lundi 22 juin 2009

It was theater

Breakfast of gardeners

I got up with Sam this morning. The épreuve began at 8 am. He had to be there in the room before 7:30 am, equipped with his passport, convocation, and a spare blue pen. I poured the cereal and he grabbed the milk.

"I was supposed to get pens yesterday! Do you have an extra one?"

"Yeah, I have everything I need. It's ok."

"Do you want coffee?"


"There's orange juice. Do you want what's left?" He looked at me darkly. I had pushed being supportive on the morning of the French bac a bit too far.

"Sh, Mom. I don't want to talk." I nodded -- that can't count as talking --, and headed to the bathroom to let him eat his Special K with dark chocolate shavings in peace. He was on his way out when I returned, wearing a t-shirt and white hoodie.

"Aren't you going to be a little cold on the scooter?"

"My coat is down in the scooter. See ya."

"Okay." Is there anything more pathetic a mother can say? Okay, see ya. I pushed my luck, adding from the door as he headed across the terrace, "Good luck, Sam." He nodded and disappeared down the stairs.

Back inside, I did the only thing left to do. I started worrying.

I thought to myself. I hope he thought to make sure he has enough to make it to school on time. I checked myself. You're worrying senselessly. He doesn't run out of gas. He won't today. Not for the French written bac. I grabbed my camera and headed back outside to take pictures of the early summer morning sun on everything. It's the most glorious moment of the day, competing only with late evening. At 10 am, I went back to bed to read Emma and wait. I slept. It's tough being a mother. I am the one who sat up late (nearly 2 am), feeling a little tense for him, as well-prepared as he was, and working as hard as he had been. You never know. I thought about my English AP exam. I loved it. I aced it. He'd be alright.

There's nothing more you can do for them, you have to say to yourself.

I was outside in half my gardening clothes when he arrived. Baccarat heard him before I did. That's the beauty of a walled garden with no neighbors: you can wander outside before you have finished dressing. I made it back upstairs to pull on my jeans and espadrilles before he made it up from the bottom of the garden.

"Did you have lunch?" I congratulated myself on starting with a question other than anything having to do directly with the bac.


"You had lunch with your friends after?" The lead-up.


"How did it go? What was the topic?"

"Good. It was theater."

"Did you write about Molière (his favorite) then?" I remembered dragging him to see Le bourgeois gentilhomme his second year here, and his loving it. There was no problem getting him to see L'école des femmes with Daniel Auteuil at l'Odéon for Audouin's birthday last year.

"Yeah. I cited him 3 times. But, I only wrote 3 pages, and the time was racing by. I usually nap 3 times in the 4 hours, but I only had 15 minutes for the third part."

"Oh, Sam, you didn't nap during the bac, did you?"

"Last year. I didn't have time this year. Time was going by so fast."

"Maybe you liked the topic and had a lot to say. What was it?"

"Does the spectator participate in the play."

"Was it a subject for which you felt prepared?"

"Yeah. Asmaa and I talked a lot about it. There's a 1 out of 5 chance of getting theater for the dissertation question, and it's the main topic for theater: is a play meant to be read or seen? I had a lot of arguments to make. I only wrote 3 pages, but I did the typical French thing. I wrote on every line of the math ruled paper, not skipping any lines, so I wrote a lot, actually. Only SVT (Sciences de la vie et de le terre) left on Wednesday, and then it's done. The oral next week is easy."

He introduced me to the Macbook Pro he got refurbished and then headed up to prepare for Wednesday.

Friday, we see the head of the terminal at Notre Dame Les Oiseaux in Verneuil, where Sam will most likely finish school next year. The teachers wanted him to switch concentrations from ES to a less academic program since he did so poorly this year. Not surprising, neither that they wanted him to change nor that he did poorly. The week before last was tough.

The usual end of the school year storm cloud appeared suddenly over my head the evening he returned from his class dinner and asked, "Did you get a message from Mme. Foubert?" I hadn't.

"Je pense que mon portable est déchargé."

"Tu devrais mettre le chargeur et écouter tes messages," suggested Audouin, helpfully. I nodded and went to get the charger. There was a message. It was from the day before, and it was Mme. Foubert, Sam's head teacher, and she sounded very decided.

, elle m'informa, la forte décision du conseil de classe, qui a eu lieu aujourd'hui, que Samuel change d'orientation. She asked me to call at my very earliest convenience. The floor sunk a few centimeters below my feet and my vision darkened. I motioned for Audouin to come right away and hit 3 for "listen again", pressing the phone to his ear. He listened, his expression darkening, too.

"S'ils te gardent à l'école, et ça n'est pas certain" said Audouin to his stepson, when her message was finished, "c'est sur qu'ils vont te faire passer en STG." Sam and I said "non" at the same time.

"Il ne va pas changer d'orientation," I said. "Il va aller jusqu'au bout et voir ce qu'il peut faire. Son problème n'est pas qu'il n'est pas capable de faire le travail d'ES -- il en est fort capable --; son problème et qu'il ne veut pas accepter que c'est les professeurs qui ont le pouvoir et pas lui, et il ne veut pas travailler quand il est en bagarre avec eux. C'est bête car les professeurs devraient pouvoir comprendre ça et calmer la situation." Audouin agreed as far as a parent can realistically agree with that point of view here, and headed to bed. I sat down to talk with Sam, who was lying on the sofa with his hands over his eyes. I think his vision had darkened considerably, as well.

"I'm not changing orientations, Mom."

"No, you're not. But you are going to have to learn how to play this game and do it if you're going to make it, Sam."

In the morning, I got up early and waited for it to be time to call the school. They were already in meetings, Pourrais-je leurs laisser un message? Yes, please tell Mmes Mouray and Foubert that I called. The end of the year is hard on all of us.

Mme Mouray called back an hour later. I suspect that she intercepted the message, on the look-out. She taught Sam's physics class in the previous grade level, and she is the head of the première. Mme Foubert is also his history and geography teacher, and I wasn't too certain how amenable she would be.

"Vous avez parlé avec Samuel, et il vous a dit la décision du conseil de classe, j'imagine."

"Oui," I told her. "Et j'ai eu le message de Mme Foubert, tard. Nous ne voulons pas que Samuel change d'orientation, mais nous reconnaissons qu'il a fait une très mauvaise année."

"Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé?" she asked. I resolved to tell the truth, carefully. I told her that Sam, whether it could be said that his point of view was exaggerated beyond reality, had felt since the beginning of the year that it had been a mistake to repeat the year. We had understood that he would have different teachers and be able, as he had been assured would be the case, to "start fresh". Instead, he came home as early as the end of the first week of school telling me that nothing had changed. Any time anyone talked in class, his teachers fixed their eyes on him and said in front of the whole class, "Here we go again, last year all over again." He was miserable, and he gave up.

"Oui," she said, sounding genuinely understanding, "c'était vraiment dommage qu'on n'a pas pu lui changer de professeurs, mais autant que ça soit possible en S car il y a 3 sections, il n'a qu'une en ES, et on ne peut pas." I told her that I had believed I had heard them assure Sam this would be the case, and that was in large part why he had accepted to do it. He later told me that he had not heard what I had, only that his teachers would begin with a new attitude, too.

Which they did not, and his only got worse.

I told her what she knew very well already, which is that I had done my best to try to help him see things differently, get a little perspective on the situation, and focus on his work in the face of his frustration, but it just didn't work. He's too sensitive to negative reinforcement. He always has been, I told her, remembering his kindergarden teacher, close to desperation, asking me what to do with him, wailing, Punishing him just doesn't work! I had felt genuine sympathy and concern for her situation, and thought a minute before replying, Have you tried ignoring him and using only positive reinforcement as often as you can? She had looked like I had come up with a sure-fire idea for a pocket-sized hydrogen battery and thanked me.

Mme Mouray agreed that the year and the attempt to work better and raise his grades had been a failure and was best forgotten; Sam should go on to the last year of ES and make his best effort. It was not a problem of capacité, mais de motivation, "Mais, il y a une question que je me pose, et je le dis comme ça puisque nous parlons franchement." I asked her to continue. "Est-ce qu'il ne serait pas mieux dans un autre établissement où les professeurs et les élèves ne le connaissent pas déjà?"

"Je me suis posée la même question," I reassured her. We had already begun thinking about it, from a private boarding school in Cergy-Pointoise where my brother-in-law has sent his two children to the local public school, if they would take him and allow him to go on to terminal ES.

"C'est juste que les professeurs parlent entre eux dans la salle des professeurs, et les élèves dans sa classe risquent de provoquer les mêmes comportements chez lui car ils ont une image de Samuel qui le suivra l'année prochaine." Sam's sense of humor is a little too appreciated by his classmates, and not enough by his teachers. Hélas. We agreed to meet at 2:45 pm, 15 minutes after he would meet alone with her and Mme Foubert.

I arrived a little breathless, helmet in hand, and she shook my hand with a broad smile that looked distinctly like pleasure mixed with relief, "J'ai une bonne nouvelle à vous annoncer. Enfin, je pense que c'est une bonne nouvelle." I listened.

After she had hung up with me that morning, she had gone to see the assistant director of the school, Mme Gosse, who had listened to what she had to say about her conversation with me that morning. Mme Gosse said she tended to agree with Mme Mouray and I, and placed a call to the head of the terminal ES at their sister school, Notre Dame in Verneuil, Mme Silva. Mme Silva was ready to meet Sam and me, and they would almost certainly take Sam. "On fait ça assez souvent," she added, "quand un enfant ferait mieux de changer d'établissement pour se trouver mieux. On accept des enfants de chez eux et ils prennent des notres. Je lui ai expliqué son cas et les particularités de sa situation, et je pense que ça va bien se passer."

We headed to the tiny, overheated room in which I have sat previously with Mmes Mouray and Foubert, the same little group reunited, and I found a beaming Sam.

"J'étais en train d'organiser mes arguments sur pourquoi je devrais passer en terminal ES et pas en STG, et vous me proposez ça!" he said, practically laughing. Later, I asked him if he were happy. He shrugged and said, "Not really." Right.

"Vous feriez bien," smiled Mme Foubert, "de bien préparer ton bac. Vous avez eu des résultats formidables l'année dernière. Cette année, les professeurs pensent que vous ne pouvez pas le faire, mais vous pouvez leur montrer."

"J'ai déjà commencé," Sam told her. "C'est mon intention exacte; de pouvoir mieux faire sur le bac français et SVT c'est le seul côté positif de cette année."

"Tout ce qu'on veut pour vous, Samuel, c'est que vous nous appeleriez en juillet prochain pour nous annoncer une brillante réussite au bac. Vous pouvez le faire, mais vous devez travailler pour bien apprendre vos sujets. On doit être précis et juste sur les concours. On écrit 'Daval' au lieu de 'Laval', et on ne lit même pas le reste de ton papier du concours de Sciences Po. Il faut être exacte dans vos connaissances."

They finished with an expression of confidence and a further offer of help, Mme Foubert turning to Mme Mauray to ask, "On pourrait pas faire un effort de nettoyer son dossier un peu en reprenant quelques-unes des appréciations?"

"Oui," said Mme Mouray without a second's hesitation.

"Vous aller mentir?" I asked.

"Non! Bien sur que nous n'allons pas mentir, mais ces appréciations sont quelque peu exagérées, et ce n'est pas la peine de lui apporter préjudice." They were actually offering to edit the teacher comments, removing the most eggregiously negative so that they would not follow him to his interview at Notre Dame les Oiseaux and his university applications.

"En tout cas," continued Mme Mouray, "on pense avoir vraiment trouvé la solution idéale pour Samuel l'année prochaine. Notre Dame est une très bonne école située dans un très beau parc et cadre."

"Mon fils est allé là," added Mme Foubert, smiling and nodding her head.

Back out on the sidewalk, Sam looked at me and said, "It's les Oiseaux, you know. I have friends there, and they love it."

"It's Notre Dame les Oiseaux? But I thought that was in Saint Germain! Les Oiseaux in Paris is where X's kids go to school, and several people asked why we didn't look into the one near Saint Germain when you left the EAB. I didn't because I wanted you do be done with trains to school, but that's beside the point now."

"No, it's in Verneuil, and I'm really lucky to be able to go there." As long as Sam continues to think that, then I am as happy as a mother can be.

All of this takes a lot of out me, but I take comfort in knowing that I am so far from the only parent to go through this. We have a lot of company.

Et maintenant, j'ai faim.

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