For Exploring Geography today, we’re going back in time – over 20 years – to my own childhood in France. I don’t know how much the school system has changed since I was there, but it was very different back then from US schools.
Out of the countries I was raised in, France was the one where I came closest to truly assimilating. I lived there for fourth through sixth grade. My parents enrolled us in a French public magnet-type school that taught us French more effectively than I have ever seen English taught to language learners in any American school. After one very intense “Special French” class, we were mainstreamed into the general population – and, mostly, kept up.
Our school was built around an old castle (chateau), which was still used for some classes. There were all sorts of tall tales about what had happened to the original owner of the chateau. We went to school from 9-5, with a two-hour lunch break. Most of the lunch break was spent in a paved courtyard, regardless of what the weather was like. I remember being soaked through by the end of lunch on some days, and I got really good at playing marbles.
We didn’t have lockers, and had to carry all of our books for all of our classes every day. I remember my appalled mother weighing my backpack one morning when I was twelve, and it was over thirty pounds! Our school supply lists were pages long, and extremely detailed – down to what color our notebooks and notebook covers should be, and what brands. Most of the time we used fountain pens, but we had to have ball point pens for some assignments. Some classes required a fountain pen with blue (erasable) ink, while others required black (permanent) ink. There was a lot of memorization work, dictations, and essay writing.
In class, we copied text off of the board. Some text had to be underlined, and other text had squares drawn around it. You lost points for underlining incorrectly, and for using the wrong color of ink. I had a technology class in sixth grade where we built and soldered circuits, which I loved. For the same class, I had to use a ruler to draw perfect print letters, which was less fun.
Grades were out of twenty points. The saying was that 20 was for God, 19 for the principal, 18 for the teacher, and 17 for the teacher’s pet. My grades usually ranged from 11 to one very hard-earned 16 or 17 in sixth grade for my technology class, where I probably was the teacher’s pet. Anything above a 10 was considered reasonable, but you really wanted to get at least a 13. Starting in middle school then there were meetings where all the teachers in the school met, along with two students (who I think were nominated by the teachers), and grades for every student were discussed. The elected students would then pass on the teacher’s feedback and your grades. I can’t imagine this working in an American middle school, but I remember the elected students in my sixth grade class being very mature and quite empathetic.
We were seated by grade point average for fourth and fifth grade. I think there was more freedom in seating when you reached middle school (sixth grade). Grades were read out loud by the teacher as assignments were returned. We moved to France after the school year had started, and on my first day there was a conjugation test. I didn’t know any of the words. I remember my teacher calling out my zero, and bursting into tears. My bewildered teacher kept me in from recess to ask if I was crying “because of trouble with your family?”
There were LOTS of rules, and if you didn’t know them that was your fault. In sixth grade, we were supposed to walk to the bottom step and then stand there until we were given permission to proceed to the cafeteria. A new boy (American, I think), stepped off the bottom step, not realizing he was supposed to stop. The principal (or vice principal? I don’t remember) slapped him, hard.
I don’t miss the harshness, or the long school days, but I loved the way math was taught (we started basic algebra and geometry in fourth grade), and I drew on a lot of my memories of my Special French class when I taught high school French years later.
The photo is of me leaving for school, at some point in sixth grade. The house we lived in in France was my favorite out of all the houses we had (all provided by my dad’s employer). The roof tiles were made out of real slate, and you could write with chalk on the ones that fell off. I thought that was really cool, and we got excited when tiles fell off the roof. The walls were made out of sandstone, and if you wrote on them with chalk (or charcoal – see by the front door?) it didn’t really wash off.
What are your memories like from fourth through sixth grade?