Filed under: new kid | Tags: cheating, duplicity, first grade, French, French School, kindness, language immersion, new kid, outcast, playground hierarchy, prejudice
by Dan Moreau
Age eight at the time
At age eight, my parents enrolled me in the French School. Unlike the American School, which cost more and was farther from our house, the French School embodied my mother’s ideals of sophistication, culture and civility. She herself had been raised by French Catholic nuns and instead of rebelling against them, as so many other girls did, she embraced them.
We had just moved from Miami, Florida to Bangkok, Thailand. In Miami, I had just finished the first grade, but because I was starting at the French School with no preexisting knowledge of French, the principal thought I should repeat the first grade. My parents didn’t object, nor did I.
In early September my parents dropped me off by the front gate to my new school and wished me luck. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to find my classroom. Our teacher’s name was Madame Unarat. She was petite and plump with short dark hair and owlish glasses. That first morning I sat quietly at my desk, pretending to understand everything that my new classmates and teacher said.
At noon, the bell rang for lunch and Madame Unarat let us out into the courtyard. All the other kids had brought packed lunches. Everyone except me. I think my parents had sent me off to school without lunch, assuming—and perhaps rightly so—that the expensive tuition they were paying would at least include meals. It didn’t.
As I sat by myself on a bench, biting my fingernails, my stomach growling, a woman who worked at the school approached me. She was wearing lipstick and perfume and the collar of her blouse was stylishly raised up. She asked me if I had eaten. I didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, this time in English. I shook my head in reply.
She took me to the school cafeteria. They called it a “cafeteria,” but it was more like a French bistro with a chalkboard out front that displayed the day’s specials. It was where the teachers and school staff gathered for lunch, coffee and cigarettes. She bought me a chicken drumstick and took me back to the courtyard where I devoured the drumstick down to the bone.
A boy from my class sat next to me on the bench. He was the biggest kid in our class and looked older than the rest of us with the lip shadow of a prepubescent mustache. He spoke some English and, unlike the other kids who as a rule ignored me, he was friendly to me. Too friendly. But where he was talkative and warm, I was aloof and tightlipped.
Though it was only my first day, and though I didn’t understand a word of French, I instinctively knew where this boy stood in the playground hierarchy and even though I had no friends I wanted nothing to do with him. Without knowing it, I had made a swift and vital decision. I would rather have no friends at all than be associated with this social pariah. In approaching me so early on, he might have befriended me before I caught on to what the other kids were saying about him. And in hindsight, it was the right decision. Slowly but surely, as my French improved, so did my rapport with my classmates. I made new friends; he didn’t. We never talked much after that.
Because of my age and because of the mistaken belief that children pick up languages like head lice, by proximity and by immersion, my parents thought I would come home one day, fully fluent in French. That wasn’t the case. I had to learn French like any adult would, through repetition, rote memorization and trial and error.
Every day after school I met with Madame Unarat for an hour or two. That was when my true instruction began. Her methods were simple yet effective. She would read from a primer, pausing after each word, which I repeated until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was painstaking, frustrating and laborious and sometimes she would raise her voice in anger when I couldn’t sound out a word correctly. But it worked. By the end of the year, I spoke enough French to get by on and was admitted to the second grade.
My second grade teacher didn’t have Madame Unarat’s patience and treated me as any other student. Monsieur Stricte was a dark, wiry, morose man. By then, I had quit having afternoon lessons with Madame Unarat. It was assumed that I was fluent. I wasn’t. I spoke a hybrid of playground argot and slang. Yet I went to great lengths to conceal my failings. I copied off of classmates, I cheated on reading comprehensions by looking up the answers in the back of the book and, most of all, I kept a low profile. To my parents and everyone else, I seemed to be doing just fine.
One day, in the middle of the semester, Monsieur Stricte asked me point blank if I spoke French. I had just handed in an assignment on which I had done better than everyone in the class. Like with every other assignment, I had cheated on this one too, but my mistake was to give myself too many correct answers.
Monsieur Stricte stared at me coldly. His eyes said it all. I knew what answer he was looking for. To say yes would be to perpetuate a charade he plainly saw through. It was also a lie. Yet the truth was more complicated. Yes, I spoke conversational French. No, my written French and reading skills were awful. After a few awkward seconds, I shook my head. The following day, I was demoted to the first grade where Madame Unarat welcomed me, literally, with open arms, wrapping me up in a tight bear hug in front of the entire class. I was never so happy to see her.