Tuesday, April 8, 2014


On Mardi Gras, all the other kids in Max's class came in costume. We hadn't realized that it was a kind of Halloween-lite here, and Max was upset to be left out. He rolled his eyes at my suggestion that he could say he was dressed as a ninja, since he happened to be wearing a black shirt and pants.

"Look at me. I'm a witch," said his teacher Anne, a silver-haired Irish woman in her late fifties, wearing a black dress and tights. "And I'm not in costume, either."

"You're the most sarcastic teacher I know," Max said.

"I'm not sarcastic," Anne replied. "I have a dry, British sense of humor. Can you repeat that please? You have a dry, British sense of humor.

"Sarcastic!" Max repeated, rolling his eyes again--a new "skill" that he is practicing dutifully. It takes like a minute for his eyes to make the entire 180 degree sweep. My own eye sockets ache, just watching. And he's getting more sarcastic by the hour.

Until recently, Max didn't even know what sarcasm meant. I'm not sure where he first heard the term, but he now tries to drop it into every conversation. At the house of some French friends of Ward and Vivienne's who had invited us over for a lovely afternoon snack of the most amazing crepes and creme caramel I've ever tasted, he announced that he hadn't learned much French at school.

"Like, I don't even know how to say 'sarcastic' in French," he complained.

"Sarcastique," they told him. "It's the same."

This pleased him. He asked how to say homework. They told him. "J'aime les devoirs," he said. I like homework. They looked confused, not understanding that this was his attempt to demonstrate the principle of sarcasm in French. Or maybe it's just that sarcasm doesn't work in French.

Max's teacher Anne is right that her sense of humor is very British--which is probably why I find her so funny, because I generally prefer British humor. She has also been living in Paris for 40 years, married to a Frenchman. "He says I've become more French than the French," she told me. But whereas she may dress like a Parisian and observe the rules of politesse, her sense of humor remains intact.

"Sarcastique" may be the word for sarcasm in French, but it has never seemed to me to be a big part of French culture, where there is still respect for mimes and clowns. Matt wisely forbade me from signing Max up for the atelier on "le clowning" over his last school holiday, reminding me that where we come from, this is the stuff of horror, not humor. When I was a high school exchange student here, I remember feeling like my own sarcastic sense of humor didn't come across in French.

Max's bilingual montessori school here draws a hodgepodge of kids whose families have settled temporarily in Paris. Most of his classmates in his tiny class speak two languages at home, often not the same two they speak at school. These families are almost all going to go elsewhere eventually, and so they're reluctant to put their kids into the notoriously rigid French public school system. Or else they're committed to montessori education, something about which we knew little before arriving here. It's very childcentric and--if this school is representative--very earnest.

This week, after dropping Max off at school, Matt was stopped by a mother (American) who wanted to talk about something "upsetting" to her daughter, and asked if he could wait 10 minutes. With a sinking feeling he agreed, wondering what Max had done wrong this time. Well, nothing as it turned out--or nothing more than what we were already well aware of: whistling incessantly. He mastered this other new "skill" a few weeks ago, and has a particular fondness for whistling the Harry Potter theme song, a minor key ditty that repeats over and over. As with everything else, he does it at maximum volume. He has also mastered selective deafness when told to knock it off. Now apparently his teachers are as sick of listening to it as we are, and in class the other day, Anne said, "If you don't stop whistling, I'll have to put a piece of tape on your mouth."

This is what had so upset this woman's daughter that she brought it up with her mother, who then shared the story with Matt and also with the other parents in the tiny class, all of whom were adamant that we should contact the administration ASAP. "I would have been on the phone in five minutes," one told me. "I would have considered pulling my child from the school," said another.

Both Matt and I thought: really? It's not like she actually taped his mouth, and to be honest, I wouldn't have cared if she had. As a kid at the French lycee in San Francisco, I often had a piece of scotch tape covering my mouth. It was an effective solution when kids chatted with their friends in class, as I was often wont to do. I remember it being kind of irritating but not traumatic. Besides, I remain convinced that we all--well, writers at least--benefit from these small humiliations. Without them, would anyone have anything to write about later on?

"When your teacher threatened to tape your mouth if you wouldn't stop whistling, how did you feel?" we asked Max privately, trying to figure out if we should be as upset as the other parents.

He shrugged. "Okay," he said.

"Were you scared?" we asked.

"No," he said.

"Did you feel upset at all?"

"No," he said. "I have very moist lips. I could use the power of my tongue to break through the tape. Besides, she's not really going to do it. She was just being sarcastic." He grinned.


Siri said...

Nice post, Malena, and sarcastic, haha "we all--well, writers at least--benefit from these small humiliations. Without them, would anyone have anything to write about later on?" Wonderful insight.
I have often felt my own Danish sarcastic sense of humor fall very flat in Brazil. Brazilians too say the opposite of what they mean, just not to be funny!

Maria Hummel said...

Hilarious and insightful post! I give it five baguettes!