My friend, the lovely Madame C, who is the original americaine in this tiny village (I am the barely known "other" American) called me last week with a favor to ask. She is a teacher at the elementary school and wanted to know if I would be willing to be a special guest for her English students. And while she gave me every option to decline, even saying, "You can leave after only fifteen minutes if you want to," of course I said yes. I was even tempted to respond that it would be "totes adorbes" for the first time in my life because what is not to love? Yes, I am incredibly shy in large groups...but come on, that is with adults! I couldn't wait to see what the extra small versions of my neighbors would be like and to see a French classroom. Would it differ greatly from my memories of being that age in the States?
So at 3pm today, I rang the buzzer, appropriately marked "école" at a doorway on the left hand side of our mairie or town hall. I listened for a moment at the first cigales buzzing in the heat until C opened the door, clearly a bit flustered. "They aren't ready yet," she said apologizing. "Would you mind waiting out here for just a bit?" A miniature wooden chair was procured. "Pretend like you don't hear what is going on inside!" After she pulled the door behind her, I listened to a cacophony of voices bubble and burst, somehow always remaining on the proper side of pandemonium. In the hallway I found the same gray blue paint that seems to be a standard school color and coat hooks placed for kid-sized reaching along a wooden rack on the wall. Giant decorated poster-boards had been tacked above them. I scanned "La Révolution Française" explained in brightly colored pencils and was just about to take a photo of Lou Reed standing in as the symbol for Oedipus (Rex) when C opened the door, eyebrows lifted as if to say, "Are you ready?"
Inside, I was met by...a receiving line. Perhaps thirty children, I would say none much older than nine, were standing by their desks with a special group of ambassadors at the door. "Hello," said the first boy with confidence. "Welcome," said another. "How are you?" And so it went. Each word spoken so carefully as if they were passing along a crystal ball from one child to the next. Already, my cheeks were beginning to hurt as I was smiling so hard. "Right this way, please" said a blonde girl with freckles while giving a classic Maitre d' arm sweep. C had prepared me that our theme for the discussion would be as if I were a guest at a restaurant. I was shown to a table in front of the classroom. "Won't you sit down?" piped in another. I was quite impressed. Plates and cups were passed out and C announced that we were going to take une petite pause in order to celebrate a few of the students upcoming birthdays. Aha! No wonder the children were nearly levitating with excitement!
"Would you like a cookie?" I accepted, smiling inwardly at the staccato pronunciation of such an oh-so American word. Three girls lined up in front of the cakes lit with bougies and sparklers while the rest of the class sang first "Happy Birthday" and then a version "en espagnol!" and finally "en français!" No one laughed when the smallest didn't quite successfully blow out her share of the candles. I actually didn't sense meanness of any kind in the class, just the usual "end of the school year" rambunctiousness. As I accepted cake, then brioche, I finally had to politely decline the various gummy bears on offer for fear that all of this sugar would make my head explode. The questions resumed amidst munching as each student - always shyly, often nervously - approached me with their prepared question. "Do you like carrots?" I do and had some for lunch today. "Do you like donuts?" No, not really (which was not at all the response that had been expected and so was met with a fit of giggles). After everyone had successfully delivered their prepared question (at times with repeated coaching whispered in their ears by C), the language was turned and the students were allowed to ask me questions...in French.
Not having children of my own or having had much experience with them, I always appreciate a chance to get an unfiltered version of their personalities. And the questions were appropriately direct, my favorite being..."Are you old?" Yes, yep, I am. Because in their eyes, I am ancient - as huge as a monster, as tall as a skyscraper! Speaking of, I think what they were most interested in was when I explained that in Manhattan, as it is so crowded, people don't live in houses (this was met with a "non!") but apartment buildings that can be fifty or even one hundred floors high. I think that will be a subject around the dinner table tonight in our tiny village.
With class nearing to an end, I was met with a united chorus of "Thank you" then "Have a nice day" and even a formal "Good-bye." C walked me out. She seemed relieved and proud that her students had down so well. "We are so old!" - I couldn't help but blurt it out - "And they are so young...wow, do you remember what it was like to have all the world, all of that knowledge in front of you?" "I see it everyday," she replied with an assured smile. "How wonderful that must be," I thought as I left the school behind and found my way home.