As usual I was trailing behind - I was short even when I was only nine and my little legs could never seem to keep up with other peoples – a few paces ahead of me I could see my mother and even from behind I could tell she was frowning at my brother, who was much further ahead and proclaiming in as loud a voice as possible that he didn’t see why he had to go to a fucking French school when he couldn’t speak fucking French. His rude language wasn’t really a problem, he was fourteen, angry and where we were not many people could speak any English, so it was unlikely to offend. Admittedly I was inclined to agree (although I would never have said so out loud for fear of encouraging his outlandish behaviour, which was annoying my mother more and more).The whole situation was alien to us; we were used to gray uniforms, white shirts with starched collars, ties that felt like they would choke us if they were pulled even slightly tighter, shinny black shoes, modern schools with colourful welcoming classrooms and desks where all books were kept and pencils provided when necessary; and yet here we were, wearing jeans and trainers, carrying school bags heavy enough to make you feel like you could topple over, walking along hot cobbled streets towards a building which could have been easily mistaken for a church. I discovered that this was to be my new school; my brother was off to a more modern secondary school, where at least there would be an English teacher who taught French children English lessons. I discovered that every week my brother would get a few hours reprieve from being surrounded by people who could and would only speak French, I however would not be so fortunate.
The stone structure loomed towards me in a menacing manner and as we approached the entrance to my school I discovered that I had to walk through what appeared to be an empty building to get to the playground and eventually my classroom. This building appeared to rely solely on natural light, but as it lacked many windows, it remained gloomy. On the sunniest of days this was made worse for as you stepped out of the sun into the building, you were soaked in darkness until your eyes adjusted. For me it was the gateway to a different world, one of solitude and isolation. It felt like when I walked through that building that I stepped back in time, where the toilets were all outside and the children entertained themselves by playing hopscotch and sat on the concrete steps of the classrooms. The school I had left in England had just had a new wooden climbing frame installed, with rope bridges and bark chippings, and an open field we were encouraged to use. Here, the only playground they had was concrete and I distinctly remember staring at the gray floor and feeling like I was peering into my soul.
My first day wasn’t without its surprises. As I was lead into the classroom by my new teacher, a man who smelled strongly of aftershave and wine, I was plopped behind a desk in the middle of the class and nothing more was said. I sat patiently and tried to guess at what was going on around me. Some things were easier to figure out than others; the teacher standing at the front of the class shouting out and each child individually answering “oui” implied the morning registry, the scribble on the board with the numbers in the middle must have been the date and so on it went until something strange happened.
All appeared to be going fine until my new teacher started to raise his voice, then from behind me a little boy responded with what was unmistakably a quiver to his voice, the teacher responded with more venom this time and the little voice behind me grew strangely squeaky when suddenly the teacher charged down between the desks and as he charged back a bundle bumped against the desks all the way to the front, this happened so fast that I didn’t realise at first that the bundle was in fact the little boy from the desk behind me. There he stood, well dangled, more or less by his ear which was firmly clasped between the teacher’s index finger and thumb! He wriggled and squealed and the teacher with his face only inches away from the boy’s, bellowed at him with all his might. Even from my desk I could see bits of spittle fly from the teacher’s lips and land on the boy’s cheeks, which had become increasingly inflamed. Then as quickly as it had started the moment passed, the boy was returned to his feet and the teacher walked back behind his desk. As the boy walked back down the aisle I was amazed to see him discreetly grin and wink at his friend at the back of the room, implying that this was a regular occurrence.
Having come from an environment where teachers were kept at arms length this was a terrifying insight in the difference between our two cultures.
Needless to say that when I returned home that evening the first thing I said to my mother was “if you think I’m going back to a Fucking French school again, you’ve got another thing coming!” I wasn’t surprised that my mother smacked my behind for swearing but it was worth it if only for the look on my brother’s face.