Lord of the Frogs

Saturday, January 20, 2018 4 Permalink 1

A soulsearching post in which childless idealist Yours Truly finally encounters first-hand the much-discussed phenomenon of Bullying

Tourists can’t be patriotic

I have never lived in any other place in which I feel such a full-throated accord with the dominant cultural values. Shout it from the rooftops: Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité !

And better, Solidarité. Solidarity.

France is far from perfect, but I appreciate the fairness in distribution of both time and resources here. There is respect accorded to the public good and our public commons.

We live in a heavily socialist area, and the proof is in the pudding: How happy it is, and how happy we are here, living this way among our neighbors.

Since coming here I have taken this match-up of values as a given, a kind of a priori among the French. I assumed they were born with socialist-leaning morals, or nearly.

For that matter, I assumed that I was, too.

But through years of appreciating and lauding the social fabric around me, I was never personally implicated in its weaving, wearing, and maintenance. I remained, for years, a kind of tourist on the outside looking in. A freeloader. One might reasonably call this the antithesis of egalitarian solidarity.

Then last summer I was tapped to teach English to some village children after school. Now I can no longer comfortably pretend not to be a part of the French system, for better or worse.

Given the chance to contribute to the formation of the young citizens of this République, I embraced it not just as a part-time job, but as my patriotic duty to my adopted homeland.

“Like a bare-breasted Marianne raising the flag in battle, I shall teach English to the people! Le peuple!” This is the kind of lofty macro-thinking that got me into this. It seemed like a righteous idea.

It turns out the little darlings are rather less idealistic, and not quite so patriotic. Not yet.

We are born as wild as monkeys, and without a stern hand steering us toward better, there we remain. Naturally, without any reason to the contrary coming from their new professor, the little savages turned on one of their own.


The English classes I teach are “ludique” by design. That is, they are to be informal and playful rather than academic, by decree of Madame le Maire and everyone else. I am not to compete with the “sacred” secular method of universal education in both French and English in the public schools.

The French system of education here is widely noted for being rigid and based on rote memorization and passing standardized tests. Aware of this shortcoming, many villages wisely offer public extension classes for citizens to better learn real daily spoken English.

That’s where I come in – not really as a stern teacher, then, but more as a cajoling coach.

These kids already know English grammar better than I do, and more importantly they have memorized what to write in the blank spaces on tests.

But despite all their perfection in memorized declensions and participles, when they open their mouths to speak they usually freeze up silent, for fear of making an error, for fear of embarrassment, for fear of getting a bad mark on a report card that might ruin their future careers.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on an organic process such as language learning.

Errors are not allowed on standardized tests, you see. But we must push through errors constantly to learn to speak any language, just like babies do – trial and error, and trial again.

In that way these young students are just like me: All that flag-waving and higher learning about France, but I am completely unpracticed at actually being French in the quotidian world around me.

The after-school classes are my chance to apply my knowledge in the real world, shouldering some of my own responsibility for this Republic’s future.

That’s when the real and necessarily imperfect trial-and-error work of becoming a citizen began for me just last fall, and it certainly began in earnest.

To help the students relax into their new language, I decided to keep the atmosphere in the classroom both lively and lighthearted. We were there to play, I told them: No report cards, no grades, no tests. Just bathe in the language, rejoice in it, learn to love it as a friend, toss it around like a shiny red-white-and-blue ball, experiment with it and laugh it off when you get it wrong.

No shame here, I said. No judgment. I brought out coloring pages and toys, bingo, boisterous skits, party masks, blindfold games for giving verbal directions to others, mock-restaurant fixings for roleplay, and lots and lots of singalongs.

I had no idea what this levity suggested to children from another culture so entirely different from my own.

No Innocents

There is another side to teaching, even teaching through play, which I had not imagined, and that is the discipline of young minds and bodies who are not necessarily prone to cooperate nor embrace the project.

12 and 13 year olds are not yet adults by any stretch, despite how tall they are and their occasional little scrappy moustaches, and they most certainly are not out on their own recognizance.

One might understandably mistake their youth for childhood innocence, but one would be wrong. I am learning that there is no such thing.

It turns out that we are not born socialist nor even kind. We must be taught these values, and I did not fully realize at first the full weight of the mantle which had been laid upon me.

Bare-breasted, indeed… This was more like shouldering the yoke of a plow against virgin forest!

I blame myself for not recognizing it. In fact I saw it but did not think it was what it was. Looking back, I see that they were scuffling, laughing perhaps too much, going too often to the bathroom, hiding each other’s shoes during our linguistic games.

I actually thought I had created a successfully playful and open classroom atmosphere. Just look at all this personal interaction! All that vigorous experimentation…

The students on the other hand were far from their usual restricted academic comfort zone and were running wild. They had decided that this apparent instability and novelty was opportunity enough to experiment in another way entirely, to abuse one of their number.

They were sly about it, though. They all wore smiling faces, every one of them, aggressors and victim alike – deception on both sides. “Nothing to see here, Prof!” They were all hoping for exactly my level of ignorance and inexperience in policing them. Even more, I was not watching for trouble from the girls as much as from the boys. My mistake. It was the girls foremost.

But then the mother of one girl came to me after class saying that her daughter had been systematically harassed, and would be dropping out of the course.

Standing there in the parking lot in front of this understandably worried mother, I was crushed. I felt betrayed by the kids. I felt backstabbed!

But it all made sense. Looking back, I could see that the brunt of most all that rough-housing was only one girl, one of the brightest students and also an ethnic minority here. I could also see how they hid the intention of their actions from me, deliberately.

The devious little hellions.

I told the good lady that I would do better, addressing the problem directly, and asked her daughter to stay. They agreed, and so essentially I committed myself to fix things, and waded deep into the fray.

I had no idea what to do. How could I control them? What are my rights? How thin was the ice I was already walking on with regard to the village administration as well as with the pupils?

What I cared about above all, of course, is that they must not hurt each other in the process of practicing their new language and getting to know me as their one representative native speaker of English. A festive atmosphere, I was realizing, was the same to them as no rules at all, a license to kill.

La bataille

This was a crisis like I have never faced in France. I didn’t want to impose hierarchies and class strictures on free citizens. I didn’t want to bully anyone myself.

But after extensive consultation with other more experienced teachers, I accepted that I am the only adult in that room, and the responsibility is entrusted to me solely to raise them, to “grow them up,” rather than just letting them grow up willy-nilly. That’s what I am there for and what I am paid to do.

Formation, it turns out, requires a rather rigid mold in which to take form.

My first reaction was to prepare a lengthy lesson (or sermon, one might better call it) on The Rights of Man, to extol the virtues of a socialist republic and the individual responsibility that it requires form each citizen.

But after even more extensive consultation with other more experienced teachers, this time with most of them laughing out loud, I was advised that this treatise was highly unlikely to sway the likes of malicious 12-year-old girls, and might even send them racing further afield. No, a more authoritarian approach was recommended.

In fact, I learned, all but boxed about the ears, the responsibility for the problem rested with me and not with their natures. These are kids who still have to stand at attention when certain teachers walk into the room. Instead I was letting them run around undisciplined, squealing and playing games. I called it a creative learning atmosphere, but they were understandably confused as to where any boundaries lay. Even if some of them are as tall as me, they are still in their tender minds, and more importantly in their tender hearts, very much babies.

So I steeled myself over a long weekend and first thing on that next Tuesday, in I went, full throttle, intractable, and bellowing. It was radical change for all of us. I didn’t know I had it in me, and neither did they.

They reacted in startled submission: Sit down. Shut up. No, sit here, and you over here. Stop touching her hair. Hand me the phone. You read this. All recite that. Hand me the other phone, too. Put all legs of that chair on the floor. Do the assignment. Now sing the damn songs, at full volume and all in unison, or else I will tell not just your mothers… on no. This is nuclear war now, children. I will tell your GRAND-mothers!

I sounded like a drill sergeant, and the results have been predictably amazing. The class fell right into line. No more bullying. The smiles are still there, and seem real enough.

The star student has forgotten all about it, apparently. But I have not.

The Constitution does not save you; you must save it

Liberté Egalité Fraternité must each be taught, just like how to eat our peas with a fork, how to speak a language, or how to tie our shoelaces.

I want to teach them all of that, not just not to hurt each other, but why they must not.

Unfortunately, I am learning that in order to do that longterm I will need in the short-term to be much more authoritarian. I am the adult in the room – the only adult in that room – and I am entrusted not only with their learning but also their safety and formation as little egalitarian souls. In that role, I must not be cooperative and friendly, but dictatorial and strict.

It’s a ko-an, in that sense. In order to teach them liberty I must constrain them. In order to teach them solidarity, I must position myself over and above them, for protection and assurance in that process.

This is my flag, this is my country, and these children are my future, the only future any of us have. I’m raising my voice in class and speaking sternly these days so that they know the next right thing to do, and what limits should look like. I am demonstrating for them by force the rules of this society of equals. They are not ready to be equals yet, but when they are, I will have played a part in that readiness.

This does not come naturally to me. I’m a rather dissipated 47-year-old childless gay man. But I have pulled myself up to my full height and I am addressing the enemy square-on, albeit with both breasts securely covered by sensible sweaters.

The enemy is not rigidity, as I had thought, but rather chaos and decline. That chaos will not happen any more on my watch.

In my classes, at least for now, we are not a democracy; I am King.

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