Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Skipping Grades

on February 26, 2014


The yard of the Ecole St Sebastien.  Miracle of modern technology: I was able to find on Google images this photo of the yard (cour) just the way I remember it in early spring.

The yard of the Ecole St Sebastien. Miracle of modern technology: I was able to find on Google images this photo of the yard (cour) just the way I remember it in early spring.

Uncle Lung registered us in the nearest elementary school, the Ecole St Sebastien. Yes, this was named after yet another saint. France is Catholic, and as such has a few hundred saints. Streets and schools are therefore often named after these saints.

At the interview, he informed the headmistress of our particular case. The good directrice pondered a while and decided to put us right back where we had left off two and a half years ago. That is, I would go to 9eme (Grade 3) and Saadia would go to 8eme (Grade 4).  The understanding was that if we did well, we would be allowed to skip a grade.

We did not have uniforms, but did have to wear a tablier — an apron, supposedly, but it was more like a housecoat made of a plasticky water-repellent synthetic fabric. It was printed in various patterns, usually a tartan type of cross-line design,  had long sleeves, a collar, buttoned along the front, with a matching belt, and was worn over normal daily clothes.

On picture day, I still wore my tablier, not realizing everyone else came in pretty clothes instead.

On picture day, I still wore my tablier, not realizing everyone else came in pretty clothes instead.

In elementary school, each class still had a homeroom teacher, the “mistress” — maitresse — who taught almost all subjects except PE. Physical education was named Gymnastique, and indeed included mainly gymnastics. Again I had to face the torture of learning to climb ropes. The last I remembered was instruction on how to climb knotted ropes in Grade 2 in France. Strangely, I do not remember any PE class in Ankara, and surely none in Jeddah. But now, every one had graduated to smooth ropes and here I was, still trying to master how to hold the rope between crossed feet. To this day, I cannot fathom what the use of climbing a rope might be. I have never had to use the skill yet. I understand having to learn to run fast, jump high, even turn somersaults and swim. These are really handy should you have to run away from an assassin or survive a shipwreck. Martial arts would be even handier. Basketball is very useful, for I now can throw (sometimes) used tissues and balled up scratch paper into waste paper baskets without having to get up from my chair. I guess I would have to become a cat burglar to need rope climbing skills.

All classes were extremely easy, and I got full marks in every subject without much effort. Although, now that the time has come for truth, I must confess that there was one thing I did not know. The day we had our math test, one of the questions asked us to draw a “broken line”. What could that be? I wondered. Quite by pure hazard, my eyes wandered to my right side, and happened to see, open for all to see, my neighbor’s notebook. And my neighbor herself, painstakingly, with her tongue between her teeth, trying to draw with her ruler and pencil, what looked like a pulled out accordion. Aha, I thought, so it is not a dotted line… And I drew an accordion too. That was the one question I did not know, the class having taken it before my arrival. And I confess, no I did not deserve the 10 out of 10 that day.

broken line

Whatever the case, my maitresse went to the directrice and told her I did not belong in 9eme. So the next month, October, I was moved to the 8eme and Saadia, who had done equally well, went to the 7eme. Things were still easy in 8eme, except for a new strange animal: the grammatical analysis. I had never met this before, and it took some time for me to master it. Today, I really marvel at French fourth graders, who could “parse” nouns, verbs or adjectives free hand. I have developed in recent years a similar method of parsing English words, and my students –even high schoolers —  are so terrible at it I had to develop a formatted table for them to fill so they would not forget what to write. But the method works, and my students make huge strides in grammar, writing and comprehending classical literature.

French grammar is much more complicated than English grammar, yet these children all learned to “analyze” every word correctly. Here is how it goes. The teacher would write a sentence such as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (I apologize; but Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books so I had to use it.) Then she would underline a few words, say, It, is, single, man, must. So the students would write each word as an entry in their classwork notebook, in the margin, underlined in red, followed by a colon.

It: Personal pronoun, neutral, 3rd person singular, subject of the verb is.

Is: Verb to be, 3rd person singular, simple present tense, indicative mood, active form.

And so on.

Math was a blast. The French take it easy, like most Westerners, and having sweated through Chinese math, this was now a piece of cake. Two months went by. I often got full marks, and occasionally a nine, nine and a half or nine and three quarters out of ten, but I always ranked first. I started making friends, in particular with a very sweet girl named Sakina, who had long black hair and was of Greek origin. She did not do very well academically but everyone could see she was the teacher’s pet, who indeed often petted her beautiful hair. Another girl named Dominique sat next to me, and I really admired her. Especially her language. She would exclaim, “Mer… credi!” which I thought absolutely hilarious. Mercredi means Wednesday, which in itself has nothing funny about it. But the word merde means shit and is used the same way as its English counterpart. Children, of course, are expected to have clean language and not use such dirty words. So, the idea was that you inadvertently started uttering “mer…” then realized the mistake, but did not want to sound strange, and therefore would finish it as a different but acceptable word.

I finally had the occasion to demonstrate my fluency with student slang one day, when the Chen family came to dinner. Mr. Chen was a Chinese professor married to a French lady whom he had met during university studies in England. They had five children, who all possessed those flabbergastingly beautiful features of mixed blood products, and on top of it were extremely bright and well behaved. If we went to their apartment for dinner, at 8:30 precisely, all children in pajamas would come and wish us good night, and kiss their parents on the cheek before disappearing silently into their bedrooms.  So I tried to impress them. I pretended to exclaim accidentally, “Mer… credi!” and felt immense satisfaction when the second and third daughters, Marie-France and Christelle, who were around my age, caught on, and burst into laughter. But my blood turned cold when they then turned and ran to their mother, laughing and saying, “Maman, Maman! Guess what Fawzia just said…!” OMG… I did not know where to hide, my face was so hot with embarrassment.


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