Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reflections on My Second Year of Teaching in France: Life Really Floors You Sometimes

Warning: This post is quite long and not particularly funny. There are, however, a few cartoons to break up the monotony of pure text, so it's kinda like reading a children's book. Wheeeee! Cartoons!

Being a fairly new teacher who dove head-first into the French pedagogic world in Sablé-sur-Sarthe, it is not uncommon for me to have my thoughts be plagued by the notion that I am the absolute worst person in my profession.

Nearly daily, I convince myself that I am incompetent, that I am incapable of planning a structured lesson and, most importantly, motivating the kids to appreciate the subjects for which I am entrusted to pass on knowledge. As the minutes drag, I see the boredom in my students' eyes, their disinterest an apparent mask of disdain relaying what they think about me and my material. They judge. Even worse, they mock my accent, not realizing how deflating it is to have people not recognize the difficulty of how it is to communicate in another language. Some days are so horrid that I question why the hell I even care to do this job in the first place when I would rather much spend my days accomplishing my personal goal of becoming a published author.

(Ironically, even that goal is shot, for, lo, I am certain to be the worst writer in the world and cripple my determination by never finishing what I have started.)

Yet there are good days, or moments: a lesson went smoothly, the students grasped the material easily, they received good marks on an exam. Occasionally, when the bell rings, I'll even have a student break from his concentration, look up from his desk in shock, gasp, then utter that one spontaneous question any teacher loves to hear, "Already?"

I can't help but savor that delicious moment. I'll lock eyes with the student, smile and affirm "Yes, already. See you next time."

That doesn't happen often and I wish it did. Still, I suppose that one can't be spoiled.

The job also comes with the paralyzing jolt of the existential crisis. On the bad days, I wonder just how my teaching legacy will be, if at all, remembered. Will it be positive? Negative? Will nobody even care?

Will I even care, or shall I simply resolve to become a bitter, complacent, apathetic individual?

This week, I had a glimpse of what could be. My answer came in the guise of a large packet.

Before I explain the contents of said packet, I will first recount the story of some former students of mine from last year.

Two sisters, both in different years, left the school where I teach to study elsewhere. The first one, a former 3ème (around 15 years old) graduated from collège (middle school) to pursue a vocational training to become a beautician. The other sister, a bright and passionate animal-loving 16-year old 2nde (high school) is currently studying dog breeding and grooming. I taught the former English, the latter, Spanish.

Ever since they left the school, I have on occasion have had the good fortune to have our paths cross, usually when I go grocery shopping. I'm always glad to see them for they are kind people. Their mother is always with them. It is evident from our happenstance meetings that she is the person who passed on the garrulous but kindhearted traits to her own daughters. Our encounters are always memorable.

Prior to my going home for the summer holidays last year, my students begged me to send them a postcard from Miami. The United States is an impossible thing for them, a place that is so very out of reach. For my former English student, her dream is to one day be a make-up artist for female professional wrestlers. I raised my eyebrows at that dream because, prior to her uttering it, I had heard none quite like it before.

"But it'll never happen," she sighed.

"Don't say that," I retorted. "I never thought that I would get the chance to live in France, and look where I am, standing here, talking to you. If you work hard at what you want, then perhaps you'll surprise yourself in the future."

"But Madame, you will send us a postcard, won't you?" implored my Spanish student.

"Since you asked, my dear, of course I shall. I promise to do so. Please write down your address for me."

I went home. While my mother and I took our yearly outing to my favorite spot in Miami-Dade county, Bill Baggs Cape Florida, I struck gold at the gift shop and found a postcard to send to my students. I wrote them a message, placed a stamp in the corner and mailed it. I also sent them one from Savannah, Georgia. I soon followed the postcards back to France in preparation for the days when my life would be marked by punctual, hourly bells.

When the family and I had our next random encounter at the supermarket, the girls thanked me over and over about the cards. "They're so pretty! It makes me want to go see America!"

"We've placed them in frames," their mother informed me.


"Yes. They make wonderful decorations and brighten our walls."

Then, in an interesting turn of events, my Spanish student inquired if I had received their card in turn, the one that had been mailed to Miami. I informed them that I hadn't and that it probably arrived just after I had left. The girls looked slightly disappointed. But then:

"No matter! I'll send you a postcard from where I'm studying in Brittany!"

"Brittany? Ooh, I'd like that. I've never gotten a postcard from Brittany before, nor have I been there, which is silly when you consider how close the Loire Valley is to Brittany."

Seriously, it's, like RIGHT THERE.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, I received my postcard from La Bretagne. It made me want to go visit there. Instead, I went to Ireland and sent my students postcards from Dublin, Kylemore Abbey, Galway and Giant's Causeway.

They later exchanged a thank you letter as a sign of their gratitude.

In December, I had a bit of a predicament. I needed empty cartons for a project that I wanted to realize with my collège students. It proved to be a bit of a hassle because wherever I went to find boxes, I was told by store employees that none were available. Moreover, if I had managed to find boxes, I would have had no means of being able to transport them because I don't own a car.

But I've got playing Box Tetris down to an art.

By great coincidence, just when I thought that I would not be able to carry out my project, I heard a voice call out my name.

My last name, preceded by a "Madame." From this formality, I knew instantly that a student of mine had seen me. And as luck would have, it was my English student with her mother. They asked what I was doing. I explained.

They knew exactly where I needed to go to find boxes and they offered to drive me to the place.

"Are you sure? I mean, it wouldn't be any trouble for you to--"

"Oh, of course not! If anything, we'd be more than happy to help you!" And help me they did: in choosing the cartons, in carrying the cartons, even in unloading the cartons into my apartment. I apologized for the untidy state of my room.

"Don't worry about it, it's not a problem," they said generously.

"Oh, yes it is, because whenever my room is spic and span, no one comes to visit me. But the second it looks like a hurricane swept through, people come to visit and I give them the impression that I live in a constant mess!"

My student then noticed the flag hanging on my wall.

"Oh, it's the American flag! Is it a real one?" By "real one," she meant if it was a sturdy, genuine article made in the United States.

"Yes, it is. You can even see the stitching and each embroidered star."

"It's so cool and so pretty."

"I've always wanted a real American flag," her mother then said.

As luck would have it, I happened to have in my possession a spare American flag. An authentic one with careful stitching and embroidered stars. I had brought that flag from the United States as a request from someone who I would unfortunately never see again. It had since become a nomad in my room.

I reached into the bookcase where it had taken residence and presented it to the family.

"Here. I'm giving it to you."

"No, no, we can't accept it."

"Please do. I am very grateful for what you have done for me. I would want nothing more than for you to have it."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes!" I insisted. "Didn't you say you wanted a real American flag? Have it!"

They thanked me for the gift. The mother mentioned that, if I agreed, she would speak with her former Spanish teacher to see if he could give me tips on the profession. I said that I wouldn't mind if she did.

The end of December approached. I flew off to the Netherlands to celebrate the New Year. The very first postcard that I sent on January 1st 2014 from Amsterdam was to my students. I came home to find a Christmas card sitting in my mailbox from them. I thanked them for their card and they thanked me for mine.

It seemed to me that my little game of postcard badminton had reached a draw. I already began to think about from where I would send them my next postcard. Possibly from Key West in March or maybe the Netherlands again in April.

Teaching resumed. Weeks passed. Lessons were taught. Students misbehaved. I lost my patience with them. Lessons were planned. Hours were slept with unease. Planned lessons failed. Students became bored. And I became dejected with each day. I questioned for the umpteenth time why, at the risk of losing my sanity, did I still do this job.

Then the packet came. The packet from my corresponding family.

I admit to being a bit perplexed from the size and weight. I felt inside the tawny envelope and determined that it contained something rectangular with several pages. My deduction was that a book was hidden inside! My heart leapt. I do so love books.

I carefully opened one side of the envelope and peaked at its contents.

There was no pristine book. Yet there were indeed pages.

In fact, there was something that resembled a book. One that had been in poor state with yellowed, stained pages. I removed the book-like item and glanced at the faded pastel green cover. The tattered cover was missing a corner and seemed to be on the cusp of losing yet another. On the other side, it had a black and white picture of two smiling Guatemalan boys dressed in haphazard fashion.

Since the picture had lost its glue foundation, I could read the French text on the back to determine that it had been taken from a newspaper. Even after so much time, the clipping clung onto the delicate cover. I opened the book-like item, realizing the cover had since become detached, and looked through the pages. Pools of a burnt ochre marked where the staples had been.

I recognized the French format for notebook paper. I glanced through the pages and was struck by a careful, somewhat familiar handwriting that had etched so many years ago lessons regarding poems, vocabulary and verb tenses. In Spanish.

I set the frayed notebook gingerly on the table and then turned my attention to the card that was also included in the envelope. Tucked inside it were a more recent newspaper clipping, another letter and the family's words. My former students said hello and expressed a hope that I am doing well and that they would see me again. They were so happy to have received my card.

The mother, on the other hand, explained what exactly was in my packet.


I have indeed received your beautiful card from the Netherlands, for which I thank you.

In exchange, I am giving you my Spanish notebook from my 2nde class. You will also find the letter that my former Spanish professor sent to me. Sorry!

I hope to see you again very soon."

"Sorry?" I thought. What was she apologizing about?

I read through her former professor's letter. In it, he eloquently joked about how kind it was for a student to remember an old "dinosaur" teacher. He mentioned that the frequent interactions of friendship he's had with former students was comforting and that one of his granddaughters also became a Spanish teacher in Paris. She loves this beautiful profession, which gives him great pleasure to know, yet she often realizes that it's sometimes difficult to do...sometimes with secret tears.

He remarked that times have indeed changed because his students gave him only nothing but happiness, every confusing generation. Yet those generations were educated by society, and especially by their parents. This is no longer the case.

Then, to my surprise, my name came up in his letter. He mentioned that while he doesn't doubt that I am a nice person, he cannot "honor" her request to contact me because it has come at a bad time. He is selling the house, he won't live in Sablé, this failing city. He also has family to look after.

I can't blame him for denying the request, for such is a life, I suppose. The older you become, the less time you'll have to dedicate it to anyone outside of family, and you'll wish to cherish every fleeting second granted to you in this ephemeral life.

Then, as a final shock, I read the newspaper clipping. It was dated from December 2010 and it featured a colored article interviewing the former Spanish teacher. He had just published his second novel and despite having had a life-long passion for writing, he had only published his first book at the age of seventy.


I sat there, a twenty-six year old, thinking that my life will never amount to anything, and was confronted by a hidden lesson that floored me. Here was history repeating itself. The mother exchanged letters with her teacher. I had unknowingly continued the tradition with her own daughters. And as a sign of appreciation, she bequeathed me a treasured notebook which, according to her, was a memento from her best year.

I wondered if I had been a part of her daughters' best year as well.

My limbs went numb and my mouth lost all sensation of being in a perpetual humid state. I wanted to cry.

Instead, I tucked the treasured gifts back into the packet, placed it in my pigeon hole, then, with secret tears, went to teach my 4ème students with a more emboldened outlook.

Barb the French Bean


  1. Wow! I wasn't quite sure where this post was headed when you said it wasn't funny. I'm glad I took the time to read it. How inspiring!

  2. I read the entire post and wasn't one bit bored. It's outstanding. You've given this old lady new hope.


  3. That was lovely to read.

    I know many teachers, and both my parents were teachers too. I've seen just how tough it can be on those who teach sometimes, all the self-doubt, and often the feeling of a lack of appreciation for what they do, by those for whom they do it.

    But never forget, teaching is probably THE most noble profession. Nobody is going to be a doctor or whatever if they can't get through medical school - someone had to teach those kids how to learn, how to study, how to apply themselves, and how to be open to new experiences. Almost every other profession rides on the backs of the work that teachers do.

    So yeah, have hope, be proud, and whenever you start doubting yourself just remember that you have ALREADY made a difference, no matter what else happens. And thanks for choosing to teach.

  4. Teachers are certainly inspiring. I think many people are where they are today because of someone who inspired them at an impressionable age and I can gaurantee that will usually be a teacher. How poignant the realisation must be that you are the inspiration of at least one young life and partly responsible for the future paths they choose :)

  5. Teachers in North America should be paid and treated better. If it weren't for a some of the ones I had in Elementary and Junior high, I know I wouldn't be the person I am today.

  6. That story is amazing. What an amazing family (and an amazing teacher they have ;)

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Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb