Teachers Are Humans, Too.

When you’re a teacher in a small town, it’s not a matter of if, but when, you will awkwardly run into your students. For me, it was on Friday night at the Aluna George concert.

It being one of the other assistants’ birthdays, the crew got together on Friday night to celebrate and eat massive amounts of junk food. Following this time-honored ritual of noshing down a stomach-churning combination of cheetos, wine, quesadillas, cookies, apple pie, chocolate-beetroot cake, and a shot of tequila for good luck, we ventured into town to see what sort of trouble we might get into at the local music festival that’s been going on all week.

I should have known that all of my students would be there.

I should have known it’d be awkward as heck.

I awkwardly head-nodded  and smiled at a few of them to acknowledge their presence, and then went back to dancing along to the music. Of course, then I felt like all their eyes were on me and my American head-bobbing. (Apparently, the French prefer to show their appreciation for live music by standing stock-still and frowning as much as possible. They’re like the town from Footloose.)

Did anyone else ever hate the idea of seeing their teachers in public? I remember, even as a kid who loved school and the vast majority of her teachers, that running into them was always a bit surreal. I was pretty convinced that teachers just pulled a cot out from under their desks at the end of the day and slept at the school. There’s no way a teacher could have a family or spend any time thinking about anything other than bulletin board designs and lesson plans!

It turns out that teachers are real human beings with lives outside of school, and they find it just as weird as students do when they get caught out in public. Beyond that, I’m a foreign language teacher and in France that means that I’m supposed to speak ONLY English in the classroom: no French help allowed. But when I see a student in public, am I obliged to switch to English, or should I stick to French for the benefit of any non-anglophones around us?

It gets weird, and I usually end up busting out an awkward “Bonjour-‘ello!” before hustling off in whatever direction will get me farthest, fastest.

Such is my life.

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Masquerading as an Adult, or “That Time I was Responsible for Children”

Going on a field trip as a chaperone is a far different experience from that of going as a student. I know I’m technically a “grownup” at 22 years old, but lord knows I felt a little ridiculous doing head counts and herding teenagers all day. I felt like the Chaperone Police would jump out and arrest me for masquerading as a responsible adult at any moment.

On Wednesday morning, two history teachers, 34 15-year-olds, and myself hopped on a charter bus to Arromanches, the town directly in between Gold and Juno Beaches where “Mulberry B”, one of the portable harbors used during Operation Overlord, is located. We began our field trip at the local museum to hear more about the fabrication of the two mulberries and their transportation from Britain to Normandy.

Mini History Lesson Alert! If you don’t feel like learning, feel free to skip this paragraph, but know that I’m shaking my head in disdain at you as you do so. I’ll know. Also, I’m not a history expert. I am a person who reads a lot and occasionally goes to museums. Please don’t take this as canon.

Operation Overlord, the code name for the struggle to liberate Normandy after the initial D-Day landings (aka Operation Neptune), had to get supplies from somewhere. Well over three million troops would access France and the rest of Europe by Normandy’s beaches between June and December of 1944, and they knew that they would need immediate access to a port to transfer necessary equipment. Rather than capture an actual harbor, it was decided that the forces would simply bring the ports with them. The mulberries moved an average of about 9000 tons of supplies daily before they were destroyed during a major storm, and you can still see the remnants of the harbors at low tide.

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Low Tide at Arromanches

Arromanches is also home to the only cinema circulaire in Europe (you know, the type of movie theatre where there are screens all around you that show different images all at the same time). This one was full of powerful raw images of the Battle of Normandy, supplemented by strategic maps and pumping music mixed with Eisenhower and Churchill’s famous speeches. It felt almost like an action movie trailer until the very end, when I was forced to recall that the scenes before me were not of actors and guns with blanks in them, but rather, real kids being gunned down, and real people’s homes being blown apart.

Rough.

After a pique-nique lunch in the icy rain, because apparently Normand men don’t bother to care about planning things like where the children should eat on field trips, we got back on the bus to see the American Cemetery made famous in Saving Private Ryan and every other WWII movie ever made. When I was there last time I didn’t even realize that there was a museum on the property. Possibly because it’s funded by the US government, the museum was beautifully maintained, with accurate English translations on the plaques (these are sometimes hard to find in French D-Day museums) and stylized interiors. It was nice to hear American English being spoken around me by other patrons of the museum; I was tempted to talk to many of the older couples I saw passing through, but I kept to myself and continued speaking French to my incredibly bored students. They probably never realized there was a Southern girl in their midst!

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Our view during lunch after the cinema circulaire. Freezing and grey, but still pretty.

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Entrance to the museum at the American Cemetery

While I’m not sure that the teenagers were deeply moved or even entirely conscious during our field trip, I had a wonderful time. It might not be so important to them right now, but I hope that some of the students will grow up and realize that they live in a region that is saturated in history and culture, and that that’s incredibly cool. I guess forced field trips aren’t the best way to cultivate any real passions among high schoolers, but I hope that one day a few of them will appreciate not only what was sacrificed for them during World War II, but the importance of knowing one’s history in general.

France: Round 2

Bonjour et re-Bonjour! 

It’s that time again.

I’ve begun a new adventure in France! This time, I’ll be working as an English teaching assistant at a high school in Normandy. My first “real” job, my first paycheck, my first experience after college…

It’s all a bit unreal now, but I’m doing my best not to obsess too much about the meaning of “adulthood” and simply enjoy the wonderfully lucky situation I’m in at the moment.

 

After three days of traveling from my home in the US to my new post, I was happy to meet my new colleague, Mehdi, a fellow English teacher, at the train station. He and his wife invited me to their home for dinner and I had a fantastic time learning more about them and life in Normandy. They were very friendly, and I was grateful for the assurance that my time here certainly won’t be lonely. After a cursory after-hours tour of the school, Mehdi showed me to my apartment. It’s just above the main hall and the principal’s office, at the top of a spiral staircase, and it’s all mine.  

The next morning, I emerged from my upstairs haven to introduce myself to the rest of the school. I met the various office secretaries and began the process of remembering all the technical vocabulary needed for setting up rent payments, social security, and bank accounts. I’ve never done any of this stuff in English, let alone French, so it’s a bit intimidating, but hopefully I won’t accidentally transfer all my paychecks to an offshore account in Jamaica or ruin my credit while I’m here. (Remember that whole not obsessing about adulthood thing? Not sure if it’s working.)

Even though I was nervous, I had a wonderful morning, because everyone at the school was incredibly welcoming. The secretaries walked me around to everyone I needed to see, and were understanding when I forgot words and sounded like a cavewoman. Ah well, blame the jet lag. 

 After finishing up my housekeeping business, I walked down a long hall and stood in front of the door to a place that’s always been the most forbidden of rooms, where plush couches and unending pots of coffee abound, and where I’ve always suspected the most secret of rituals take place…..the teachers’ lounge. 

No longer forbidden or secret, but definitely couch- and coffee-filled, the teachers’ lounge is my new favorite place. There, I met Mehdi and the rest of the English teachers, as well as several other members of the faculty who were all just as welcoming as the secretaries. We all chatted and joked around, and then several of the English teachers, including my main supervisor Anne, marched off to the cafeteria, where we skipped ahead of the snaking line of students and grabbed our trays. How could I have forgotten the glory that is the French school cafeteria?? For a whopping €2.50 ($3.38), I was treated to a huge plate of pasta, leek casserole, cantaloupe, cheese, pecan pie, and of course, bread. I ate maybe half and it was all delicious. I can’t wait for lunch on Monday!

I joined Anne a bit later in her LVA English class-some of the most advanced language students at the school. I introduced myself to the class and opened the floor for them to ask me anything they wanted about me and my background. They were a bit shy, but they soon came around and, after a few tense questions about coming from the American South, began asking me about my favorite American TV shows. I took the opportunity to split them into pairs and have them write about their own favorites-almost everyone wrote about Breaking Bad! Most of the students spoke very well, and I was so happy that they were my first class. If the rest of my students are half as attentive, I’ll be just fine!

 This morning (Saturday), I set off exploring my new town. I had been told there was a weekly farmers’ market near school, and I wasn’t disappointed. The market is huge, with everything from live crab and lobster to rows and rows of farmers’ tables and the occasional crepe or sandwich truck. I walked around for a few minutes before selecting the farmer who seemed to be adored by all the little old ladies and had good looking spinach.

Of course, it seems that most farmers, whether American or French, speak a little differently than the rest of us. I didn’t understand the details of what the friendly farmer said thanks to the imaginary wad of gauze stuck in his mouth, but I understood when he handed out grape tomatoes for everyone in line to taste, and when the price he quoted for my carrots, broccoli, and spinach didn’t quite add up to the one I’d calculated in my head. I told him that I’d just moved here and that I’d be frequenting his table in the future. 

The rest of my day was spent cleaning and arranging my kitchen to my preferences and catching up on my lazy internet browsing while it rained. Not too shabby for a Saturday evening! 

So far, I’m very happy to be here. Of course, it was difficult to leave my family back home, but I’m confident that returning to France for this opportunity was a good decision. I can’t wait to see what the year has in store for me, and what memories I’ll bring home.