I spent this morning in elementary school with the munchkins, who were all the cuter for speaking French and offering up their sweet little round-cheeked faces for bisous.
The school is set in the center of a Typical Provencal Village, which may be the only thing more charming than well-behaved children with toothless grins. School, 12th century stone church, post office, mairie (town hall, but replace the white wooden peaked building with a sturdy stone facade), and Roman fountain, wrapped around the town petanque green, shaded by pale-barked trees. Three-story houses with colorful shutters peer at each across narrow cobbled streets -- narrow to keep the too-hot sun out. On a warm, sunny morning, the glaring sun is mellowed to leafy green and pastel.
The school building itself surrounds a flat courtyard dotted by shade trees. There is no playground, but the children find means anyway to run around and amuse or hurt themselves.
The day started at 8:30, with their teacher checking their blue math notebooks for completed homework. Those who hadn't completed it went and, without any fuss, wrote their names on the chalkboard. (If I understood correctly.)
After they introduced themselves and figured out that I was American, we did a little geography. Luckily, they could find America on the map, and major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Hollywood, etc. They also found Alaska, which isn't quite attached to the rest of the US, but is the same color on the map, and there's another piece of the US over there that's the same color, right next to Russia... No, that's Mongolia. Mongolia is not America.
Our next lesson was math. After I gave them a numbers dictation (thirty is a killer -- what's this th business? how can you be sure she didn't say thirteen?), I busted out the American Dollar -- which is not from Egypt (despite the pyramid picture on the back), nor is that a picture of the Queen, or her son, or a judge. I showed them a $20 bill (which, although the $1 has a picture of the first president, doesn't actually have the 20th president on it), and one child pointed out that the dollar is worth less than the euro; another kid guessed that a 20 must be worth about 5 euros. Ouch. (It's more like 15 euros.) I had cleaned out my change purse on arriving in France, and I had enough American coins for each kid to have one. They asked me quite a few questions along the lines of, "Is this real money? Is this what you use to buy things?" It's a strange feeling to realize that what is arguably the most motivating symbol in our country is effectively, to these kids, play money.
Morning snack break appeared pleasantly soon, and, lo and beyond, it was Clemente's 9th birthday, and we all ate cookies and Coke. I have never seen so many 8-year-olds behave so calmly in the presence of sugar. Yet more unwitting disregard for American values. I led the class in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday," which they all seemed to know already. I hope that being sung "Happy Birthday" by a real American was at least a little exciting for her.
I finished the morning by playing my violin, and then it was time for them to trot off to lunch (either purchased from the school cafeteria, or eaten at home with their family -- they have two hours to make sure they get a proper hot meal). A few stopped to ask me questions ("Is this real money?" "I have the same bag as you!"), to thank me, and to give me bisous.
I spoke only in English the entire morning, which was understandably confusing. But it was exciting when a child would surprise us by understanding a sentence, or a word they'd probably never heard before, or when they'd know some fact about the US that seemed to come from thin air. I don't believe the French education system is founded on this concept, but there is something enchanting about listening to what children have to say.