As August faded into September, I found myself waking in the early hours. The children would soon be starting school speaking very little French, and the enormity of what we were asking of them loomed out of the 2am darkness. I felt sick with anxiety.
Of course, we had tried to help them learn French for months. We engaged a tutor before we left New Zealand, we played language learning apps daily in the car while travelling and we had encouraged them to take their first steps in conversation. But we hadn’t pushed them hard.
The truth is, they weren’t genuinely motivated. French felt like a chore. They moaned, they groaned. We were busy, we were on the road, they were being exposed to the language every day, they were taking tentative first steps to converse in the shops and markets, and we wanted them to enjoy this time of family travel.
I knew that once they found themselves in a playground with a ball and a group of kids, they’d find a way to communicate. We had thought this would happen in campgrounds we stayed in during July, but we were a little ahead of the holiday season and there weren’t too many French kids around.
Lying in the dark, I can’t help feeling I have been a bit ‘laissez faire’ (or maybe just plain lazy) about it all, and in so-doing, that I had let them down. ‘Kids are sponges’, ‘total immersion is best’, ‘they’ll pick it up quick’. Or so ‘everyone’ says. But has everyone actually put their kids in French school and let them sink or swim? Plainly not. This feels huge.
Now that we’ve stopped travelling and settled in our village house, the kids have started to freak out about school too. Whenever he’s out of sorts, our youngest shouts that France was a “dumb stupid dream”, that he just wants to go home and he never wanted to learn ‘stupid French’ anyway.
Yet he’s the one I think will learn the fastest, if he can handle the frustration. He’ll be in the equivalent of a mixed year 1 and 2, where the kids are beginner readers, so the work will be at the perfect level. He’s already met one of the few boys his age who speaks English, and bonded over their shared love of Ninjago, so he’s got an instant entrée to the playground. I think he’ll catch on quickly, but there will be tough days and it’s going to wear him out.
Middle son is also not impressed about the idea of school and for him, we know that sport will be the key. He’s been trying to negotiate all sorts of deals, ranging from home school, heading back to NZ, or in a last ditch attempt to make the inevitable palatable, going to French school without complaint for a whole month in exchange for a LEGO set.
Our eldest, who will be starting the second year of collège (like year 8 in NZ) has the biggest mountain to climb. She has been fortunate to connect with another child who moved here with little French two years ago and has rapidly progressed. This was encouraging, but then again, that child started in primary school. Collège is a whole new level. I worry about how she will fill the two hour lunch break, without the ease of play that goes with the primary school years, and how long it will take her to make friends, or at the very least, feel at ease here.
A few days before school starts we pop into collège to drop off her paperwork. The instant we step into the hallway, a distinctive fragrance (or maybe odeur) transports me straight back to my days at lycée in Normandy in 1992. It must be some sort of regulation disinfectant or cleaning product used in French schools. It’s amazing how these aromas become imprinted on our subconscious. Do I feel 16 again? Not quite. I feel full of trepidation at what lies ahead.
Unlike other aspects of French life, schools tend towards functional rather than pretty. From what I have seen, there are typically no green spaces, children play in concrete courtyards and unless the school is old and gracious, the buildings tend more towards what I might style ‘Eastern bloc architecture’. The grounds are fenced and the gates are locked outside of the standard entry and exit times.
The highlight of the tour was the visit to la cantine that is shared by both the collège and the primary school next door. A framed map hangs on the wall, showing the local provenance of the beef, lamb, fish, chicken, lentils, eggs, yoghurt, jams, cheese and veggies the chef will use in their lunches. Apparently (and this must have been during my time in lycée), lunches used to contain a lot of frozen components, but now, in the Ariège at least, the emphasis is on fresh, locally grown and sometimes organic. Four quality courses for lunch every day? Yes please! The boys are in heaven. Our daughter is not convinced. And parents are only allowed to come along once per school year. Boo hoo. Looks like I’m still stuck with a peanut butter sandwich.
The Friday before la rentrée (the great return to school and work at the end of summer), we pop into the primary school to meet the boys’ teachers and show them where to find all the important things like toilets and sports equipment. Our youngest hides behind my back and sticks his head beneath my kimono, reverting to tricks he hasn’t tried since he was three.
The teachers are warm and kind. One says she will speak to middle son only in French, but he can ask her questions in English as she understands a little. It’s a method she has used successfully with another child in the past. He nods along, and says he understands a bit. Everyone seems a little bit happier.
So why are we doing this? Giving them the gift of a foreign language was our first priority, as well as exposing them to a different culture and way of life.
But more than anything, we want them to learn that they are, to quote Winnie the Pooh, “braver than they feel and stronger than they seem”, and capable of doing hard things. To have empathy for others they meet across their lifetime, who may be new or different, who do not speak the language or understand the customs. To understand that they can make friends anywhere, and that people are, at heart, the same the world over.
So with rapidly beating hearts, we send them off on the first days of term. Full of worries and fears and anxieties, yet so so brave….
This story is to be continued….