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.

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