Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Septieme — Grade 5

on February 28, 2014

I felt happy in 8eme, feeling at home with all subjects, and enjoying especially poetry. In this grade, no more fables by La Fontaine as in First Grade. We now memorized poems by dead white French men such as Alfred de Musset. Although firmly dated in the middle of the 19th century, this particular poet had nothing of the others’ romanticism and alexandrines. He produced some weird poems with short lines, and almost post-modern raw imagery, which for some even weirder reason, were considered suitable for little children to learn. Upon searching for the Ballad to the Moon, I just found out that it is really much longer than the few stanzas we were given to study, and that the reason is clear, a lot of the further lines are definitely not suitable for children! We were ordered to draw an illustration, which I loved to do, with a bright yellow for the moon, and everything else in black shadows, and happily I memorized it.

comme un point sur un i

Ballad to the Moon

It was, in the brown night, / On the yellowed bell tower, / the moon, / like a dot on an i.

Moon, what somber spirit / walks at the end of a thread / in the shade, / your face and your profile?

Are you the eye of a one-eyed sky? / What sad cherub / ogles us / under your pallid mask? ……………… (Here, the teacher skipped a couple of stanzas.)

Who blinded your eye, / The other night? Did you / knock yourself / On some pointed tree?

For you came, pale and sullen, / stick on my panes / your horn / through the bars. (Here, the teacher skipped again many stanzas)

And it is, in the brown night, / on its yellowed bell tower, / the moon / Like a point on an i.

It is hard to say why I liked it so much. Probably because its simplicity made me think that I could write something like that.

But the bliss did not last long, for this maitresse also went to the directrice and told her I did not belong in her class. So I again skipped a grade, and joined Saadia in 7eme, for the French education system has five grades in elementary school and seven in middle and high school. There, Saadia had unseated the top student, Annie Paumier, and after I came in, I also passed her to rank as the second every month. Only one of the following months did I surprisingly score higher and end up as the first, while Saadia became second. She stopped talking to me for three days after we got our report cards.

I do not blame her. We often discussed later, as adults, the psychology of Chinese children raised traditionally. The difference of even just one year in our ages resulted in our being ranked vastly differently. Saadia wasn’t just the best, she HAD to be the best to maintain her status. At the time, I only saw her privileges, such as being in charge of all responsibilities, but never her burdens, such as… being in charge of all responsibilities. She, on the other hand, only saw my benefits, such as freedom from responsibilities, but never my wretchedness, such as being always called irresponsible, by my parents.

Saadia was now one year behind her peers and I was together with my peers, although, since I had started school a year early, I was really still a year behind my original level. My favorite subjects were history and composition, named over there Redaction, which really means editing. I wonder. Was the goal of those one-hour weekly writing sessions really to teach us how to edit? The format was simple. The teacher would write a topic on the blackboard, and we would get started. By the time the bell rang, everyone would hand in their finished work, and file out, while I would still be writing as fast I as could the final paragraph. The teacher would hover over my head, making me even more nervous. Then she would start telling me to hurry, which of course, made my hand tremble with anxiety, and start pulling the paper away from me, which would cause me to nearly pee in my pants.

History was very exciting. The syllabus for elementary school is French history only. I believe this is why the French are so good at liberal arts. History is studied in depth. I was shocked when I discovered that in the US, sixth graders are expected to study world history starting from the cavemen and ending with the Cold War, while passing through all continents. What do they get at the end of the year, except for a merry-go-round view of world history? A mile wide and an inch deep. No one can master world history this way, not even adults. In France, the lower elementary grades get an overview and the upper grades get the in-depth review.  We spent the second trimester and I think also the third trimester, studying the French Revolution. The teacher would divide us into teams of two, and give each team a “document”. This were photos or fac-similes of actual hand-written complaints filed with the Tiers-Etat (Third Estate). We were asked to read them — a very complex task because “s” was written as “f”, and the language was strange — and comment on them. We were to discuss the complaints and figure out why the people were unhappy.

cahier de doleances

Similarly, in Geography, we were given photographs of various landscapes. Mine showed a view of a rather flat hilltop, with scrubby vegetation and whitish rock showing under the pebbly soil. Nearby hills all looked similar. We had then to answer on paper questions such as: what type of rock do you think this landscape shows? I answered that this was probably limestone, that the scrubby vegetation was suitable for raising sheep and not cattle, that the area was probably not very wealthy, that these hills were probably formed in the Secondary Era and therefore this was probably the Massif Central in central France.

massif central

Today this is part of what is called the constructivist approach. Yet I see this rarely carried out in other countries. I still remember such snapshots of memory fifty years later while many American elementary students cannot remember anything in Social Studies from one day to the next.

Imagery is extremely important in young children’s learning. Which is why all these children’s encyclopedias and non-fictional picture books are much more effective learning tools than textbooks. In the French early grades, the history textbook had a left page where half the page was a huge picture painted very realistically. The bottom half had a multitude of questions which we were to discuss and answer.

What do you see in the foreground? What do you see in the back, on the left? What is the woman at the mouth of the cave doing? What do you think they used to eat? So from the picture, we were to deduce that the cavemen hunted (two hunters carrying a deer tied by the feet to a pole between their shoulders), or fished (man bringing a basket of fish) or gathered fruits and nuts (woman sitting and serving them). They wore animal skins which they sewed together with needles made of fish bones (woman sitting at the mouth of the cave). Etc etc. They already knew how to make fire.

This is but a poor and very small example of the brilliantly colorful illustration in our history book that showed an entire vista including cave, river, and forest.

This is but a poor and very small example of the brilliantly colorful illustration in our history book that showed an entire vista including cave, river, and forest.

Then on the right hand page, there were three small pictures, again painted very realistically, with a bit of text next to each. Each would highlight an important historical event or person of that time period. Thus, we had for example, in the chapter on Clovis, a little picture of the teenage Clovis with an axe in hand, about to kill an older soldier who was bending down trying to pick up his weapons. The story related how when the Franks sacked Soissons, Clovis wanted the most beautiful vase from the cathedral, but the old soldier grabbed it away, asking why Clovis thought he had the right to it. Clovis said nothing at the time, but later, as he performed an army review, he threw the old soldier’s arms on the ground, saying they were not up to par. As the veteran bent to retrieve them, he struck him with his axe, shouting out, “Remember the vase at Soissons!” This was a 15-year-old king.  The story made no sense at the time, and I pondered over it for many nights. The teacher did not really explain it either. But now, as an older and wiser adult, I understand the wisdom of this teenage leader. Had he retaliated on the spot, he would have been looked upon as a hot-headed greedy youth. But this action, performed in front of the entire army, was a well-planned show of authority, and meant to drive respect and fear in the heart of his followers.


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