Wednesday, December 13, 2006

your papers please...

No doubt you've seen films with scenes set in some European city and the main character finds himself face to face with a petty-enforcer type who says, "Your papers please." Most Americans, I think, associate the idea of having to carry "papers" about on their person as something other people have to do...
Indeed, the notion of papers is very much part and parcel of life here. It so happens that students too are required to carry on their persons (when in school) what is called a carnet. A little larger than a passport, it is another example of the French approach of organizing people and obliging them to account for themselves.

If a student is absent due to, lets say, tempete - difficultés de circulation (traffic problems like downed trees caused by a storm...I'm not making this up, see the for a larger view), he takes his carnet to the office and has it stamped and signed and then reports to class and presents it to his teacher. The teacher sees the stamp, possibly notes the excuse, and then waves the victim back to his/her desk. Nothing terribly novel in that approach.
But there is more. The carnet contains another section in which complaints against the student can be recorded in duplicate. Here is where the teacher can play the role of the humorless official in those films, unimpressed by appeals to reason or emotion (bribery?...another matter perhaps).
It goes like offending student, an unrepentant bavard (blabbermouth) finally takes you to the limits of your patience. You look at him and say, "Your carnet, please."
I actually tried this once with a boy. He blanched. It was as if he had imagined that I didn't yet know about the carnet (in fact I had only recently become aware of it). He claimed not have it...I called his bluff.
He feigned fumbling through his pack, hoping I would grow disinterested. I was implacable. Finally, realizing that he could be sent to the office for not carrying his carnet if in fact he didn't have it, he decided that he couldn't continue the charade...his carnet appeared (not the one in the photo by the way). I took it to my desk.
While pondered what to write, he lobbied me earnestly...."please, please don't do this. I won't talk, I promise." I gave him my "Talk to the hand" gesture and wrote "bavardage" in the line labelled "Motif". When he saw that I had filled out a demande de rendez-vous parents/professeur his mortification was complete. He nearly was on his knees at this point. I told him that a signature from his mother would suffice in place of an actual face to face meeting. He was disconsolate - and quiet - for the remainder of the class.
The next time I saw him, he dutifully produced his carnet without my having to ask him. There was his mother's signature on the opposite form. His carnet can be read much like you might scan a passport to learn of a person's travel habits. Any teacher can open it and see at a glance where the student's been or not been...ahh, absent three times, two excused..ahh, a mention from your English teacher for bavardage...interesting.
He seemed no worse for the wear, but he also seemed chastened, or at least interested in not involving mother any further in his affairs in my class. From my point of view, that could be progress.
I'm trying to check my own impulses to play the role of petty-enforcer too often, those characters are invariably pains in the ass in the movies, just another obstacle for the hero to get over...still, leverage is leverage, I guess.


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