Wednesday, September 18, 2019

We don’t need no education

Ah, September. Its sweet blend of nostalgia and anxiety, guilt and deliverance, foreboding and euphoria … no other time of the year can quite compare.

Personally, I love September. Not only is it the one month of the entire year in which I am neither too hot nor too cold, but it carries with it a sense of infinite possibility akin to that of the New Year, only without the bleakness, darkness, and freezing rain of January. Also, Paris in the autumn is one of my great joys, perhaps because it was autumn when I first arrived here many moons ago.

As a mother, my fondness for September has been exponentially amplified, for it also heralds the end of summer’s reign of terror and the restoration of civilized routine. In France, this time of the year is known as la rentrée, when the vacationing season winds down and French adults return to their jobs, tanned and rejuvenated, while French children return to school, where they resume being psychologically pummeled into obedience by the national education system.

Mandatory schooling in this well-educated country begins at age three with maternelle, which is roughly the equivalent of the preschool, pre-K, and kindergarten years. Maternelle takes place on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. That’s a long day (says my mom), yet somehow not long enough (says every parent I know).

When our son began maternelle, I was an emotional wreck. On his first day, we trotted him off to class wearing his little orange penguin backpack, and I proceeded to spend the entire week crying harder than our two-month-old daughter. However, by the time it was said daughter’s turn to enter school three years later, believe you me I did not spend more than 10 minutes wiping my eyes—a substantial improvement. I have come to embrace, nay, ADORE French school.
I mean look, over the course of maternelle alone, our son has learned more than I think I knew when I was twice his age: The kid can count past 100 in two languages, write the alphabet in print and in cursive, read short words, and do basic mathematics. He knows about the solar system, the life cycle of trees, the music of Mozart, and the art of M.C. Escher. He’s been on field trips to several châteaux, the zoo, and multiple artsy movies. He’s even learned how to swim. At school. Oh, and table manners! He’s learned how to hold his silverware, how to eat multi-course meals properly, and how to get along with his peers—sort of.

School is fabulous.

Now, it’s not all a bed of roses. Certain teachers can be quite strict with the rules, which does not necessarily mesh well with the whole positive parenting philosophy. However, for children who tend to be among the more obedience-challenged (eh-hem), it’s a damn panacea. In fact, the school system is one of the keys to that oft-noted good behavior demonstrated by French kids that Americans find so fascinating: Right about the time when a child is reaching his maximum exasperation-inducing capacity, i.e., age three, in swoops public school to iron that right out. It has been relatively successful in our home; I figure his American heredity is what’s keeping our son a tad naughty, but then maybe that’s part of his charm? I guess?

Also, potty training—yikes. If your child is not propre (literally “clean”) then he is not allowed at school. The end. This is a major stress factor for parents desperately awaiting their child’s turn to be tamed educated. Try as we might, our little guy was not quite ready on time; when we picked him up at the end of that first day, he had a tell-tale plastic bag tied to his backpack. Its contents were wet clothing that reeked to high heaven: “WTF IS THIS?” I believe were my exact words. I suspect the unspoken goal of the exercise is to shame the child into obedience, or rather, shame the child’s parents into stepping up their potty training game. In any case, it may be cruel and unusual, but it worked—he was 95% potty trained by the end of the week, as were his other reluctant classmates.

This year, we are discovering the next step in the French educational adventure, which is to say first grade. In first grade, they mean business. This was immediately evident to us on our son’s last day of kindergarten, when we received a page-long list of supplies to be provided on Day One of the following year, along with a note specifying that every last item, right down to each individual crayon, would need to be labelled. It took me roughly three hours to create, print, cut out, and label everything—and an additional hour to Scotch tape it all when my lovingly-made labels began to peel off. 

Then there’s the backpack. For years, I had noticed French children dragging theirs along the ground on little wheels, suitcase-style, and kicking up an insane amount of dust in the process. What is the point of that? I often wondered. Now I know. Normal-sized children’s backpacks simply cannot contain all the crap that French schoolchildren are expected to haul around with them. So we had to go out and buy our son a backpack twice his size, just like everybody else. At least he can wear the thing—I draw the line at wheels. I mean come on, the kid is in FIRST GRADE. What happens when he reaches middle school? I see trunkfuls of office supplies in our future, along with a full range of personalized luggage in which to carry it all.

This is not to say that there is no room for fun in the French curriculum. Anyone who lives in proximity to a schoolyard will tell you that the kids have ample time to (loudly) ram around outdoors, play sports, and blow off steam. Honestly, French public school is the gift that just keeps on giving. My kids are receiving a high-quality education for free, and are bringing home the artwork, reading, writing, and arithmetic to prove it. Most importantly, they seem to honestly be enjoying themselves; they’re happy when I drop them off in the morning and happy when I pick them up in the afternoon.

Which means I have 8 hours per day sans kids, and that, my friends, is the true beauty of French schooling.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Grin and bear it

I have a complicated relationship with my teeth. It was clear pretty early on that something was up; my 7th grade class photo sets me squarely in the “werewolf” category. Those freakish prominent canines must have given my parents pause, as the following year’s portrait proudly features the iron grid that would become my constant companion for the next five-odd years.

I hate visiting the dentist. I have always hated visiting the dentist. When I was growing up, I remember sitting in our family dentist’s waiting room facing a giant cardboard cutout of a smiling tooth reminding patients to floss, which inevitably prompted pangs of guilt for not flossing more often (floss is gross. Always has been, always will be). This was before I discovered the water pick, which was finally a dental hygiene product I could get behind. Our dentist also had a strange wheeze, which made each visit all the more unsettling. I’d be in The Chair, gazing up at the “calming” seagull mobile he’d thoughtfully attached to the ceiling, listening to him kind of wheeze-chuckle as he poked sharp whirring objects around in my mouth, and counting the seconds until I could get far, far away from there.

If a culprit must be named, it would have to be my mouth size to tooth size ratio, which surely places me in the upper echelons of “holy sh*t those are some big teeth.” My orthodontist, a gold-chain wearing, hairy chest-bearing Fred Ward look-alike, wasted no time in removing eight of them before binding the rest in metal and wire, which come to think of it MAY explain the near-total lack of male attention I received throughout high school, despite being a cheerleader. Either that or the boys were all intimidated by my superior intellect. Surely it’s the latter.

For whatever reason, “Fred” placed various intermediary steps along the rose-strewn path to hard metal. I distinctly recall headgear. Whoever invented the headgear was one sick mofo, is all I have to say. My orthodontist was kind enough to allow me to wear the blasted thing only at night, thus somewhat sparing my tender ego, however—

Go ahead and Google “headgear.” I’ll wait.

If I close my eyes, I can still feel the metal-on-metal grinding caused by sliding those weird little wire ends into the attachments around my back molars (*shudder*). To make matters worse, this was during my “ringlet” phase, which required sleeping with a full head of curlers, most of which were made out of plastic. In other words, self-inflicted torture in addition to imposed torture. I must have been insane (or a teenage girl).

Why not both? (Photo by Bill Benson.)

There was also a little stint with a splint. A splint is yet another orthodontic torture device, made of some plastic-like substance with a decidedly chemical taste. I hated mine. I hated it so much that my subconscious moved me to throw it into the trash along with my half-eaten hamburger one fateful evening when a friend’s mom took us to McDonald’s on the way home after a day at the mall.

Twenty minutes or so after leaving, I realized my mistake and sheepishly asked whether we could turn around and go back, which we did. But then I couldn’t remember which trash can I’d thrown the accursed appliance into, so I had to go to the order counter and ask the cashier if I could please empty all the trash bags, which to her credit she said OK to, as long as I would empty them somewhere other than inside the restaurant. Long story short, I took about four full bags of garbage out of McDonald’s and crammed them into the trunk of my friend’s mom’s Mercedes. Once home, my own mom looked on in bemusement as I proceeded to dump said garbage all over the driveway and rummage around in it with a flashlight until God only knows what hour.

Yes, but did I find my splint? Of course not. But on the up side, my parents didn’t bother getting angry about the loss, as I had clearly suffered enough as it was. After that, my orthodontist informed us in no uncertain terms that there were two remaining options: braces or jaw surgery. I chose braces. Wearing them, caring for them, and having them checked/aligned/tightened every month hurt. A lot. The blessed day I got them taken off I couldn’t believe how good it felt, regardless of how Bugs Bunny humongous my teeth suddenly looked.

Oh, but then came the retainer part. No one tells you about this. You undergo the pain and humiliation of harboring a miniature railroad inside your mouth, right at the apex of adolescent self-consciousness, only to be told upon your day of liberation that in fact, no—you have to wear this retainer thing for an unspecified period of time. In light of my splint incident, a retainer sounded like a horrible idea. So I didn’t wear it much. Result: my teeth are just this side of straight.

My five-year-old son said as much the other day. He wanted to play dentist, and, taking his role very seriously, he said, “Mom, some of your teeth are kind of crooked.” I said, “Yes, that’s because Mommy didn’t wear her retainer.” “Her what?” “Never mind.” What he failed to notice is that I barely have more teeth than he does.

Since I had my annual dental check-up this very morning, I asked my French dentist about whether there were, in 2019, any solution for straightening just a couple of teeth without full-on transforming back into the Iron Maiden. She said that in fact, yes, there was a solution that was “very discreet,” as well as fairly priced—a splint.

I’mma have to think about this.

Class of '97 (go Dawgs!), still rocking the metal look 😬 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

But let us cultivate our garden

Today a tree was delivered to my front door. I bought it online for 24 euros and had it shipped to me from across France for an additional 27 euros. You might be thinking, “Wait, you paid more in shipping than you did for the tree? Are you some kind of moron?” To which I would reply, “Perhaps I’m a moron, but I’m a moron with a pretty bitchin’ tree.”

Let me back up about 40 years. I was raised in a house with a garden. I fully expected to one day have a house with a garden of my own. But then I moved to Paris, and began a long period of renting decidedly garden-less apartments. I thus contented myself with decorating the balconies of my various abodes with potted plants, realizing along the way that I’m pretty bad at keeping green things alive. Huh.

Many years later, when I had acquired a husband and birthed a couple of tiny people, the day came when we decided to empty our bank accounts into a place of our very own—obviously an apartment, because this is the Paris region and we are not Bill Gates. But apartment or not, I wanted a real garden. First, a garden means that one is on the ground floor, and that means no balconies or windows to worry about one’s children falling off/out/through. Second, a garden means outdoor space for one’s children to ram around in without the risk of getting lost/kidnapped/run over. (I’m not unnecessarily anxious; YOU’RE unnecessarily anxious.)

A garden is also an end in itself—a garden! Yay! At last a chance to plant more exciting things than doomed-to-die-in-August €3.99 specials! I made lists of plants, did sketches (indeed), and read up on local species. We hired a gardener, for Pete’s sake. He came this close to covering half the surface area in gravel, but we don’t talk about that.

With time, effort, and many trips to nurseries across the northwest Ile-de-France, we now have quite a cute little garden. I have managed to cram every kind of pretty flowering plant I can think of into it somewhere, while leaving enough grass for our kids and the occasional hedgehog to scamper about in.

Also, and this is very exciting: I haven’t really killed anything so far. I was semi-convinced after years of desiccating/drowning vast quantities of potted plants that I was hopeless as a gardener. I remember saying as much to a few people I’d just met at an expat gathering a few years back. I believe my exact words were, “I don’t have a green thumb; I have a black thumb!” One of the folks I was talking to happened to be African American. She gave me an odd look; I turned beet red. And that is another reason to have a garden, i.e. a hiding place for the socially inept.

It being March now, our garden is beginning to awaken. This makes me happy. I spent all last Tuesday yanking out weeds, snipping dead branches, planting seeds, and lobbing snail shells as far as I could get them. You might say, “That’s cruel!” To which I would reply, “No; eating my plants is cruel.” I’m a pacifist, except when it comes to nasty little creatures nibbling on my plants or on my children—then I am merciless. Show me a slug sliming its way toward my tender green shoots and I will show you a kitchen knife that has no moral compass.

My new tree is a Coralcole dwarf ornamental crab apple. You heard me. Finding it was a pain in the ass, which is why I ultimately shrugged at that hefty delivery fee. I mean, I could have DRIVEN for several hours to the like one place in France that seems to stock these things, but would that have been time, energy, or cost-efficient? Clearly not. Anyway, it is now here, and I will plant it this weekend, and my husband will eye me warily and wonder why I’m so hell bent on filling up the garden with such highly specific plant life.

WHY? Because God is in the details, damn it, which is about as close to my entire life philosophy as one pithy saying can get.

Watercolor by yours truly.