Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back to school




Ahhh. The holidays are coming to an end and September looms. Going back to school conjures up cosy images of freshly sharpened crayons, shiny conkers and Readybrek – or at least, it used to. These days, la rentrée (a handy word to describe going back to school) is more likely to mean financial ruin, a nervous breakdown and a fair idea of where one would love to stick all those sharpened crayons…



Charlemagne (742-814) is held responsible by French children for having invented school. He realised that being unable to read or write was going to be a bit of a handicap for a King of the Franks, especially when it came to filling in all those forms and writing decrees and stuff like that, so he founded the Palace School in his home town of Aix-la-Chapelle and attended it himself. He learnt to read Latin and Greek but he never quite got the hang of writing, which is ironic for someone who claimed to love administration more than war - if he were alive today he’d never be able to get a council house or join a tennis club or apply for a credit card. Actually, I can’t do any of those things either despite being an absolutely brilliant speller…



As if that wasn’t enough, in the 19th century, Jules Ferry made school compulsory for 6 to 13 year olds – including girls, which was something of a novelty. He secularised the state schools and abolished religious education - barring members of Roman Catholic orders as state school teachers. This is why there are so many problems today when young Muslim girls turn up at school wearing the veil – by law, pupils are forbidden to display any sign of religious allegiance and this includes wearing veils, turbans or orange robes, shaving their heads or indulging in transcendental meditation in the playground. As for Jules Ferry, he was assassinated in 1893 by a religious fanatic – probably an irate Jesuit with a grudge who saw his pension fly out of the window with not even the chance of a Welcome Back bonus as consolation...




Jules Ferry also ensured the education in France was free and it is, bien sûr – give or take a few hundred euros. Course books are on loan from the school but workbooks have to be bought, as well as books studied in literature classes, file paper, exercise books and hugely expensive programmable calculators. To be fair, financial help is available if you have a limited budget - although I do have to explain to my children that the money is meant for books and not hair extensions.


And so I head off to town clutching my limp cheque book, in search of the elusive pink exercise book cover that is always on the list and never in the economy pack-of-five on sale and the very expensive oil pastels that will be used just once for a work of art entitled The Inner Eye and will end up in the bin on the last day of term. Then there are all the felt pens, rubbers, pencils and biros that have mysteriously disappeared during the summer holidays. And then there is the paper...


It is not surprising that a nation known for its obsession with paperwork should have as many different words to describe paper as the Eskimos have words to describe snow. I have had to buy: A4 file paper with small squares, A4 file paper with large squares (single sheets and double sheets of both), A5 file paper with small squares etc. etc., tracing paper, squared tracing paper, drawing paper, coloured drawing paper, small, medium and large exercise books with and without spiral bindings…all this in the knowledge that on the first day of school all the teachers are going to vehemently deny ever having asked for large, small-squared spiral-bound exercise books in the first place. I don’t see why the French can’t write on straight lines like everybody else.


Oh, I hear you say, but you don’t have to buy school uniform, do you? I only wish I did. I wouldn’t even begrudge buying those voluminous bottle-green school knickers and fawn knee socks my mum had to buy and sewing in all the name-tags - at least my girls would know what to wear every day. Instead, they throw clothes around the room in a panic as if it were Saturday night and their first date, rather than Wednesday morning and double chemistry. It’s no good asking them to wear the same outfit two days running, either – they’d sooner flunk the baccalaureat, believe me.


During the first week back at school, the children will stagger home with piles of textbooks for me to cover in clear plastic film. This has to be done, even if the book has already been covered by the last owner – you can’t just leave the old plastic film on and pretend it’s new because they can tell and I know because I tried. Finally, just when you think you can relax and get some time to yourself, you are sent various forms to fill in, in triplicate, with information that the school already has because you fill in the same forms every year. This is fine if your child has changed sex, place of birth or parents but otherwise it feels like you’ve been set lines as a punishment for having immutable children. In fact, it feels exactly like being back at school…

7 comments:

Maylis & Hugh said...

Hahaha brings back so many memories of my own 'rentrees' in France years and years ago!! I agree with your remark on squared paper, never saw it anywhere else than in France... wonder why? I think it's because you need the little 'in-between' lines to trace your letters the French way when you start to learn to write...

Thanks for visiting my blog by the way!

Sarah said...

I have The Rentree Shopping Trip to come next week when my boys get back. I am also flummoxed about the different types of paper with both big and small squares and my eldest who is starting Sixieme doesn't seem to be 100% sure what they are either...

Never mind, I'll be with hoards of other mothers at Carrefour; I'll just ask someone if they know the difference!

Mountain Dweller said...

We did THE shopping expedition on Monday. My eldest is going to start 6ème so I now know all about squares too. The only thing that stumped me for a while was 'papier milimètré' - had to get some help on that one!

Louise said...

The Ado has been back at the lycée since Monday, here in Switzerland. One advantage of la rentrée at this age is that one doesn't have to buy tons of stuff - most of which they never use. We now know what is necessary and he buys his own paper etc. Got his pencil case nicked on the second day so that has had to be replaced already!

Wish there were school uniforms - so cheap compared with 'must have' clothes and trainers!

bluevicar said...

Oh, Gigi, thank you for tales of preparing for school. I did our shopping for la rentrée equivalent here in Boulder last weekend, and it was not dissimilar to joining the hordes at Carrefour...except I knew what every item on the list was! I missed, though, buying cahiers which I love. The paper is exquisite and with all those lines I always seem to write better! (Yes, I always bought myself one or two at the same time.)

The form situation is the same here...too many with the same info.

Ah...school! Different, but the same...

Meilleurs voeux!!

sablonneuse said...

That was such a lovely account of la rentrée. I've been behind parents shopping for exercise books and paper etc. at the supermarkets and wondered how on earth they afford it, especially if they have several children.
You've also explained Jules Ferry - so now I know why there's a street named after him in most towns.

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