Murderball's a hit but French hot lunch just doesn't cut it

Posted: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

"It's like this, Mom," Shane, our fifth grader, explained after the first couple of days at the Ecole St. Laud. "When I speak French, it's the tape measure being pulled out really slow. When they talk back, it's the tape measure snapping back." He's right - the retractable tape measure sums up the language situation well.

A few years back a Brazilian boy joined Shane's classroom at Mendenhall River Community School. Shane and his classmates gestured and spoke in loud voices attempting to play with the Portuguese-speaking child. Successes and failures in communication efforts were recounted around our dinner table, not unkindly, but with a child's curiosity about something different. The tables are turned and now Shane finds himself in a world of language and customs that are strange to him.

We were discouraged when the companion elementary school to our daughter's high school turned out to have a waiting list, but we persevered. Our efforts were rewarded in the discovery of Saint Laud - a small school of 115 students - and its director, Monsieur Raimbault. The children of St. Laud exhibit a refreshing joyfulness in their play. There is little need for discipline; following lunch recess the director claps his hands on the playground and the children line up outside their classrooms. At day's end mothers and fathers gather outside the gates, locked during the school day, to greet their children with embraces and kisses on their cheeks. If it sounds like a storybook, believe me, it feels like one, too.

One particular French mother, warm and intelligent, has befriended me - for which I am grateful. Through our conversations, a novelty made possible only by her excellent English, she has confirmed that St. Laud is a particularly friendly and welcoming school. I have also learned from her that the school has lost two classrooms in as many years as Angevins - as residents of Angers are called - relocate from the city center to the suburbs. French children attend school four days a week, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and on Saturday morning. Elementary school classes are not held on Wednesday at public or private school, a carryover from an earlier time, when Wednesdays were reserved for Catholic instruction. This mid-week break is now institutionalized, with parent work schedules, childcare arrangements and extracurricular activities adjusted to accommodate the custom.

The mid-day break is nearly two hours, in concert with the closing of most shops between noon and two. This allows for a recess period both prior to and following the hot lunch, consumed family style at a leisurely pace, typical of provincial France.

The school is exclusively French-speaking, with the exception of the twice-a-week English lessons taught by students from Notre Dame (Indiana, not Paris). These sessions are a highlight in Shane's week, along with math and P.E. Numbers on a white board - the modern version of the school slate and chalk - have a way of equalizing the playing field and provide Shane a chance to demonstrate, in his words, "I'm not stupid."

Murderball, the French version of dodgeball, and tag, ironically two games that have fallen into ill favor on U.S. playgrounds, are played with gusto in the St. Laud courtyard. No one seems unduly concerned about injuries to the head or to the psyche; indeed, watching the children enjoy these games, it is hard to imagine why they would be.

The most challenging subject for Shane is "hot lunch." The quintessential brown bag is not an option at St. Laud - nor, perhaps, in all of France. I admit it, indulging my son's finicky eating habits is a major flaw in my parenting. I kept meaning to have him try wheat bread or to eat foods that touch on the plate. Life just got busy and the years rolled by and the result is a child who can detect the difference between generic and name brand graham crackers.

The first hot lunch was fine - an unadorned omelet, radishes, and pudding were served and Shane ate them down. But the second meal was a disaster. It so happened that my husband and I had a meeting scheduled with the director that day and when we were greeted at the (locked) gate by the school secretary, she spoke in such animated tones that I was sure some catastrophe had befallen Monsieur Raimbault, necessitating a cancellation of our appointment. Upon translation, I learned that the entire conversation had been about Shane's not eating his lunch.

"So, what was the menu, anyway?" I couldn't help asking my husband Robin, just out of curiosity.

"I think she said paté, cooked spinach, turkey in sauce, ratatouille and a tangerine."

Shane's description was far more dramatic, including the phrases "unidentifiable meat" and "gross brown something." He ate bread and the tangerine. Fish sticks, served last Friday, were a hit - a breaded food consumed with ketchup. The only detraction was the shocked looks on the children's faces when Shane attempted to eat one without a fork.

Honest, we introduced cutlery at least a year ago.

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