vendredi 10 juillet 2009

On becoming who you are, the bac

The coreopsis, deadheaded


I stopped myself short of finishing all the dark chocolate shavings in the box of "Special K" with dark chocolate, and I made a cup of green tea rather than polishing off the sweet white apéritif wine (I'll get to that after).

Don't ever say I have no self-restraint for my emotional and destructive eating problem. Sam doesn't deserve to have a mother as big as an American house, on top of having to pick himself up off the floor after the year that-never-should-have-been. If there's a silver lining, it's that every bad experience either adds to your destruction or helps you grow, and there is always a chance that it will be the latter.

Of course, just like there was always the chance that he'd do worse on the épreuves anticipées this year than last -- and lose the benefit of the first year's better results --, there was also the chance that it would be the former.

It comes down to the person, which is better than it coming down to me because, clearly, I haven't been as stellar in my mother performance as I was positively certain I'd be. Absolutely convinced I'd be nominated for an award I'd win and accept, glowing with pride in... myself. Which, of course, is precisely what it's not supposed to be about.

He did better only in science, and that carries less weight than everywhere else where he did worse. While he had 12 points in advance toward the baccalauréat last year, he now is 4 points behind.

It's a terrible thing.

"Ma crainte est que Sam, qui a beaucoup travaillé pour ces épreuves, et j'en suis vraiment déçu pour lui," dit son beau-père, "en tire la leçon que le travail ne sert à rien."

"I'm not going back to school next year," said Sam. "There's no point in working."

Right on cue.

Worst, maybe, in his case, it is true.

When I took him to see the director of admissions at the highly competitive Lycée International in St. Germain-en-Laye after his last year of collège (middle school here in France), when we were looking for a school for him for lycée (and I knew they couldn't take him), she took his creative writing samples to the head of the American section of the collège and the head of the 9th grade English program, who were down the hall in the teachers' lounge.

"It doesn't really make sense for me to read them," she had said, "when there are specialists available," and she had excused herself for a moment, returning to talk with us before she went to retrieve them and the womens' comments. It was before she had a chance to excuse herself again that we heard people entering the reception area behind us, and two heads appeared at the door to the office.

"Ah! But it is they," said the director, introducing Sam and I to the two women, one of whom advanced and stuck her hand out for Sam to shake.

"I wanted to meet for myself the person capable of this writing." She was beaming. The shorter woman next to her was nodding enthusiastically.

"Yes," she said, "it's wonderful."

"There is something of -- of a young Kurt Vonnegut to it," said the taller woman, who had introduced herself as the principal of the collège. I felt very confused. Sam had always had a writing problem, since he was in elementary school. That's why he had done this writing for a writing specialist. We hoped that would help unblock his written expression and jump start him. She seemed impressed. Sam looked like you could knock him over with a feather. "It's so unusual. It's wonderful."

"The discussion," the admissions director attempted to bring everyone back down to earth, "is what to do with this young man, who is having difficulties in school."

"Oh! He should write. His spirit is not made for ordinary school," she continued. "He'd be better off to leave school and spend his time walking in the woods and writing." The admissions director looked panicked, aghast. The shorter woman, the English teacher, was still nodding decidedly.

"But, he has to go to school!" the admissions director fairly exploded.

"Oh, yes," said the principal, as though dealing with a buzzing fly, "but what about a school with a writing program? Perhaps there is a high school program, a private school somewhere, like the Ohio Writers Project, but for high school students. Or maybe he could finish in independent studies through the CNED and spend his time writing." She was bubbling with enthusiasm. The admissions director looked like she regretted having solicited the opinions of these two women. Sam looked fascinated.

"I don't want to be a writer," he said as we walked back to the car. I didn't want to go to NYC and Barnard when my mother first mentioned it, either.

He went to Notre Dame and proceeded to do supremely mediocrally. In fact, he is outdoing himself and everyone else in mediocrity. And then came this year's disaster repeating the year, only to do far worse and lose ground on the bac.

"Peut-être tu ne devrais pas lui dire pour qu'il profite de son week-end au Cap Feret," suggested my husband when he called me back between patients.

"Il faut que je lui dise. Il sait que c'est aujourd'hui. C'est pas possible de ne rien dire. Il va demander."

I called the school and discussed it with the head of his grade level, who contrary to anything deservedly unpleasant we could say about high school teachers here really cares about him and believes in him. I told her what Madame Silva at Notre Dame les Oiseaux had said. She didn't agree.

"Elle lui propose une place dans leur établissement, mais seulement en L (literature). Elle dit qu'elle l'aurait pris en ES pour redoubler sa première avec les notes qu'il a eu cette année là, mais que ses professeurs diraient qu'il n'a aucune chance de réussir en terminal ES avec ses notes en mathes et eco."

"Mais, elle ne lui donne pas ses chances!" she exclaimed, rather to my surprise. I had, in truth, suspected like Sam that they were trying to off-load him, but she seemed genuine. "Comment elle peut savoir ça?" she added, speaking to herself.

"Elle dit qu'elle est obligée de montrer ses notes aux profs, et ils diraient que c'est pas juste par rapport aux élèves déjà dans la classe d'accepter un élève de l'extérieure avec son niveau."

"Je vais parler avec Madame Gosse, et on va l'appeler."

"Vous savez," I said to her, "il aurait fallu à Sam pas mal du culot pour se défendre des tels arguments." She laughed despite herself.

"C'est vrai. Mais je vais en parler avec Monsieur Cortez et Madame Gosse. Savez, il peut toujours revenir ici, mais c'est pour lui que je m'inquiète. Les professeurs de l'année prochaine le veront venir et ça risque d'être dur encore pour lui."

"Malheureusement, il sait qu'il n'a pas beaucoup de choix. Il préfère revenir à Notre Dame à Mantes et avaler la pillule. Le problème c'est je ne sais pas comment il l'avalera."

"Le cadre du lycée ordinaire lui convient peu," she added. Exactly what they had said at the Lycée International. "J'en ai vu des élèves comme lui qui ont du mal au lycée, et ça va très bien en fac. Il faut qu'on lui trouve le moyen d'y arriver."

"Oui, en enfant avec un QI de 140, et il n'arrive pas à réussir au lycée."

"J'en ai souvent vu des enfants comme lui. Ils ont du potential, mais il ne réalisent leurs capacités que plus tard, dans un cadre moins académique."

"Et peut-être il est un créatif et ça me fait peur parce qu'il aura, peut-être, un chemin peu certain et difficile devant lui." She made the assenting sound, the one that is usually accompanied by a nod.

Sam called me in the seconds after I hung up. I tried to make the small talk about his arrival in Bordeaux, his problems with his bank card, inability to get the change for the tram to the bus to Cap Feret and so forth last as long as possible. We both knew why he had called. It wasn't to tell me about his trip.

"The bac results are ready online," he informed me.

"I know. I checked."

"And?" I wished he were close enough and little enough to let me take him in my arms, not almost 18 and in Bordeaux.

"You didn't do well. You went down."

"How much?" I told him. He had done better only in science, which by no means made up for the ground he lost everywhere else. It seemed impossible. A bad dream. He had spent another 4 hours a week all year working with his tutor, a young doctoral candidate. He had written, read additional works, discussed with her, prepared his arguments, and he did worse. That is possible here. It is subjective. Your grade depends on your corrector.

"What? It's not possible!" He asked questions. He tried to listen. "I feel like I could hurt somebody. Like I could have a fight and hurt someone."

"I know, Sam. It will feel that way, and then it will start to pass." He took a breath.

"I'm not going back to school."

I understood. I had had the same first thought.

"Sam, Madame Mouray is trying hard to find the best solution for you. She hasn't given up on you. She says that she has seen students like you, and that often you come into your own in university." He wasn't ready to hear me.

I called him later, after his tutor called him to encourage him not to take it too badly.

"I can't succeed in school," he said. I was starting to believe him.

"You need only to finish, Sam, and pass the bac. Your path is not a straight one, and your talents are not easy ones to realize. You are genuinely funny. It's rare. Take the other night at dinner, you made Céline laugh, and I could see it surprised her. She started to feel genuinely interested to you, and you made her laugh more than once. It is your force."

"Yeah, but the teachers hate me for it."

"I have never asked you to be anyone but who you are. You can't lose the part of you that is you, but like they said at Lycée International, you are not like the others. It's true. Like Audouin says, you have a real esprit littéraire, and like they said to you at Lycée International, you should be writing. When you have an idea, write it, and see what comes next. When you make someone laugh, note it and develop it. In 6 months, you will look back and find some of it garbage, but you'll see something that is still genuinely funny and good."

I told him about Al Franken. Harvard won't be in Sam's future, but writing can be. I know his brother, a MIT grad and photographer, who lives here in Paris, where he's friends with a friend of mine, and sort of mine, too. It would help if I were to go into the city more often. She and I decided to get Sam together with him. Sam wants to be a photographer.

"In any event, I thought I want to do law, but I am not academic. I fail at school. I can't see myself doing another 7 years of it."

"In truth, you might make a good lawyer, but when I see you, I see your point of view and your ability to get it across in a single remark and make people laugh. It is rare. I see you as a journalist, maybe writing for TV, perhaps advertising. In any event, you were told to start writing, and I think it's time."

"I should just take my camera and start taking photos all the time."

"And then you can write about them, why you took them. The photo journalism photos, the ones that make you laugh, the stories you are asking them to tell."

"I regret ever having come here."

"I thought about that. I decided no. It was the best thing that ever could have happened, and school is nothing next to it. You are bilingual and bicultural. You can make Americans and Brits laugh in English and the French laugh in French. You have seen more of the world. No one can ever take any of that away from you. It is you."

"Laurine had a 17.89 average, you know."

"Yes, that's great."

"I think it might have been the best one. Quentin only had 17.46 after her." I was struck. He sounded proud of them.

"Enjoy your weekend, Sam. Congratulate your friends on their results, be happy for them, talk to them about your feelings, and have fun. There will be time to think about all this when you are back next week, and Madame Mouray will be waiting for you. We'll both feel better then, and we'll figure it out."

He made the assenting sound, the one that is usually accompanied by a nod.
....

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