Friday, February 14, 2014

Ma Poule

Max came home from first grade a week ago with a fifteen line poem tucked into his red cahier. "Ma Poule" is about a chicken that wears a lot of different colored hats for different occasions and in different kinds of weather. His teacher’s instructions were that he should copy it in French cursive and then memorize it, so that he could recite it in front of his class. 

He had no French at all when we got here, and contrary to what people said, that he'd "pick up in weeks," it hasn't been nearly that instantaneous. After two months, he has learned how to say, “Un poulet, s’il vous plait,” to the man who sells the roasted chickens on our corner. He’s got “bonjour,” “au revoir,” and “merci," and the basic numbers. And that's about it.

He's going to a tiny bilingual school where the first three hours of the day are taught in English and the afternoon three in French. The school’s aim is to follow the standard national French curriculum, so that the kids can join their classmates at grade level if they choose to go to a regular French school later on. Memorizing and reciting poetry is part of the standard French curriculum, and so is taking dictation in “French cursive.”

Knowing that Max would be returning to the States after this year, his teachers here gave him the choice of learning French cursive or continuing to write in American print letters. But in spite of the fact that the kid still struggles to hold a pencil correctly, often jabbing little holes into the page, Max chose to learn French cursive, partly to fit in, but also I think because it sounds fancier. And it is. Matt insists that it’s no different from any other cursive, but that’s because he never had to suffer through being tested on its finer nuances. The e requires the pen to skip ahead before forming a perfect loop. The t should never be crossed. The l only bulges on the right. The upper case q is a beast that I never got down.

I was about Max’s age when I learned French cursive. My elementary school in San Francisco had a similar aim to the school he’s attending here. It was a French school that was following the national curriculum as strictly as possible, so that the majority--expat kids from France--could eventually reenter their own system when their families returned home.

One of the reasons we didn’t send Max to a French public school here is that, in my memory at least, this school was kind of Dickensian. I didn't hate it, but it made a lasting impression. The teachers thought nothing of spanking kids in front of the class—pants down—and they'd read our report cards aloud at the end of each term, and then seat us according to our grades: A students in front and D students in back. Kids were routinely mocked by teachers, made examples of and humiliated. Monsieur LeJeune had his own son in our third grade class, and he would regularly call him “la mauvaise graine,” or “the bad seed.” When the boy cried, we consoled him. All of this sounds awful, but it was also a little bit thrilling to unite against injustice, to feel righteous and innocent, like the heroes of our favorite books. Sometimes I wonder what the products of American progressive education will find to write about. 

Before this year, Max was never asked to do any rote memorization. He didn't get homework at his American school, and there were no tests or grades. Knowledge is supposed to be its own reward, I get it, and I understand why bribes are a no-no. So I prefer to think of the children’s fountain pen that I bought Max as an incentive to do his homework here. And honestly, all those loops and flourishes in French cursive are totally wasted in ball point. Once I was at the stationer, I couldn’t resist buying a fountain pen for myself as well, and an extra cahier too. I vividly remembered learning to shape my French cursive in one of those notebooks ruled with tiny, pale blue horizontal lines within which to position each element of every letter.

The fountain pen held Max’s interest for few days, but writing (of any kind) remains a source of frustration. His ideas far surpass his ability to put them to paper. Who can’t relate?

The rote memorization of French poetry, however, has proven surprisingly fun. Within a couple of days, he’d managed to learn all fifteen lines of Ma Poule. While he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, he gets the gist of it, and I can tell that he likes the way the words roll off his tongue, the way that he sounds far more competent than he is.

I was just a little older than Max when my grandfather, our family’s first and most ardent Francophile, paid me one dollar to memorize his favorite Apollinaire poem.

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la seine et nos amours…

Like Max, I couldn’t have given you a word-for-word translation, but I loved the cadence of the language, the rhythm of the poem, and I definitely knew that I was saying something far more beautiful than I had it in me to express. It was rote memorization, not especially creative, but it gave me something to reach for. Not to mention a whole dollar. And thirty years later, I still remember it.

1 comment:

Jean-marc said...

Hi Malena, Matt and Max,
I see you are enjoying France and its peculiar particularities. I hope we can meet soon and talk with Max about the beauty of cursive french writing!
How about either Saturday or Sunday March 1st or 2nd ?

Jean-Marc and Denise