his is the time of year when high school seniors are madly preparing their applications to go to college. Did you ever wonder what this might be like in a foreign country? Let’s take a look at la belle France.
The last year in high school is called terminale. I never tire of making the joke about the word terminale suggesting terminal, not as in the last step, or last stop, but rather une maladie mortelle, which is, I think we would say in English, a deadly disease. I have something of a black sense of humor, making light of serious things in a disrespectful but fun way. (Reassure me, Dear Reader.) I tried to instill in my daughter the belief that school was actually for her. But in this last year of school, I could not even persuade myself of that truism. What follows here is a record of one child’s travails in a foreign country for her senior year.
HOW IT ALL WORKS
Here’s how terminale works. First, you have to choose one of three areas of expertise to concentrate upon: science, social science or literature. Anyone with half a brain, unfortunately, is rushed into the science arena, since it is the most prestigious. Number two is the social sciences, with literature a distant third. Imagine! All that French literature? Those French Nobel Prize winners in literature, and everybody turns up their noses in France at the choice of literature for their child? Mon dieu, right?
We have a family joke about my getting something in the mail for my child, well before her final year of school. What wishes, the paperwork asked me, do you have for your child? The word they used for wishes is voeux. I knew this word from Christmas time. “Meilleurs vœux,” people say on the cards they send out to celebrate the New Year, meaning all my best wishes. So I thought upon reading this, how wonderful for the school to ask me what wishes I had for my child. I wished she liked school more, that she had more free time, and that she had some say-so in what went on. The paperwork went on to say that you cannot change your wishes. Then I knew it was time to call in the reinforcements. I went to find my daughter. She laughed and explained they wanted to know which fillière she would follow, which track. Why didn’t they say so, you might ask? Welcome to life in a foreign country.
And there’s more. My child chose science whole-heartedly, and then was also admitted simultaneously into the English-speaking track where she had the privilege (ahem) of studying Shakespeare and other major works of English literature in English. So far, we’ve got English literature plus a very lot of science and math. We’re talking calculus, physics, advanced math and very advanced math. In fact, their studies in math and science are so advanced that a student can receive up to one year of full credit for their work in terminale, should they choose to enroll in a university in the States. My daughter was offered this when she was a freshman at Rice. All of this math and science, plus philosophy, the French language and French history to prepare for the national exam on these many subjects called le baccalauréat, otherwise known as le bac.
Their studies in math are so advanced that the final exam, which lasts three hours, requires them to write an explanation to show why several of the theorems we take for granted are true. Remember Pythagorus: His theorem says the square of the hypotenuse in a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
Reader: what is a right triangle?
Me: A triangle with an angle of 90 degrees, also called a right angle.
Me: Take a senior to lunch!
As if all this science were not enough trouble for a student in the filière of science, plus Shakespeare et al, students must also choose a specialty. My daughter’s math teacher persuaded her that she should take the most advanced math class offered by the school, the dreaded spé maths (pronounced spay mat). In this very advanced Math class, officially called le programme de la specialité mathématiques, students who will practice mathematics professionally are enrolled! Do you remember any actual mathematicians in your senior year of high school?
STILL STILL STILL MORE
Now let us imagine that on top of all of the above, you would like to apply for a university education in the States. Fill out a few forms, right? Ha!
First, you need a humanitarian project. The seniors in the States go to Costa Rica on their spring vacations to volunteer to help in turtle conservation, for example. French terminale students do not. American seniors volunteer by tutoring the young in math, for example. French terminale students do not. For one thing their school day can go from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Did we mention homework? But we found a most wonderful project for our daughter: she was setting out for Morocco to do a humanitarian project by painting school classrooms under the umbrella of La Jeunesse, a non-sectarian youth group on offer, as it happened, in our town of Suresnes, under the auspices of the mayor. That must be the reason the photo of the Moroccan team graced a very large billboard in downtown Suresnes.
To earn money, the group got the local theatre to show Casablanca, and then give the proceeds to the youth group for their trip. Mint tea was served. My poor child, though, was in tears because by participating in this movie event during the week she got behind in her schoolwork. That combination of fun and stress, which became so familiar that year, ruled that evening and many others. When the students returned from the trip, the mayor sponsored a treasure hunt to congratulate them on their philanthropy, and my daughter’s team won. The prize was a complementary dinner for two, to which my daughter kindly invited yours truly.
Next, if you want to apply to architecture in the States you need a portfolio. Off we went exploring Paris as mother and daughter photographers, taking pictures of the Louvre’s famous glass pyramid, Le Pyramide du Louvre by I.M. Pei. We also took photos of the reflection of le pyramide in an artistic puddle. We contracted for art lessons, with a vibrant French artist Veronique Frampas, whom I discovered in a Godot way. I had appeared for an acupuncture appointment in Paris in the 16th. An older woman appeared at the same time, having gotten her appointment time mixed up. I said I’d be glad to come back in an hour. So I wandered about, a true flaneur (wanderer) and came upon an exhibit by Veronique. I told her about my daughter’s need for an art teacher to create her portfolio, and voilà, Veronique became that teacher. Many still lifes of onions and squash ensued.
Ah, training in taking this test. Why would such smart students need to train? Well, these smart students were thoughtful and slow, compared to the speed you need to whip through the SAT’s. I had some teacher friends at the American School of Paris, where I taught, who helped: one, the dearest soul who taught history and offered sage advice, helped with language; another friend, a whiz in Math, a brilliant Yale graduate, tapped my daughter as a natural in the study of probability. I couldn’t help but think that her childhood was a study in probability, as in, what is the probability that her American parents would comport themselves properly in any given French circumstance?
A family friend, who had worked in college admissions and now had her own business helping students choose and apply for college, coached my daughter in the need to write that scintillating, modest, accomplished, original, filled with the milk of human kindness performance, called the college essay. Here is where spé maths (spay mat) came in handy. My daughter struggled in spé maths. A new teacher who was a mathematician and not much of a teacher had taken over that year. My daughter and her friend, an equally smart cookie, were forced to seek tutoring to surmount their, dare I say, very low grades, such as 8 out of 20. (Twenty is the highest grade, equivalent to 100.)
Another friend, an English teacher at the American School, helped her craft this challenging mathematical experience into an essay in which she showed her courage, her humility, and her gratitude for this opportunity to stretch in math, despite the dubious outcome. If she had not challenged herself in this way, it’s something she would have regretted. It was such an inspired choice: the intrepid student. The essay begins with the bell ringing in the old classroom with its rickety desks. Application finished! Champagne for the teacher who helped with her essay. The whole process was like waiting for Godot, and in this case, Godot at least sent his blessings. My daughter gained admittance and a scholarship to the architecture school of her choice in Texas. Champagne all around! And a hearty thank you to all the wonderful teachers and guidance counsellors at the American School of Paris for all their help. And also to Mme Veronique Frampas.
It was not so bad, apparently, Texas, I mean. It seems long ago to her now. I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but ten years seems a bit like last week to me.
Samuel Beckett was first a brilliant student, then a somewhat reluctant lecturer. He taught in both Ireland and France. Do you think any of this “ex-patness” could be present in his play, “Waiting for Godot?” What I mean is first that an ex-pat is an ambivalent creature. In my case, for example, I’m living in the States, and yet I dream in French of Paris. The present moment is often divided in two. Estragon and Vladimir, a pair, are conflicted, even about setting off somewhere because of Godot, who may or may not be coming. Let’s keep Godot where he is; the vagrants have enough to do by not doing anything.
FRENCH WINNERS OF THE NOBEL IN LITERATURE
Plus Annie Ernaux, just this year!