Jeanne Koré Salvato

illiam Wordsworth writes. “the child is father of the man.” While he means this in a philosophical way, any ex-pat who isn’t really in the know in the new country will discover that the child parents the adult.  Nowhere is this more true than trying to fathom le carnet.


No French student has ever escaped the doleful influence of le carnet de correspondance, the notebook used to correspond between teacher and parents. What ever happened to just sending the occasional note home?

“Mom, sign here,” my daughter says, five years old.  She explains that this line means she was absent and by signing I agree that she was absent.  A five-year-old?  They would make up an absence at that age?  I ask my daughter, “Now, how do you spell absence in French?”  Answer, absence.


“Where is my carnet?” was the lament of many a late school kid, rooting around in the school bag, for le carnet was the magic wand, allowing the child entrance into the school and permission to leave. If you forgot the carnet, this was recorded, a strike against you come report card time.

If a student misbehaved, the carnet was demanded by the teacher. It now sat tantalizingly close to the teacher’s pen. If the same student talked out of turn again, the carnet was slowly, dramatically opened, the dreaded mot, the written reprimand now only a hair’s breadth away. If the student pressed his or her luck, and acted up again, the teacher put in a note (un mot, literally a word).  But what a word.  The student then had to carry le mot home to a parent and return it signed.  A terrible indignity. 

This we never had, because our child figured staying out of trouble was easier for her poor parents, whose French was not up to coping with what would ensue.  No parent could escape permission slips, however.  “Sign here, Mom.”  I just signed away, which was much easier than trying to figure out the officious French.  An event would se déroule, unfold itself, or as we would say, “start.” 


Apparently, the carnet was also the place to request help for a child struggling in a particular subject.  I was yesterday old when I learned this choice bit of information!  Needless to say, it was a strategy I didn’t employ, even though my child would have benefitted, particularly in the French language.

A paragraph, in French naturally, is read aloud by the teacher.  How nice, you may be thinking; French is such a lovely language.  If you saw the terrified faces in the classroom, you would think otherwise.  The poor students of every age grimly grip their pens and try to write down what they hear. 

Every little mistake costs .5 of one point.  If the lark chirps along in the passage and you misspell it once, twice, three times (a lady, a lark is always a lady) well then, each time you make the same mistake you are doomed.  My point here is that students can wind up with negative numbers, a score which appears menacingly next to the student’s name:  minus 27/20.  Twenty is perfection, our 100. 

What is the right verb tense? This is a true challenge because they all sound alike.  Which of these words has a feminine gender?  Feminine nouns require an extra “e” on certain verbs and adjectives.  “Je suis née dans la forêt, l’alouette nous a dit.”  I was born in France, the lark told us. The lark is a feminine noun and therefore has that extra “e” on born (né). But, ”Je suis né dans la forêt, l’oiseau nous a dit.” I was born in the forest, the bird told us.” Bird is a masculine noun and so has no extra “e.”

My daughter would appear with marks in the negative range, so I suggested a tutor.  “Mom, give me one more chance.  If I get a perfect score, a 20, on the next test, then no tutor.”  Guess what she got on the next test?  Zero.  Since this was an improvement, we decided she didn’t need a tutor.


Sometimes in a get together with Daisy Scouts, the youngest scouting branch, for example, someone would ask me what grade my daughter was in.  I would catch my daughter’s glance, my eyes going wide, because I never knew!  The person asking would look at me in alarm.

Here’s the problem:

Kindergarten lasts three years.  Fine.

Cours préparatoire (CP) is first grade, where the kids learn to read and to print and write in cursive.  (Bad idea that writing and printing at the same time.) Anecdotes: Elodie’s book was called Snow (La Neige).  She pointed to the word in the text, la neige! she breathed, incredulous. Happily, her parents could also read, which mitigated the temptation for her to throw us overboard entirely and manage her education solo.  It is true we would bring her to school, arriving to find the place locked up.  I’d wonder why.  It turned out to be a French holiday.  Who knew?  My daughter gave me a look of rebuke.  Who is supposed to know these things?

After first grade, we have two years of Cours Élémentaire, (CE1 and CE2) followed by two years of Cours Moyen (CM1 and CM2).  Then off to sixth grade, which to reward American parents, is called la sixième année.  The sixth year. 


Okay, give it to me.  A kid is in the third grade.  What French grade is she in?  CP is first, so CE1 is second and CE2 is third. This may seem easy when you are reading this in your chair, but when you are trying to make a good impression with a new person, the strain chases all numbers out of your brain, especially because 1 is 2 and 2 is 3 and you start over for fourth grade, CM1, and fifth grade is CM2 which sounds more like second grade, I think because the M is close to the N in second. (Who’s on first?)

Samuel Beckett may as well have had his tramps be young children.  One child could be in the American system, the other in the French, and Beckett could have made hay while the sun shone, by giving us a good dose of the absurd as the children try to match up their grades.  In fact, a young boy does appear in Godot, an emissary from Godot himself.  We will talk about him down the road.


One time I watched Marie-José in the fruit and vegetable shop pack up thirty clémentines (tangerines) and hand them off to a French woman.  “Wow,” I said, when it was my turn.  “That’s a lot,” (beaucoup).  She explained that each child has a name day, corresponding with their particular saint on the calendar.  On that day, the child brings clémentines for the class.

St. Elodia from Cordova, it turns out, is honored on 22 October. The day before I got clémentines and gave them to my daughter to take to school.  She looked at me the way a teacher looks at the student who always loses his homework but somehow manages to turn his in a day ahead. Not always easy being the adult in the room!  Happily, Wordsworth had prepared me for this eventuality. 


A book about mothers and daughters came out recently called Actress by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright.  In this novel, Norah, the daughter of actress Katherine O’Dell, writes about her deceased mother, trying to sort out the actress from the mother, the mother from the person.  Norah also writes about her own experience, her own family, and what it’s like not knowing who her father was.  The Guardian writes that “Enright triumphs as a chameleon: memoirist, journalist, critic, daughter—her emotional intelligence knows no bounds.”

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