Thursday, May 24, 2007

school...last days

Grades were due Wednesday even though we still have classes the rest of this week and next and the one after that (only three days actually). Here in France teachers have to personally enter into the official hard copy transcript by hand the students final grades along with the class average, the percentage of students scoring below the average and above, and finally your signature. These transcripts or livrets are in stacked on the table in the teacher workroom, each group's livrets are housed in a loose hard bound sleeve that is fastened with a cloth strip and a buckle. Teachers sit round the table and transcribe grades from their computer printouts onto these relics from a not so bygone era. It's these kinds of anachronistic practices that serve as odd reminders of the weight of tradition in this culture.
In the classroom the challenge for me, professionally speaking, has suddenly shifted from teaching with a hammer (grades) to teaching without one. Unfortunately, the absence of a hammer seemed to embolden one of my congenital nitwits in seconde who decided to toss a half empty chocolate yogurt container from the back of the room in the general direction of the trash at the front. His aim was errant and the results were catastrophic. Chocolat yogurt all over Arianne, a fiery little girl who instantly took offense (understandably) and retaliated by hurling said yogurt back, spilling even more of the stuff on more people's clothing, not to mention desks, chairs and the floor.
In fact, I witnessed none of what I've just described to since I was occupied with two students at the time and had my back turned. It was only when I heard the scuffling sound of chairs being scattered that I turned and saw the aftermath.
What ensued was a long and awkward series of interrogations that finally resulted in a list of names of students whose clothes had been stained and the confession of perp number one. I allowed kids to go clean up and bring materials to clean the room. All the while this was happening I was struck by how this particular group had succeeded at nothing this whole year except insofar as it had consistently lived down to its reputation as the most immature and least manageable group of secondes in recent memory here. My own demeanor was quite calm actually. I had long ago stopped feeling responsible for certain childish attitudes and had adopted a purely love and logic approach. The school counselor interrogated one of my students who was on his way back from cleaning up and she came to my room and delivered a tongue lashing to the group. I was glad to see her since it allowed me to sit back and observe this group interact with another staff member.
It seemed to be for her a last straw with this group. I could see her struggling with an impulse toward collective punishment, an impulse that is nurtured to no small extent by the practice of grouping students the way they do here. She spoke about keeping the whole group after school, she warned them about negative consequences for their future prospects regarding certain orientations they might be hoping to pursue. She harrangued on the general themes of maturity, respect and responsibility. I watched the students during all of this. They have mastered the theater of contrition and the discipline of the suppressed smirk.
In the teacher's room after the break I discover that the story of the chocolate wars in my room has already made the rounds. My colleagues are supportive and encouraging. It could happen to anyone one of us, they repeat over and over. I can see that they are alternately mortified and amused. All of them are unanimous in their characterization of the end of the term as a bit of a lost cause.
Later that day, I was hailed in the courtyard on my way to class. It was Arianne, the girl who been both victim number one and perp number two. She wanted to apologize. I was sure she had been ordered to make this apology, but I also felt that in her case the apology was sincere. All year she has swung back and forth between a precocious, adept English student and being a sly, clever cutup. I find her to be essentially well intentioned and honest, which is more than I can say for perp number one and some of his buddies. Anyway, Arianne explains that she acted impulsively out of anger and that she's sorry. As she leaves I realized that Roman, perp number one, will probably be required to deliver a public apology in class next week...I can hardly wait for that performance. I'm way past feeling touched by such displays, the bottom line for me is the old saying, "If a person says one thing and does another, watch what he does."
It is an unfortunate and discordant note for the year to end on in this particular class, but we actually meet two more times...we'll salvage something perhaps.
The next day I have a completely different experience with my class of terminales. I spend the period teaching them the rules of baseball and reading the Abbot and Costello script "Who's on first?" We even wad up a piece of paper and role play the pitcher catcher batter aspect of the game. Along the way, I inject some observations on how baseball permeates other aspects of American culture. For example, the game of pitch and catch as a metaphor for call and response in gospel churches, or the three strikes laws in effect in various states in the U.S. or the idea of hitting a homerun as being the epitome of good luck and sometimes skill and striking out in love as being the nightmare of every young person. The kids are engaged and willing, there's none of the slyness or the sliding off task behavior that my secondes bring to the table.
With ten minutes to go in the period, I go over the calendar with them, some of our final classes are cancelled due to various school activities...we meet once more I tell them.
There is an awkward silence and then one of them corrects me. No, today is our final class, apparently the last class on the last day on the last week is also preempted by a test. I look at them a bit shocked.
"C'est pas possible," I hear myself mutter aloud. They look at me with pained expressions.
I'm not prepared to say goodbye to this group and I can see on their faces that they feel bad as well. I stumble over some remarks in appreciation of their good will, their patience and their investment in what we've done this year. I also tell them that though I've done my best I know that an experience like this is likely to have caused them problems and for that I'm sorry. Then a hand goes up. It's Francois, an appealing young man who has little use for English but who has a big heart. "Why don't we play a game of baseball next Friday in the field?"
Immediately Alexandre, a vivacious and verbal (in English!) girl pipes up in enthusiastic agreement. There is seems to be general enthusiasm for the idea. I'm warmed to the bones by this initiative. Next Friday at 3:00 on!
I leave the room buoyed by this experience and feeling in a very tangible way for the first time the tug on my heart brought on by the impending close to this chapter of my life.


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