Around this time last year, I was packing and preparing for – not to mention panicking at – the prospect of a year spent working in France. In a few months, it will have been a year since my initial frantic blog posts about lesson planning, poor communication from my department, incessant bureaucracy, and the pleasantly overwhelming amount of cheese.
Purely due to chronic stress-induced tiredness – or tiredness-induced stress – and a lack of anything I deemed sufficiently interesting, I stopped posting after a while, and I regret it now. Looking back at these old posts, I wish I had continued writing, as I enjoyed the job exponentially after the initial few months of dust-settling, and almost none of my posts adequately reflect how I came to feel about the job after a while.
In order to compensate, I’m going to condense the last couple of months down to my top-five favourite moments. I know some would rightly say that a bullet-point list can’t make up for my rambling ranting negativity before a stony six-month silence, but I hope when you read the ecstatic tone with which I write some of these things, you’ll see why I think they could.
(These aren’t really in any real order, other than the thing in the first position.)
Number five: the national anthem. Secondes are amazing classes; they’re fresh out of collège and usually – usually – eager to learn new things, but far enough away from important exams to maintain the bright-eyed enthusiasm of children awed with the world, rather than the morose eyes of a student faced with exams. I was once working with some seconde classes whose teacher had been teaching them the British national anthem and, as a ‘gift’ to me, they would be singing it for me. I wasn’t too impressed by their lack of enthusiasm, so I employed one of my favourite teaching tactics: maximise ludicrousness to minimise awkwardness. Those social psychology modules I had to take appear to have paid off. I told them to sing loud, really loud, like at a rugby match. I opened the classroom door and told them I wanted the whole school to hear, and that they mustn’t fail Britain in front of a Brit.
They didn’t let me down. It was raucous, and I honestly felt a twinge of pride. I never thought this would happen, but it took 30 French kids to make a patriot out of me. I then asked, for the sake of my own curiosity, for them to sing La Marseillaise – the French national anthem – and that was truly deafening, and a great end to the lesson.
Number four in the countdown is something non-school related. Late last year, I was invited by a colleague to have dinner with him and his family. He used the French word gaver, which should have given me an indication as to what was coming my way during that evening.
Food in France is serious business; meals can last for hours, involve a seemingly unending number of courses, an inordinate amount and variety of beverages, a stark lack of vitamin C, and constant mental calculations regarding calorie consumption and the rapidly increasing probability of a sudden heart attack.
I lost count of the number of courses after the Tartiflette, which I think was number five, but however many there were between the foie gras and the eventual emergence of the digestif at around 2am, it was nothing less than glorious.
Taking third place is Shakespeare. Not the man himself, but the premières’ performance of selected scenes from Romeo and Juliet on La Journée des Artes which took place on my final day as an official staff member at Méchain.
We spent countless hours rehearsing, with the help of two rather unhinged actresses from Amiens; I was basically there as the resident English consultant, listening for pronunciation errors, helping explain things, assuring everyone that this isn’t the sort of language you’re likely to hear in modern-day Britain. The ‘modernisation’ of the text was basically a find-and-replace butchering in Microsoft Word perpetrated against my recommendation, replacing a handful of olde worlde English terms – specifically ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘thine’ – with their loose modern equivalents.
The performances weren’t bad; there were some forgotten lines, a bit of uneven pronunciation, and one class just didn’t perform at all, but it was fun nonetheless. Honestly, most of the students’ parents couldn’t speak a word of English, so the students could just as easily have got up there and recited lines from Star Wars with the names changed (‘Help me Romeo-Kenobi, you’re my only hope!’) and no one would have been any the wiser, but I thought it went well.
Really it was the rehearsals that I enjoyed, even if the end result wasn’t great, though I think that was caused more by the peculiar actresses our department procured, and the students’ collective unease around them.
Second place, something about which I’m proud in a slightly cruel way, I suppose. The last three weeks at Méchain were difficult for me, but not difficult in the same way that the first few weeks were. By this stage I was really enjoying teaching; I’d found my rhythm and a style that worked for me – light-hearted anarchy, strictly in English – but the time eventually came where I had to inform my students that I was leaving. This took the same form in most classes; me simply saying that this would be my last or penultimate lesson with them, and that they should make the most of it.
In most classes, this was met with strong disappointment, and at least two students cried. Sad, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit good about it, because I guess it means that I was doing something right.
Finally, something about which I’m proud on less contemptible ground than the last, and probably the most important part of the last six months for me: the Première class I took in late April. Just a few weeks before I stopped my regular teaching duties, one of my colleagues asked me to cover a class on a Monday afternoon. You may remember from my earlier posts, me complaining about the crazy Belgian teacher. This class was one of hers, and I spent the preceding weeks being grilled relentlessly about what I would be doing with them, a grilling which usually turned into a veritable roasting in which the epithets and criticisms flew thick and fast.
After what must have been the hundredth iteration of the same agitated conversation, I just said quite plainly, ‘I have a plan, it’s a good plan, I’ve done it with other classes, it went well.’ ‘OH NO but you should be doing this and that and not doing this because of some bizarre and contradictory reason I’ve just half-baked in a split second since you began speaking before I didn’t bother listening to you etc.’. As usual, I ignored her. I don’t want to dwell on this part, because it eclipses what was to come.
The lesson itself was perfect. Literally perfect. We had a great time, the class was very responsive, very immersed in what we did, and the results were better than I’d hoped. Even now, as I write this, my face is locked in a rictus grin at the memory, and I don’t even care what the people sitting opposite me on in Filigranes must think.
(Filigranes, by the way, is the second most incredible bookstore/cafe in Brussels, after Pêle Mêle. There’s a pianist playing behind me, and I’m trying to restrain my inane smirking so as not to distract the other people here.)
We began with some conversation questions – fashionably bizarre; like I said, maximum ludicrousness, minimum awkwardness – which were hilarious, then some listening comprehension involving a scene from Sherlock, and a rather competitive game and quiz based on the scene, which involved students explaining and reasoning things they saw and so on, all of which I tried to orchestrate in my usual style of cheerful, yet focussed anarchy. When the bell rang at the end of the period, the class groaned in unison.
It was soon after this lesson that some of my students sidled up to me in the corridor, and quietly announced that they were going to submit a petition to the principal asking him to fire the crazy Belgian teacher and give her my job. Obviously this couldn’t have actually happened but on the back of that class and others like it, I wouldn’t have turned it down if it had.
The hour I spent with these students really solidified my love of teaching; it didn’t always feel like this, but it’s worth enduring the pile of bad classes for the sake of the great ones that stand out.
Working so closely with high school students throughout the year, I couldn’t help but think about myself as a high school student – the good old days of ridiculous long hair and a short list of responsibilities – and wonder how terrified the 16-year-old me would have been knowing that in just five years, he would be on the other side of the teacher’s desk, on the other side of the Channel.
In a way, I’m glad that my getting this placement was a result of one of my characteristically unplanned impulses; it’s true that I had been looking for something like this, but having time to think can be as dangerous as it is advantageous, as it also provides plenty of time to over-think. I don’t think I would have bottled it at the last minute, but I’m glad that I never had the chance to do so.
Speaking of my flaws, I have an uncomplicated relationship with nostalgia, inasmuch as it completely owns me. The days I spent in Laon last week have only reminded me of this aspect of my personality. I met up with old friends and colleagues, as though nothing had changed, as though my three-month sojourn away from Laon in England had simply not happened. It was quite odd going back to all these places that had been so integral in my life but, for the past three months, had since been consigned to memory.
Above all, coming back here has made me realise the extent to which I miss living abroad, and teaching. There’s something oddly comforting about being a stranger in a strange land – yes, France is hardly exotic, I know – living under the label of ‘foreigner’, not to mention having a new interesting country at your feet.
As for the future, I’m still uncertain. A few weeks before I left Méchain, I met a theatre consultant/English teacher working on a project at the school. After a couple of minutes speaking in French, he blindsided me with a thick cockney accent; ‘why don’t we just speak English?’ He’d been living in Amiens since the 80s, and had never gone back to the UK. His advice to me boiled down to this: ‘if you can cope with teaching, teach English abroad. You’ll probably never be rich, but you’ll never be unemployed.’
The idea of travelling from place to place, picking up teaching work to fund my travel addiction, and seeing the world in this way is very inviting. The lack of long-term stability is the only thing putting me off. I don’t want to live the placid suburban life, but at the same time I don’t think severing ties to the UK indefinitely is advisable, at least not yet.
I have a year. Two years, if I do postgrad, – which seems probable at this rate, – plenty of time to come to some kind of description. It’s ironic; one of the reasons I wanted to do a year abroad was to figure out what I wanted to do long-term; this has only added one more option into the mix.
(This is the last post I will submit on my year in France. I really wanted it to end on a high note, but it seems to have finished with my tepid open-ended musings about the future. If you felt, as I do, that the end was a little anticlimactic or unenthusiastic, please feel encouraged to go back and read the number-one item on my top-five list, and know how joyful and satisfied that lesson made me.)