French Lessons: French school dress, other mild shocks

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

If schools are a window into a community, Heather's experience at the Lycée (high school) Sainte-Agnes is a virtual sliding glass door into French culture, teen and otherwise. By the time Shane and I arrived in Angers, my husband had met with the director to determine Heather's course schedule and she had been attending classes for three weeks. Through necessity, she adapted to a degree of independence that quickly became a preference. Upon my arrival, eager to catch up, I quizzed her about her school life. She didn't disappoint.

Take the bathroom situation. Co-ed. Heather's initial thought was that the students were playing a practical joke on the new kid, insisting the toilets were co-ed and sending her into the boy's loo for a laugh. Co-ed bathrooms may seem a trivial detail. But consider if JDHS males and females emptied their bladders in stalls side by side, stepped out, gave each other a friendly nod and washed their hands together at the sink. This casual acceptance of life's most basic function seems a healthy one. No big deal. Everyone does it. Get over it.

And then there's the wardrobe issue. American high schools have a 10-day rule. That is, girls can't - cannot - wear the same shirt within 10 school days. We had the rule when I was in school and it hasn't been repealed. Heather was surprised to find that, in the very country of high fashion, French girls often wear the same clothes several days in a row. As chief laundress, I applaud this facet of French life, though Heather has yet to embrace it. Students do take great care in their appearance - styled hair, makeup and accessories all attest to a definite attention to fashion. That just doesn't translate into a different shirt every day.

With the critical stuff covered, Heather launched into the academic aspect of school. The complex matrix that is her monthly schedule rivals school bus transport in Juneau. She is unfazed about starting and ending school at different times each day; that certain classes meet only every other week; that religious study is the first Monday of each month, displacing regular Monday afternoon classes; and that art class meets from 5 to 7 p.m. JDHS has prepared her well; she has that schedule down. What does matter is that the arrival of the "American student" was eagerly anticipated by her homeroom and that she was warmly welcomed into the school.

Our view is limited to two semi-private Catholic schools, Heather's lycée and Shane's école (elementary school), in a prosperous urban setting. Semi-private is the designation given to religious schools subsidized by the government in exchange for teaching the established national curriculum. In practical terms, it means that their combined tuition is about $150 per month - less than the cost of their daily hot school lunch. Guess there's no subsidy for lunch. Still, as far as I am concerned, nine Euros a day is a fair trade for a reprieve from slicing apples and slapping peanut butter onto bread, especially since there is no peanut butter in France.

French students are tracked - usually through the completion of middle school (college), based on ability and interest - into courses of study ranging from vocational/technical to highly academic. Fortunately for us, Sainte-Agnés, with its international focus, has an additional track, "seconde tois," for students Heather's age yet to be slotted. For French students this track, only available through private school, provides the more lackadaisical Anne-Marie or Pierre with a second chance to get serious about school.

I'm not exactly a "que sera sera" type, especially when it comes to my kids, so I admit it seems strange to relinquish so much control regarding my daughter's school life. I haven't actually seen her school, inside or out. I have not yet met any of her teachers or fellow students. But in France, the fact that children have their own school lives seems natural and even healthy.

Take the field trip to Paris that popped up out of the blue. I briefly considered refusing to let her go. Who was in charge? What if she got lost in Paris? What were their activities? Ultimately, I went along with the plan and walked her to a designated street corner where 40 students converged to board a chartered bus. I left her on the dark corner at 6:15 a.m. without seeing another adult, let alone a teacher, unsure if I felt victorious or negligent. Dad got pick-up duty, which meant walking the mile to the same corner at the assigned time of 2:00 a.m., standing in the cold for over an hour trusting that the bus would appear and that our daughter would emerge. It did and so did she, tired but happy as they plodded the distance home in the pre-dawn darkness.

In all, I am reminded that children, even mine, are amazingly resilient, adaptable, and open-minded. There is, however, one French feature that Heather refuses to acknowledge as anything other than disgusting. Those few remaining pissoirs (public urinals behind low, concrete walls exposing heads and feet) are a definite "thumbs down."

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