice as the natural path to follow, as nothing else was on offer. They had a way of considering things as a matter-of-fact. (Now that some years have passed and I have had the chance to work with more teenagers and to get to know them quite well, I can say I have often met young people, from all backgrounds, wise beyond their years, and wiser than me.)

As I was sorting out old papers following my move to Paris, I found old reports I wrote about “problematic” pupils who, having drained most of my colleagues’ reserve of patience, ended up expelled from school (which was often how they had arrived in our school – that old vicious circle). I was surprised and a bit ashamed by the tone I sometimes employed, the anger. But teaching teenagers is something you do with your whole person, your body, your emotions. At least, that is how it was for me at the time – it is likely experience, age and a clearer idea of what can be achieved, would have put some distance in there, which might have allowed me to be more than a teacher the kids liked, an observant and efficient one. (Would the reports be less emotional if I had to write them now ? I dearly hope so, but wouldn’t swear to it, considering how often I lose my temper with my own kids. Though it is easier to deal with other people’s offspring, be professional and all that). I guess what I am trying to come to, is the fact that our system, the French system, produces teachers who know very little of how their job should be handled – we were quite learned in our subjects, yes, I knew enough about texts, but what of the pupils, what of the reason I was there ? At the time, after having passed the competitive exam which would make of us academically able civil servants, we had to go through one year of practical training which, unlike most of my colleagues, I enjoyed, but during which the way to help “underachieving pupils” was not once touched. Yes it is an old topic, about which everything has been written (the irrelevance of the training, the absence of basic psychology lessons, the gap between the acdemically or subject centred exams the trainee teachers have to take and the reality of the job, etc), and yet still so relevant.

However, many things we need in our work cannot be taught and have to be learned in the job. And of course, knowing about texts isn’t antagonistic to an openness to people and a skilful handling of difficult emotional situations, quite the contrary. It probably helped me a lot, in the absence of pedagogical and psychological training. (At the time, the kids also seemed to like the fact I was trying to do difficult things with them. I believe they felt I was showing them respect in that way. But I have no idea if it would work again, in other circumstances). One can also achieve good things in an unorthodox way, through emotional closeness to the pupils, as I can see in my son’s judo teacher’s methods – I don’t approve of them, I resent their lack of “cold professionalism”, but I can see how much the young ones like him, how much they enjoy being in his lessons. I also recognise myself a bit in him, much to my dismay I have to say. I didn’t want to be that sort of teacher – but let’s not go down that route.

And here I am blaberring again, having said I would leave the topic of school for another time, and promising something about Paris. But I suppose it is the nature of this blog, a bit of anything, following what crosses my mind. I am told blogposts shouldn’t be too long, so I guess I should leave it for today. I hope to be back soon (si Dieu le veut) with more about school, and our arrondissement of Paris, and what I will try to do this year. Night night.


So it is that we are going to leave England for a few years. My husband won a research grant which sends him to Paris, and we follow.

It is strange and exciting to be going back to the place where I first experienced some sort of independance, became an adult and a teacher. Memories come rushing back of evenings out in the 13th arrondissement with my colleague and friend Valérie, giggling over a steaming bowl of pho ; of eyeing in Toraya’s tearoom, in a mental disposition akin to veneration, the perfectly shaped wagashi gleaming like mother-of-pearl on their black lackered little plates ; of feeling happy and accepted in my friends’ sitting room up on the 30-something-th floor of a Parisian block of flats. Sitting alone in front of the sushi belt in Matsuri, where the manager’s kind smile made me feel there wasn’t anything wrong with going out to the restaurant on my own. Long mornings in the RER, slowly penetrated by the intensely nostalgic beauty of grey suburban lines. Dragging my heavy bag full of essays to be marked on my way to school, trying to lift the sleep-deprived teacher’s tiredness, and the burst of joy on a successful sharing moment with the pupils.

It seems to me that we leave, in each place where we have lived, a person defined by that space and its inhabitants and who can therefore not be taken away on our journey to another horizon. Leaving Paris was a little death and I bereaved for quite some time. I wonder – will I find the ghost of my 20-something-year-old self lingering on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg, or leaning at the window in one of the battered RER wagons ?

And as I try to organise the material side of moving away, I think of the young mother I will leave behind this time, forever pushing her red Bugaboo around the cathedral, breastfeeding in Boots’ little mothers’ room, sitting down for Sunday lunch at M&S after mass at St-Thomas’ church, and crossing the beautiful green, green field with her son jumping at her side as they walk to his first school. I see the cubicle where the French assistant had such stimulating discussions about politics and identity with Simon Langton’s sixth formers, and the tree framed in the window which inspired the writing of long dreamed first poems. Saturdays at the Petite Ecole, pretending not to have left France. Smiles on little children’s faces. My first garden.

Yet I don’t feel so sad this time. I feel the few friends I made in England will stay with me. For some reason, the social networks alleviate the feeling of loss.

Next time, I would like to write about the specific things I will miss from England, amongst which I count beautiful and complex hedges.

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Gizza’ job ! I can do that !

My, my, the camera hasn’t come back yet. Dear Student of my husband, whoever you are, please give it back. I need it. A blog without any pictures is probably worse than a blog without words (OK this sentence is totally stupid).

It isn’t today that you will be lucky enough to hear about something more interesting than “Me, my feelings and what I think of it all”. My apologies. Here it comes again. I only write this to clear my mind.

I said I work in a grammar school. I am a foreign language assistant, working with Year 12 and 13 pupils (who, for some mysterious reason, must now be referred to as students, not pupils. They absolutely have to be taken seriously.) I enjoy my work because of the kids. A fair number of them are able to speak French reasonably well and some of them are good enough to debate, laugh, joke, and make me feel like I’m having a friendly conversation. I have always liked my pupils. In fact, they are the reason I enjoy teaching. When I left France, where I used to teach French and Classics, I missed them for a long time. Even those who gave me a hard time.

But hey, I am a qualified teacher and hold an excellent teaching qualification. A friend said to me today : “You can’t stay an assistant forever.” Of course, she is right. If only because it doesn’t pay enough. I also need to make something of my brain. So, why don’t I apply for a teaching job ?

Well, I can’t drive. I have never taught in England. I can’t afford to retrain (and the thought of having to pay for a training which is academically way below what I did for free in France – I even got a “good student grant” from the state when I was in Paris…). Childcare in this country is so expensive I would have to be very well paid to make it worthwhile (which is unlikely as I don’t have any experience in this country).

OK. All this may be true but is also bullshit. I am scared actually. I come from a system where you only need to be academically good to get a job. I was a good student. I was quick and clever. I am committed and very loyal. But I don’t know how to sell myself. Of course, everybody is more or less scared of being judged when they apply for a new job, so I am just an average coward. This doesn’t help at all.

You out there, if you need somebody like me and can pay more than the cost of childcare, please hire me. I can correct your spelling, translate, read you my favourite poems out loud while you are cooking (did that to my mum for a number of years), write your letters for you, correct your thesis’ writing style (of course, if you are Proust, you don’t need my services), teach you Latin and / or ancient Greek, give private tuition, initiate you into my family’s long tradition of hunting for crumbs and sing CBBies lullabies. Anybody ?

PS : Thanks to Bernard Hill and my husband for the brilliant title.

PS 2 : I should have written “your thesis’s writing style”, as a friend pointed out. So maybe I shouldn’t correct your spelling in English…