Saturday, 24 December 2016
Chapter 13 Assistants
Because I spent a year in Le Havre as an assistant, and then a further year as an exchange teacher in Rennes, I’ve always had a lot of empathy with and compassion for the young people who are willing to uproot themselves and leave their family and friends behind for a year to become assistants, and help teach French in an education system and a culture which are unfamiliar to them.
It is quite a test of character as they arrive with no knowledge of the local area, no training in teaching, and usually with little experience of dealing with people, far less dealing with potentially bolshie teenagers whose favourite subject at school is not always French. Yet most assistants dig deep and rise to the occasion, discovering their strengths and weaknesses as they learn about aspects of life, teaching and getting on with others.
Of course, much depends on their personality and that (in keeping with all professions where contact with people is an essential element), is what made life interesting for both pupils and staff as they received a new teacher and colleague each year.
One or two arrived overconfident and dismissive of the culture and system in which they were to work, but most were successful by being adaptable and respectful of the people, structure and environment they encountered.
One of the first assistants I worked with was a young man called Patrick from Lyon. Lyon, as you undoubtedly know, is a sizeable city in the south east of France. It is a beautiful and historic city which is regularly bathed in bright sunshine and is known for its bright blue skies. Because of this, Patrick became fascinated, indeed almost obsessed, by clouds. He loved them. He couldn’t take his eyes off them and was very keen to learn all he could about their shape, density and formation. While I could vaguely understand his interest (though I’m afraid I tend to take them completely for granted), I was somewhat stunned to learn he had taken some 360 photos of clouds during his stay. It should be borne in mind that this was long before the digital age and so each one of these photos was developed, printed and then transported home to be appreciated even more in an apparently cloudless environment.
To fully appreciate another memory I have of Patrick, you have to be aware that for some reason, when speaking English, French students frequently put an “h” before an English word that starts with a vowel.
One evening Alison and I met Patrick and he told us how he had spent the day in Inverness but he was now very tired, so naturally I asked why.
He then got very frustrated because he couldn’t remember one particular verb in English, the verb “to row” (as in a boat), so in the best traditions of a good linguist, he found another way to express the idea: “I am tired because I have spent the whole afternoon in a boat with two hoars!”. Which did rather explain his tiredness, but more importantly provides a lovely example of the fun you can have with language.
One assistante’s father was a teacher of English who loved Scotland and insisted on spending every summer here, especially near Ayr and Troon. The result was that not only was our assistante that year completely fluent in English, but when she spoke it was with a distinctly Ayr-shire accent!
Another assistante was a strict vegetarian who was very anxious about putting “poison” in her body, though I didn’t know this when I invited her (and a few others) to our home for dinner one evening. When we found out about her dietary requirements, my poor wife was thrown into a panic and hurriedly concocted a suitably vegetarian alternative, though I doubt if the young lady actually cared that much about what was served to her that evening as, before dinner, she consumed the six cans of lager she brought with her as a gift.
Of course, assistants do not just help develop pupils’ linguistic skills, they are also a source of information and knowledge of customs, culture and daily life in France, and while I was in Rennes I was able to put some of that knowledge to the test when I visited an ex-assistante who lived with her parents in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
I made the 200-mile trip to Boulogne-Billancourt and after negotiating the heavy city traffic, I parked outside the block of flats where our ex-assistante lived with some relief. We met and had a coffee together, after which she suggested going into the city centre so she could show me around the Sorbonne (her university) and the surrounding area. I willingly agreed as I have always loved Paris and enjoy wandering around simply admiring the architecture, beauty and sheer scale of the buildings and streets. We left the café and I moved in the direction of the underground station just a couple of hundred yards away.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I explained that I thought we were going into the city so naturally I headed for the underground.
“I thought we’d take your car. That way you’ll see more.”
There was no disputing her logic. I would see more, but I would also be seeing more traffic than I had even seen in my life, in an area I didn’t know and surrounded by city drivers who did not enjoy a reputation for patience.
She was adamant I would gain so much more this way.
I couldn’t back down and she was right, so we got into my car and set off on the main carriageway out of Boulogne-Billancourt and toward Paris itself.
At the first major junction, I pulled up at a red light and pointed out she would have to help me and guide me through the streets and traffic system.
There was a brief silence followed by her response which contained a tone of vague amusement.
“But I’ve never driven into Paris. I always take the Métro.”
The stunned look of realisation, anxiety and rising panic on my face was not intended to provoke hilarity and yet she was now laughing almost uncontrollably and with genuine mirth.
I repeated the gist of her statement: “You’ve NEVER driven into Paris.”
“No. Why would I, when I can take the Métro?”
The irony was dumbfounding but I now had to focus on negotiating the Parisian streets without causing damage to my own or anyone else’s property, and without killing and brave pedestrians who might opt to cross a road in front of me.
We made it to the Sorbonne and back unscathed, though on a few occasions I stopped at lights in an awkward position and couldn’t see the lights as they changed, but the kind and eternally helpful Parisian drivers quickly found a way to gently point out to me that I could move forward!
I learned that I can cope with heavy traffic and considerable stress, and I also learned not to make assumptions about assistants’ knowledge of their own country and environment!