It all starts on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. "Au revoir, Jerome! Au'voir, Stefanie! Sois gentille, Laura!"
Mme. Calvel waves to the yellow bus as it warms up outside the French preschool CLTl on Claremont Mesa Boulevard, readying to leave for Encinitas. And when the mustachioed driver stands up and calls out names from a roll, everyone replies, “Oui, monsieur!" and it suddenly strikes you these mostly American kids are answering in French as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
The bus driver, Andre Bordes, is the founder and principal of San Diego’s first French school. Mr. Bordes has to drive because he’s the only member of the staff who has been through the 40 hours of classroom and driving training and first-aid certification and medical exam and FBI fingerprinting necessary for the school bus driver’s license.
“Bon. Asseyez vous, tout le monde!”calls Mr. Bordes, the students take their seats, and we’re rolling toward 805 and the school in Encinitas.
As a full-blown elementary school, Bordes’s “dream school" is only just completing its second year. Eighty-six students, one third of them French, one third American but with at least one French parent, and the final third completely American, have poured into what started in 1988 as a preschool with Mr. Bordes’s daughter and one other child.
As we bounce along, many of the kids aboard seem to be reading mystery-adventure stories by R.L. Stone. Ten-year-old Joshua is reading Beach House. He says it has good clues for trick-or-treating. Victor’s got Babysitter III, also by Stone.
But then a little girl jumps up, points to a boy in the seat behind her. “Victor! T'es le roi des casse-pieds!” (You’re the king of pains in the a...), and everyone giggles. Everyone gets it! All these little American kids on their way to school with their Gameboys and American adventure books are swimming happily in either language, like tadpoles with lungs. They speak French like they’d been born to it. Understand French. Probably dream in French. At five, seven, ten years old.
Okay. So what? you’re saying. What’s this got to do with Southern California? good question. Still, it gives me a secret thrill. Because I went through this too. Was thrown into a French school with precious little language and had to fight for months for that moment when — breakthrough! — I suddenly wasn't painfully translating everything people said from French to English. And then work out my answer back from English to French. “A.T." had occurred. Automatic Transfer. My brain was running on twin carbs. Not quite sure what good that did, but it made a believer of me forever in bilingual education.
We trundle northward till, not far from the railroad tracks cutting through Encinitas, we stop next to the Paul Ecke Central Elementary School on Union Street. This little old schoolhouse, leased from Ecke, is San Diego’s newest educational experiment. The Ecole Francaise de San Diego, the French American international School.
Andre Bordes has parked the bus and hovers near the school office in the main corridor as I come in. He has a lot to do. “Go where you want,” he says simply, “Join the classes if you like.”
Jacques Moiroud stands in front of his class of kindergartners and first graders. In France the tradition is for men, not women, to teach the younger grades. “Dans le iardin Marou joue. Marou a joue fort! La balle tombe juste sur la tete de Ratus qui lit son journal. ” He stops. J! Jardin. Joue. Juste. Journal."
As he says it, he watches for the dozen kids to imitate him. They do. They pronounce it the French way, jee. “Jardin. Joue. Juste. Journal." That last word is spread out. As in "jooour-naaal. ”
I’m impressed. French is the one language I have some — not a lot — some pretensions to. And these kids have gotten the pure hoot-owl ooo sound, the throaty GRRR tiger growl of a French R, flicking that uvula back and forth like professionals, with just the right amount of saliva to make it roll more smoothly than the drier, more guttural German R. Their L at the end of journal is a French L. On the tip of the tongue, light, like a French pastry, not an Anglo, back-of-mouth L, glutinous and syrupy. Took me maybe — what? five years? to get that right. Here are these kids who have only just been here on the face of Mother Earth for five years, and they have it right. Damn! If only my dad had sent me to a place like this ten years earlier.
Experts now acknowledge that physically, inside your mouth, as well as inside your brain, the older you get, the bigger the fight a foreign language will be. Blame it on your buccal cavity. Your ability in a foreign language depends as much as anything on the roof of your mouth and the training of your uvula. Catch it at age six months, you can do what you like with it. Catch it at four years, and it’s still pretty malleable. Wait till puberty and, well, forget it, if you want it to adapt physically, that is, to the sound requirements of a foreign language. The palate has become hard. Muscles have formed in certain directions. You are going to have a hell of a time getting your tongue around all those nasals and guttural Rs, not to mention hearing and absorbing the new sounds you need to become fluent in any language.
Jacques passes out a page with words jumbled on it. “Now I want you all to circle every word that starts with a J,” he says in French. “Raise your hands when you’ve finished.”
It doesn’t take long. “J'ai fini!" calls John Robbart. “Monsieur! J’ai fini!” He flails his hand in the air. “Monsieur. Tiens! Tiens! Tiens!"
“John! Don’t talk so loud,” says Jacques. He comes over and corrects John’s sheet. “He’s an artist, this boy. He likes to get rid of whatever he’s doing. As quick as possible. But in some ways he’s very American. He speaks loud. Until he’s told not to. Kids like him, they want the teacher to tell them what to do. They wait for the teacher. If someone hits them, they tell the teacher. French kids just hit back or wait for the teacher to ask them something. I think it’s the same with the parents. American parents need to be told what to do, what the rules are. Conformity is important here. But French people, they want to stand out of line.”
Today the class is mixed, the kindergarten, first grade, and some second. The tables and chairs are tiny, the walls filled with pages in French. Big numbers, un, deux, trois, quatre, share the wall with kids’ pictures and reminders of the rules. Ne pas crier, Don’t shout. Lever la main avant de parler. Raise your hand before speaking. They seem to work.
Jacques has brought out some colored shapes. He wants the kids to play with them, number them, copy them, identify their colors, and identify the shapes. Rectangle, triangle...he instructs them in a mixture of French and English. Maybe half of them are still struggling with the idea of a second language.
Though not all. The voice of Mrs. Robbart’s little boy John echoes again. He seems to savor speaking in French first, then in English, in everything he says. “Monsieur. Je ne sais pas qu'est-ce que je dois faire. I don’t know what to do. Vous pouvez m'aider? Can you help me?” He looks over to his friend Amanda. “Toi tu vas passer les crayons," he orders. “Pass me the marker pens.”
And then it’s songs. Jacques leads them with his clear voice singing “La Puce et le Pou.” A favorite. The flea and the hair louse. Still, I notice some of the American kids are holding back.
“Some take a matter of weeks to understand and participate,” says Jacques a little later. “Most take a few months. But mixing makes them work harder. A lot depends on the family at home. If the family makes a game of learning French at home — like sticking labels in French around the rooms — the curtains, the sofas, the windows, doors, drawers, knives, forks — then the kids pick it up. It helps if a parent speaks French too, of course. Where kids sometimes have difficulties is if they don’t see why they’re having to learn this second language or if only one parent actually wanted to send the child here and the other resents it and feels the kids are wasting their time doing this. Then the resentment spreads to the child.”
But the atmosphere is far from resentful here. Most of the kids are burbling along. In their conversations they can speak in English or French; there are no rules about that, except in classes where it’s relevant, simply because some kids do speak French and others speak English. And even at this tender age, they have to communicate.
Outside, a cluster of parents, mainly mothers, stand at the front entrance, chatting before going back out to their cars, which by no means are all Beemers and Miatas. Actually there’s a fair share of ’70s Mercurys and Toyota Corollas.
“Yes, it can be a strain for parents and children,” says John’s mom. Mar Robbart. “But it’s worth it. My boy is in kindergarten. They start learning French there!”
“Our children were in the French school in Bangkok,” says Flore de Meulemeester, a French mother, standing at the door. She’s just delivered her three children, Lancelot, Come, and Alienor, all named after French Middle Ages heroes “to give them a sense of history.” “And there is a French school in Los Angeles. But this place is better. Up there they don’t have enough French children in the school, so there’s too much English spoken. It makes lessons move more slowly for the French children. Here, there’s a good balance.”
Friends had advised Mrs. de Meulemeester to send her kids to an American school and give them French correspondence courses rather than have them go to the L.A. lycee. (Lycee means high school. The word comes from the word Lyceum, the name of the grove of trees near Athens where Aristotle taught his students, and it is also the nickname for Apollo, god of music and poetry, beauty and the sun.)
Instead, she decided on the new San Diego Ecole "because there was a good balance of French and non-French children. I don’t want my children to lose their sense of being French. I think it’s very important that our children stay French, remember French civilization. Especially when there are such strong influences in a place like California.”
Her kids think their friends at American schools are pretty lazy. “They say they don’t have homework to do,” she says. “They don’t get those good habits early so that when the time comes to go to college, they are prepared to work without being told to, to take responsibility to do work themselves.”
John Robbart, at four and a half, is already a veteran of the French school in Boston. (He started there when he was three.) But it was before he was even a twinkle in her eye that Mar had her epiphany. “When I was in Boston, I saw a bumper sticker for the French school there. And I thought, wow! And I called to see what it was about, and they told me. I thought, ‘That’s a great idea! When I do have a kid, I’ll send him there!’ So that’s what I did.
“I chose the school — there, and since then, here — because as far as I have read, the French system is way ahead of the American system. I think it would be ideal for everyone to be at least bilingual, for a start. In all of the industrialized countries in the world except ours, all of the educated people are at least bilingual. Besides, little kids learn (French] so easily. They have perfect accents!
“Also, it’s exciting to be in on the beginning of a school. We’re working on forming a library, and Andre Bordes is really dedicated to making this school succeed. His teachers know it. This is his life’s work. And this helps my child accept that we don’t just live in San Diego. We live in the whole world. It widens him. It makes him a more tolerant and accepting person of people who are different than he is, which I think is what we’re supposed to do on this planet. When he notices other people speaking a different language, he sort of tunes in to it and asks me what language are they speaking. And then when we come home, he’ll want to see where they live, in the atlas. Now he wants to learn Spanish, too.”
A third language at four and a half?
In fact her son responds so well to Jacques (“He is a terrific teacher, and he puts a lot of energy into every class”) that now his mother says he’s shaming her at home.
“I did a one-semester course in French as part of my Harvard degree,” she says. “But I’m not as easily fluent as he. I think that at the age where John started school in Boston, at age three, his mind was very fertile for a foreign language. Now he more and more often speaks French at home, regardless of whether I understand him or not. He tries to teach me. He sometimes even pretends that he doesn’t know English. He gets kind of a thrill out of that.”
Mrs. Robbart has been giving a lot of time to the school recently. Of course, the first idea she suggested was bumper stickers. Heck, she told Andre, if it worked with her in Boston....
And as to the eternal question posed to Mrs. Robbart and other parents — Why French? Why not Spanish, here on the border? She has strong feelings. “There’s more to it than just learning French. There’s more to it than just saying it’s a bilingual, bicultural experience. Because, really, the French have their own system, which I think is more efficient than the American system. A French kid who goes all the way through the French system and the average American kid who goes all the way through the American system, the French kid on the whole will fare better in math and science and these kinds of subjects than their American counterparts. So it’s more rigorous. They have their own program which is worldwide, and very uniform. It’s been set out by the French government, and it works very well.
“And I think it’s very smart of them to have sprung up these schools in different areas of the world, not only because their schools are really, really good, but self-interest. What is the likelihood of my son John or any of his American classmates doing business with France someday or some other French-speaking place?”
Nobody’s in a hurry to leave. Actually, this lingering around the door after dropping off the kids has become some sort of ritual. Mrs. Robbart and Mrs. de Meulemeester both say that this, in its way, is a major social event most days. The French women can natter in their own language before going back to the all-English Victoria and Spencer environment of San Diego, and Mrs. Robbart can discuss problems with other American moms and dads.
Across from Jacques’s room, Joel teaches second and third grade. Maybe 20 kids are learning nouns. Seven-year-old, blue-eyed Raissa Marchetti Koslov, a bundle of blond curls, sits up front, scribbling away. “She loves to write poetry,” says Joel.
She writes a lot in Jacques’s special creative writing class. Here’s a seven-year-old kid — Shirley Temple, but bigger eyes — writing not “Cat sat on the mat” stuff, but what looks like real, scanning, often rhyming poetry, in French, halfway through her second year at the school.
“Here’s a poem I made up with my friend Melanie when we were in Jacques’s room,” she says. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
She starts reading. In French. The first line, "Dans Paris il y a une ecole...” was given by Jacques. Raissa and her friend Melanie took it from there, dreaming it all up, writing it all down.
- Dans Paris il y a une ecole.
- Dans cette ecole il y a une chambre... ”
- In Paris there is a school.
- In this school there is a room.
- In this room there is a box.
- In this box there is a book.
- In this book there is a story.
- In this story there is a tree.
- In this tree there is a nest.
- In this nest there is an egg.
- In this egg there is a bird.
- In this bird there is a song..."
And then she reverses it back out to the city of Paris.
She’s never been there, of course, Paris. But it is firmly implanted as one of her dream icons. If the French government has a nefarious plot to take over the world by having young kids fall in love with its culture and its language, the plan is working great right here. “Yes, I want to go to Paris,” Raissa says frankly. “So I can go to Euro-Disney and talk to Mickey Mouse in French.”
I’m sitting cross-legged on the fioor with a bunch of ten-year-olds waiting for Monsieur Guy. Guy Rapp, the fourth- and fifth-grade teacher is at the board doing grammar with Maria, Victor, Joshua, and Anatole. None of them are French, though Maria’s mom is (her dad is Mexican), and all three boys started with this school back in kindergarten, so they are at the exact level they’d be if they were in school in France. They’re analyzing parts of speech. “Les skieurs devalent la pente” (The skiers go down the slope), and “Ma soeur ct rnoi parlous” (My sister and I are talking).
“I learned English on Sesame Street,” says Maria, who grew up speaking Spanish. “But I like Spanish and French best. The English language is not like them. French is really different, really beautiful. Here I feel I’m in France. I wish I’d found out about this school before. I’m ten-and-a-half years old already.”
A small group of students in an alcove, near a rack of computers where some other kids are playing language-skill games, are at the same disadvantage as Maria. They’re the American kids who have just started learning French since they joined the school this year.
One of them is a very self-assured, determined sixth grader, Siobhan Aitcheson (pronounced “Shi-von,” Irish Gaelic for “Joan”). She’s 11, and she came in this year at the sixth-grade level speaking no French except words like plie and pas de deux, which She’d learned in ballet. But she says there’s only one word for the feelings she has for this school: love.
“My father read about this place in the local paper,” she says. “He’s an artist. My mom works at the UCSD library. I was going to a Montessori school, but Daddy took me here to see if I liked it. At other schools I’ve been to, all the other kids are snobby, but here they were nice, and I really wanted to speak like they were speaking. And Guy, my teacher, he was so humorous. I stayed in his class a while and talked with him and then just ran to the car and said, 'Daddy! I want to go to school here!’ I still had to go back to my old school the next day, and it was horrible! I was fed up. Learning French, it gives you something extra. Besides, that’s what they use in ballet, and I am studying ballet.”
The teachers acknowledge Siobhan has a hard row to hoe, trying to keep up with her sixth-grade age group, using another language 70 percent of the time, but say she has applied herself with determination.
Guy sets the French speakers to doing some work and then comes over to our group with five large cards. He sits down with the four of us, cross-legged on the floor.
“Okay,” he says, in English. “Now look well at these five cards. They’re labeled I'hotel, le supermarche, la banque, la poste, and hopital. “Close your eyes, please,” he says, in English. He shuffles the cards and brings back four. He lays them out. “Now which one is missing? En Francois." It’s not as easy as you’d think. For all my self-proclaimed prowess in the language, I don’t do any better than the kids.
It’s noticeable that some of them may be yuppies in the making. Ten-year-old Lia’s conversation before Guy came over was about the car she was going to buy. “I’m saving for it,” she said, “because when I’m 16, the amount of money I have in the bank. Daddy’s going to double it.” But they are certainly trying hard for Guy, struggling to remember vocabulary and pronounce correctly. Is it the snob value of French? Would they be the same if they were learning the language of the Kumeyaay Indians or Swedish or Spanish? There’s certainly no attitude here that this isn’t really serious. For them, it’s clear it is.
Guy also teaches math. “We don’t spend time giving kids 100 pages of fractions. All the mathematical situations we use are related to everyday problems, so kids can see the meaning of the number. It’s a very global view. And we do a lot of mental calculation. We do a lot of solving problems set in everyday life.”
He doesn’t have a lot of time to spend on discipline, and he usually doesn’t need to, he says, at least on the kids from France. “A kid from France will be more mature, more focused on his work. I think the French kids are more self-motivated. They don’t wait for you to tell them what to do. They’re very well organized. I don’t mean we are very strict. We just teach the kids a positive way of work. You take care of your work; you work for your own reason. It’s probably cultural.
“What we heard from American parents this year was that they put their kids into the French school because they wanted them to be more challenged than they have been, and one way was the language, learning not just the new language, but learning something through a new language. At first it’s very hard for the kid. I’ve never thought about why American parents would want to send their kids to a French school, but I guess that’s because of the challenge.”
The end of the scholastic year is a favorite time for Guy. “At a certain point, you see in the eyes of the student something new,” he says, “some interest. Which means they have reached some level of understanding. At the start of the year they always say, ‘What did you say? What? What?’ And then one day it happens. They realize they understand everything in French. I’m talking about the beginners. They understand everything you say, and more than you think. Because it’s a strain, making the move to speak the language.
“So one day, you are at your desk, grading some papers.... I remember last year, suddenly I heard a voice telling me something, in French. But you’ve never heard this voice in French before. And you turn your head and you see this kid who always used to speak English, and suddenly here she is speaking to you in French. Like Maria Puig here, the blond Mexican girl. One day she came up to my desk, and she started babbling. I understood what she was saying. Her verbs weren’t perfect, but she made her point. She wanted me to understand what she was saying, in French. As soon as she found out I understood, I could see her thinking, ‘I can go on,’ and now she’s in fifth grade in math, and she’s following the French curriculum in fourth grade. She caught up with the French curriculum in three years. That makes me feel very good. You think, ‘I’m on the way. This is working.’ ”
He shuffles the cards again. “Which is why we’re playing this game for you, mademoiselles. The eyes — Fermez les yeux, monsieur-dame. ”
Dejeuner! Lunchtime. And here at the Ecole francaise, that means a gourmet lunch. The big meal of the day. Here too is where you see one cultural difference that all the influence of the French surroundings hasn’t changed. For American kids, lunch is still the small midday meal. They’ve had a big breakfast at home. They’ll have a big dinner tonight. Lunch is just a filling stop to hold the fort between these two major feasts. For the French kids petit dejeuner (de-jeuner: to defast, break your fast, the same as English break-fast) means just that, petite. A croissant and cafe au lait perhaps. In the evening, diner is a fairly light affair of perhaps cold cuts and salad. So for the French kids, dejeuner is the big number.
No lesser caterer than the French Gourmet restaurant of La lolla prepares the meals. Again, Andre, the principal, does the manual work, handing out lasagna on silver foil platters to the kids passing by. For this their parents pay $2.50 per meal.
When he’s through, Andre comes and sits down with his own lasagna in the tree- and canvas-shaded patio. “The favorites? Oh, lasagna and pizza. Not very French, I’m afraid,” he says. “But then we have lots of boeuf bourguignon, steaks, stews, and of course, we have rice and fish on Fridays.”
Around us, kids chew on their food, talk, and joke, but there’s no fooling around. No loud yelling. No food fights. Already some kids are returning to the makeshift counter for the dessert of Gallette cookies. One group pores over a video someone has gotten from the school video collection, La Belle et la Bete. The collection is full of quasi-recognizable titles, like Quoi de Neuf, Doc?— What's Up Doc?
"It was 1987,” says Andre. “I was 36. I had a new child.” He’s telling why he set up this school in the first place. .“I decided to...create something. So I came to San Diego and created this. And what I created has become a passion for me."
Andre had been teaching at French schools all over the world. The French government, uniquely, has a network of more than 400 schools stretching from Madagascar to New Guinea to Yugoslavia. In the U.S. alone there are 25 schools, with 11,000 students, two-thirds of them Americans. (San Francisco alone has five French schools.) Some alumni: Jodie Foster, Molly Ringwald, Rebecca Brando, David Halliday.
Some people view this network of schools as part of a French government “plot,” the equivalent of the USIS (the United States information Service), to somehow culturally colonize the world or at least soften it up to the French point of view. But in truth, many of these French schools start out simply because a French pedagogue happens to be in a place with many French people and would-be francophones and decides to set up a school. Then it is a question of contacting Paris to arrange for accreditation and teachers and standards to be applied.
That’s how it was with Andre. “I taught three years in the lycee at Los Angeles, ’81 to ’84. I met my wife Chandra there. She comes from San Diego. In ’84 I got a job teaching in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf. Then my daughter Coralie was born, and in 1987 we came back to San Diego. That’s when I decided I needed to create something and have somewhere for Coralie to begin a French education. As well as a home. We decided to start with a preschool. I got a family day-care license. We opened in Clairemont in 1988 with Coralie and one other child. It was an adventure!”
And it worked. (And so it should: Smaller San Francisco has five French schools, till now San Diego had none.) At the end of that first year, Andre had 12 young students. At the end of the second year, 27. As it turned out, there were many French families with members working as chefs in big San Diego restaurants and hotels, as well as many scientists working at UCSD, Scripps, and the Salk Institute. They supplied a regular stream of children.
But it has been the word-of-mouth interest of American families that has given the school its big boost. Especially in the last year. Between the 1993-94 school year and 1994-95, the school population has jumped almost 100 percent, to 86 children between the ages of 3 and 12. As the kids get older, the grades will go higher. The school building is bulging already. By ’96 Andr£ will need new premises.
But it suits this Pied Noir. “Black Feet” was the name given to the French who for 100 years colonized Algeria. Andre was born there in 1950 and grew up during the guerrilla war for independence. When the Algerians eventually prevailed, Andre’s family returned to the land of his mother’s family in cold, conservative, northern Alsace-Lorraine. “It was a shock,” he says, munching on his lasagna. “In Algeria we lived life in a very sunny, light way. It was easygoing. Friendships were made easily. In Alsace it was cold, and there was a cold wall between people. At least that’s how it seemed. I later realized that people were naturally restrained and just took longer to make friends, but when they did, they were deep friendships, more so than ours in Algeria.”
Nevertheless, Andre never settled down. Never really felt a part of it in France. He had always been “French,” but never “of France.” “When I went back,” he says, “I didn’t find my roots.” So like many other Pied Noirs, he looked elsewhere in the world. He got "his teacher’s license and started wandering. Quebec, L.A., the Middle East. Then, Chandra, who has South American connections, helped center him. She now runs the preschool in Clairemont and does much of the paperwork. Now, seven years into what he calls his “adventure,” he doesn’t want to move again. “No, no. Now I’m here. I’m staying for the rest of my life.”
He excuses himself to tell the kids they can go out now and play on the grounds they share with Paul Ecke School next door. The Paul Ecke kids tolerate the “French kids,” but they don’t mix with them. And even the American kids in the French school stick with their French compadres rather than “cross over” to play with their compatriots.
Jacques and Guy come by and sit down. “Teacher-mercenaries,” jokes Guy. “That’s what we are. Have chalk, will travel. I go where they pay me to go. lacques, Joel, me, we’re a mafia. We all come from the one small town, Clermont-Ferrand, in the Massif Central of France. The Auvergne. I was teaching in New Orleans and wanted to move on when I heard about this place. After this, I will go somewhere else. It becomes addicting.”
Jacques was teaching at a French school in Bangui, in the Central African Republic before he came here. “That was exciting. You never knew if there had been a coup between the time you started school and the time you came out in the afternoon. San Diego is certainly plus calme. ”
“Not that calme," says Guy. “Here people are so busy, they don’t have time to make friends, to get to know each other. Not like Louisiana. I found people from the South more friendly. The old way of life in the South, they take the time for everything. Here they don’t have time for anything. They have two jobs, three wives, 20 children, have to go everywhere fast. It’s very different from New Orleans. That was truly the Big Easy. Like Clermont-Ferrand."
Guy acknowledges that having a French school here might seem odd. “Especially in Southern California, where Spanish is the second language, I guess it’s very hard to have the place for a third language like French. I mean, yes, there is a large community of French-speaking people, but I’m a skeptic. Why is this French school working so well? When you compare this year from last year, we doubled our student numbers. It’s amazing and something very mysterious for me. Maybe it’s because it’s something new, and people here like new things. Maybe there’s the prestigious side, all this French cultural image.”
So does he see himself as a cultural missionary?
“I’m not a missionary. Maybe I’m just somebody who tries to pass the word. I love to teach, and I love my job, so maybe I want to share it with my kids. But for sure I’m not a missionary. We had them in Africa for 100 years. There has been enough of that.’’
But for Jacques, all this success has made for a difficult year. “I guess it’s growing pains. The school is growing bigger, and new programs every day, and we are not necessarily prepared for them, so we have to deal with them. In this way it has been difficult, because it’s not about teaching anymore, it’s about creating a new environment, basically a new way of teaching. It’s been exhausting. When you look at more children, that means basically you have more situations that you have to deal with — kids who don’t speak French, kids who speak only French. There is no ‘Good Book’ about how to deal with this. There is no Bible. It’s pretty much up to the teacher.
“What I’m doing myself is a very personal way. If I was in L.A. or San Francisco, with a French kid, you can show him Program A, if you are American you can go to Program B, but how do I do that [with my mixed classes)? My bottom line is that school should be, and must be, interesting. It sounds stupid, but I’m trying to make it not only fun but interesting, every single day. But it’s like writing. Sometimes you like what you did, and sometimes it looks like shit.”
Of course, he admits, about this time of year, the American kids have gotten pretty darned good at understanding and speaking French. “With them I’m just trying to play a game, as if we are in France, in a French school. And I’m a French teacher, and they’re French kids. We sing songs. We play games outside, like Jacques a Jit. It’s the same as Simon Says. And a child gains great power going in front of the class and giving out the orders in French.”
But doesn’t this mixing of those who do and those who don’t speak French slow down the French kids?
“Well, maybe, but they have their own challenge, which is to learn English. So what happens is that there is a lot of interaction. Let’s say at one table you sit French kids and an American kid who don’t know each other and who don’t speak each other’s language. Don’t ask me how, but within 2 minutes or 30 seconds, they do communicate with words. So if it takes talent to learn two languages like those kids do, it’s not the teacher’s talent, it’s their own. They are doing the job. I’m like a bandleader, maybe. They play the music. Like Raissa. I’ve been teaching her for one year. And when she came she didn’t speak one word of French. Now she’s in her second year, and she’s writing poems in French. She’s coming to me and she shows me those poems, and it’s kind of — ‘Whoa! How do you do that?’ That’s a good example of a great experience with a kid. But I’m just the bandleader.”
And the first words that kids usually utter to him in French?
“ 'Je ne sais pas.' ” (“I don’t know.”)
Andre has been dashing around helping with the food and the kids. When he finally sits down again, I ask him about this problem of different language proficiencies. “Well, it is a fact of life. But the first rule I made, and I make it an important point to new teachers, is. No Language Police. There should be no wall on any language! Nothing to inhibit communication. For parents of our American kids, we encourage them to try to learn French at the same time as their kid, so they can reinforce what he or she is learning here. We’re changing lives here. Not just language, but also culture. It takes time.”
And does he agree with Guy and Jacques, that the American kids, in general, are less disciplined than French kids? “The American kids might be less trained in group teaching, and in that way they do require more attention. But sometimes you could say that the French kids are keeping their attention on the course because they’re afraid of the adult. I do believe that American kids’ contact with adults is more spontaneous.”
Andre feels parents are getting a good scholastic deal with ‘ his school. “Our teachers all have a four-year diploma from a French teaching university, and our school is accredited by the French Ministry of National Education in Paris. A superintendent of schools from the ministry comes once a year to check that we are maintaining our standards. We register with the California superintendent of schools. Also, we make a great effort to coordinate with the California school agenda. In history, for example, we emphasize more of a world view than California schools, but we do try to focus on events our two countries have in common. Our revolutions, the Bill of Rights, the influence of Thomas Jefferson in France.”
What’s more, Andre says, the problem of different levels of language proficiency should be sorted out next year when they institute a two-tier system.
Of course, it costs. Parents will pay about $5000 per year in the elementary grades, $5300 for sixth and seventh grades. For that you do get two teachers per child and two countries’ store of culture squeezed into the one year.
“I think we’re expanding because our multilingual program fits into the country’s global future,” Andre says. “Just having many languages at your command is good for your resume. And I think many parents feel the public school system [here] is failing, and they’re prepared to pay for private schools to get the best for their children.”
Then he’s off again, supervising the putting away of the lunch tables.
For a moment I let all the sounds of French and English conversations wash oveT me. Waves of nostalgia for my own school days in France, struggling with the same uphill battles and daily brain strain these kids must be dealing with, learning to think again in order to communicate, like having to learn to walk again. Everything spontaneous has to be worked out, preplanned. Just learning what the subjects mean, redaction, orthographe, explication de textes. The frustration and the fatigue can be, as I remember it, overwhelming.
I ask Jacques why he thinks parents want to push their kids into learning two languages.
“Well, the big joke would be to say to their kids, ‘Once you speak French, I’ll take you to Paris, and you can translate for me whenever I need a cup of coffee.’ After all, these kids are forced into a language that they didn’t choose. It’s their parents’ choice. So basically you are given students who haven’t volunteered for this. I have only young kids, but I can tell that one or two are resistant to the language. It’s not that they hate you, the teacher, it’s just that they don’t see what the point is.”
Well, what is the point?
“That’s my question too. We are trying to create something. But I don’t know what the point is. I’m not too sure anymore why I’m doing this.”
Maybe I can help him out. When I was 13, I went through this, except it was in France. My dad, probably to spite his ultra-Anglo “Thank God for the English Channel” family, was a fanatical francophile. He studied art there. He learned about love there. He married there. He repaired there whenever he was wounded to find solace in the civility of cafe life, in the marvelous power of the organ of Saint Sulpice church in the Latin Quarter, in the basic warmth of a gentle, gastronomic, life-affirming civilization, where, unlike his Anglo-Saxon world, a person didn’t have (o be afraid of feelings, of colors, of, goddam it, joie de vivre. He saw France as a sort of Greece and the English-speaking world as an unimaginative, utilitarian Rome, stomping over little Greece’s glory while picking the bones of its culture, like what a successful, bullying businessman craves when he sees his boardroom techniques failing horribly in the bedroom.
So Dad sent us to school, at the Lycee Mignet in Aix-en-Provence, just at the time when de Gaulle was making a comeback and civil war was in the air. Every pupil, every teacher wanted to know if you were for or against de Gaulle. That decision defined your friends. I’d never heard a word of politics till I went to school in France.
Then there were the hours — 7:30 in the goddamed morning till 4:30, 5:30 at night! Unheard of. Anglo-Saxonia suddenly seemed a kinder, gentler place. I started to realize the French are serious about education. Although, of course, there was that lovely two-hour lunch break.
Then there was the hell of the poems. Twice a week, you’d get a poem to take home and learn by heart to recite the next morning. Terror seared the first poem into 'my brain. Victor Hugo. "Les Pauvres Gens.” I can recite it now, but not when I stood before the awesome Monsieur Chambrais in front of the class, as I stewed, trying to think of the French phrase for “Monsieur, my memory has just blanked on me.”
But then there was that oh-so-seductive cafe life. Even at that age. The town’s cafes were lined up from the top of the main boulevard to the bottom, according to...politics, natch. Royalists (who wanted the King of France brought back) and Fascists up the top, Socialists and Communists at the cafes down by the grand fountain. And as friendships grew through the gradually lifting fog of language, there was the end-of-year celebration. The closedown, and the frog-marching graduation procession, the oldest boys (it was a boys-only school) in the lead, yelling the name of the next place they were going to take us through. All 300 of us. A la Gendarmerie! (police station). A I'Hotel de Ville! (city hall). Au Bordel! (the town brothel). We yelled and marched through them all, drunk with the power of the fact that we’d survived a year of hell in the big, forbidding school where your only right was to study and listen. And your only comfort the thought that Cezanne, who had been a pupil there, had also suffered in great misery.
Yet what remains from all that is a warm yearning, as from a love affair you never wanted to end, a desire to capture that certain it the French have discovered and bottled, but that somehow, as the cliche goes, like certain wines, doesn’t travel.
Oh sure, there are the stories of the arrogant Parisians. There’s the abomination of the great country of Liberty, Egalite, Fraternity, clinging with no justification except pride onto colonies like New Caledonia and Tahiti, using Tahiti (can you believe it?) as a nuclear testing ground.
And yet the love remains, and the language has been the window. And the school, tough though it was, made the language possible.
“A lot changed after the uprisings of ’68,” says Andre. “Teachers have come down from their high pedestal. It’s less authoritarian. There’s far more exchange of ideas between student and teacher.”
It’s three o’clock. We’re at the entrance again. And again there is the clump of parents come to pick up their kids. Siobhan’s father, Frank Aitcheson, the artist, is there.
“I don’t think this place is for all children,” he’s saying to another parent. “I think the student really has to fit the school. Siobhan has some really close friends that she’s known for a long time that don’t attend this school, and they really wouldn’t like it because the work’s a little harder. You’re not babied; you’re a little more responsible. You really have to be able to discuss your problems with your teachers and not be afraid to ask for help when you need it...those grownup things that a lot of 10-, 11-year-olds really aren’t very good at.”
“I agree,” says Raissa’s grandma, Mary Marchetti. “The French school isn’t for everybody, but it’s certainly for Raissa.” Her voice thickens. “She narrated the story of Peter and the Wolf — I’m telling you this like a grandma because I felt like crying — to all the parents the other night and introduced all the kids in the second grade, in French, in front of us all. Seven and a half years old. "
They wonder where the school will go, now that it is bursting at the seams here. “Oh, I hope they can continue,” says Mrs. Marchetti. “We need this in America. Because we’re the only country in the world that never teaches a second language. I was a teacher, more than 20 years. I went all the way till I got my doctorate, and I never had to learn a second language. We really need this. And one thing I cannot understand. I cannot understand why the Spanish people don’t have a school like this in San Diego.”
I go to say good-bye to the teachers. They’re out back having a meeting. A fairly acrimonious one, it turns out. Joel is complaining that Andre had promised him an assistant teacher. “I’m disappointed,” he’s saying. Francoise was supposed to work for me. Now she’s doing something else. I find you tough on that.” “It’s expansion pains,” Andre is saying. “I don’t know what to say. I have too many small tasks. I need to think on the big ones.”
I leave them discussing whether their upcoming kermesse, end-of-year party, should be French style or American style.
Why a French school in San Diego? As I crunch back out into the school’s little parking lot, the question hovers for a moment. Maybe, as Jacques pointed out, there doesn’t have to be any one great overwhelming reason. “I know for myself why I’m doing it, but don’t expect some great philosophical answer. I’m just trying not to get bored before I die.”