One of my greatest fears as a new parent, right after Matthew’s birth, was about putting him in school in France. While I hadn’t done much research on the system, its results surrounded me: a culture where it’s a bad idea to accept responsibility for one’s mistakes, where apologizing is seen as a sign of weakness, where people talk down to one another in a way that sounds suspiciously like what you would hear a caregiver say to a naughty two-year-old. Not to mention, I didn’t know how to work the system.
My family in the United States is pretty much 100 percent in the field of education. So I feel comfortable talking about American standardized tests, how to work with teachers, what level of knowledge is expected and appropriate for different grade levels, etc. Living in France and putting my child in school here would mean mastering all of these things in a different culture, and doing it without exploding any of the hidden minefields inherent in any cross-cultural exchange. In fact, my concern about the French education system was so intense that it fueled my desire to move back to the United States, which we did when Matthew was about 18 months old. As fate would have it, we returned to France right before Matthew turned three…the age at which children start school in France.
I’m happy to say that it’s been a much more positive experience than I expected. Have there been surprises? Absolutely. In France, parents are not involved in their children’s school life. We get a little notebook filled with activities that our children have participated in when they have a school vacation. Otherwise, contact with the teacher is limited to a brief “bonjour” and “au revoir” at drop-off and pick-up. There are no classroom mothers, few calls for volunteers and the teacher will not chat with you about your child’s progress unless you make an appointment to speak with her. Don’t linger in the classroom, you’ll be reprimanded.
Being a cultural outsider has its benefits; being an English speaker occasionally has some, too. It certainly helped me have a special position in Matthew’s school. I was asked by the principal to come and teach the children Christmas carols. But, attention, they had to be secular carols. No Jesus, no God, nothing pertaining to religion. Because, although Christmas and Easter are roundly and thoroughly celebrated in schools, they are celebrated as cultural events, not as religious ones. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher, but that is France’s version of secularism. I asked the principal why we couldn’t sing a song that had the word that referenced Jesus or God, and she explained that the children might repeat the words to their parents who would be absolutely horrified. She was categorical. No religion in school.
Now, as an American, I’m used to people going on endlessly about their religion. After all, I grew up in Texas, the Bible Belt, where there were prayers over the loudspeakers before football games. I find American religious expression a bit overwhelming, a tad ostentatious. But this French idea of secularism, to pretend in public life that there is no such thing as personal religious beliefs, I find utterly ridiculous. And even worse is the hypocrisy of celebrating what are so obviously religious holidays while totally ignoring the religious meaning.
Of course France’s long and complicated history with religion means that this attitude is perfectly comprehensible and logical to them. We are all profoundly marked by history, which shapes cultural beliefs and norms. As an outsider, one of my privileges is to ask people to explain ideas and beliefs they take for granted, which makes them think about why they believe certain things. It was interesting to see the principal struggle to explain why they have a Christmas tree at school, make Christmas decorations, have the children open an Advent calendar and talk every day about Père Noël and yet pretend that Christmas isn’t religious. I learned some interesting things during that conversation. I hope she did, too.
© 2011 – 2013, Mary Hackett. All rights reserved.