Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Le changement est en marche

(Change is in progress—from a message from Jean-Pierre in Angers about the results of the election)

Vanessa and I had returned from our trip to Spain just in time to catch all the election news in France. It was weird going into it, because everyone here acted like it was absolutely certain that Obama would win—and yes, if France was voting in our election, it would have been a landslide. We had a hard time explaining to French people that it was a lot more up in the air than they realized.

Around 1:30 in the morning (our time, of course), I found myself getting frustrated with hearing nothing but exit poll numbers, and decided to go to sleep for a while. By the time I woke up early the next morning, the news was in. Vanessa and I decided to go celebrate at a restaurant called, appropriately, Breakfast in America. We found ourselves the only Americans there, surrounded by French people wearing Obama shirts. We enjoyed some pancakes, American coffee (rather than the espresso you’re handed when you order “cafĂ©” in France), and a diner-like ambiance. We spent much of breakfast staring at the reporter outside holding a microphone connected to a machine in a suspicious-looking plastic bag. He was young and awkward, but taking his job very (perhaps too) seriously, so he was interesting to watch. As we had secretly hoped, he approached us when we stepped outside. Since he heard us speaking English, his first words were, “I am journalist. I make reportages. Can you comment?” We gave our two cents, without ever figuring out what paper/news source he came from.

I spent a little time with the Germans one night, which began with them asking me about the elections, and morphed into a discussion about the state of the world. It never ceases to amaze me how much nuanced information Europeans know about all the other countries in Europe, and often about the rest of the world. We actually got to talking about games that are played in our respective countries, and we played one of theirs—you go through the alphabet and, for each letter, you name a country, a city, and a river or lake (and sometimes a mountain) that start with the same letter. This obviously put me at a great disadvantage, as in Germany “Geography” is an entire subject on its own, and it is perhaps under-taught in the US. However, we were mostly discussing France, so I was able to hold my own. We didn’t continue with the game for too long, as we were all tired, but still, I found myself thinking about how we play games like that in the US but with the names of movies or celebrities, not geographical landmarks.

I had a proud day in Sophie’s French class on Saturday. Beforehand, she and I were discussing the elections, and she complimented me again on the improvement she’s noticed in my speaking, and asked if I’d mind speaking for ten minutes or so about the elections. As I had already spoken with her class a bit about African-American history, I said ok, only a little nervous. In class, she told them they could chat among themselves and formulate four questions for me, but they had to be questions they couldn’t find answers to on the internet (like no statistics, no specific factual questions about what happened in various states). She said they should take advantage of my nationality to ask me philosophical or sociological questions, the answers to which could serve them on the Bac. The questions they came up with were really impressive (do bear in mind that this is a class that is being given two years to complete one year of high school because of academic difficulties). I made note of them (there are more than four because they opened up into larger discussions), but in French, so bear with my English translations—they sound better as the students originally phrased them.

- Is the election of Obama an example of “positive racism” or affirmative action?

- Will he change perspectives on African-Americans?

(I talked about some states being so staunchly conservative that we won’t see sweeping change in the immediate future. I told them that one of my friend’s boyfriends was taking people to vote in Louisiana, and as an Obama supporter, he heard some incredibly harsh commentary, including the “n” word. I explained the concept of the word, how many Americans refuse to say it, and how sometimes referring to it as the “n” word is the safest way to go, because it has such a terrible history, and some people react strongly to it.)

- This led to an impressive question—one of the boys asked if people don’t ever call each other by the word in modern slang, and I acknowledged that he was correct. I tried to explain that there is a difference between minorities using the word among themselves (sort of a re-claiming or re-defining of it) and a white person saying the word out loud (referring back to its historical use).

- Will he renew or reinvigorate African-American identity?

- Is the election of someone so different (young, black, democratic, rather inexperienced) a commentary on the weaknesses of the American system? In other words, does it indicate that Americans regret where their former approach has led them?

- Do Americans have too much hope in what Obama can do?

The discussion went on for quite some time, with Sophie sharing her opinion from time to time and encouraging them to keep asking questions. By the time we were done, 45 minutes had gone by! I was so proud that I was able to continue a rather complex discussion in French for so long with high school students. And, perhaps more than anything, I was impressed with the maturity and perceptiveness of the students, in asking complicated questions about a country other than their own.

I spent Monday in an all day pedagogy class with French first-year teachers. It was so cool to spend the day in the midst of discussions about teaching literature, since that’s really my home terrain, even though it was, of course, in French. I did more listening than contributing, but I learned a lot. One of the most striking parts of the day was a discussion about where they would be placed in the following year. As a teacher in France, you can basically be sent anywhere in the country from one year to the next, and obviously young teachers get the least consideration for their preferences (it’s all based on a point system which is based on seniority). There was a lot of concern from teachers who had certain places in mind, and especially those who live with someone, because it all seems like it can be so up in the air. You have to play your cards right with your choice-making, and even then, it may not work out in your favor. When some of them asked me about the American system, and I explained the differences, they joked about expatriating. Then I reminded them that in France, once you are officially a teacher, it means you have passed a competitive exam, and you can be certain that you will have a job somewhere (the number of teachers who pass is the number of open jobs that year)—whereas, in the US, a lot of people find themselves with certificates but no job. That made them feel a little better about their situation. Overall, I find myself wishing the US had higher standards for teachers, as France does. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to leave schools with pretty impressive candidates to work with.

Finally, today, I began three two-lesson units with different classes—about the elections! With one class, I’m talking about how the elections have been presented in the news and media. With another, I’m making a link between the elections and the Harlem Renaissance (they love saying “jazz and soul” and “jazz and blues”), in terms of African-American identity. And with the last class, the most advanced, I taught a bit about the Civil Rights Movement today, and tomorrow we are going to compare part of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech with part of Obama’s victory speech. Should be interesting!


Ivan said...

I haven't checked out your blog before, and it's incredibly fascinating. I wasn't part of any huge Obama celebration (I was with the girlfriend), but seeing the huge release around the world was phenomenal. A few kids at GL were thrilled, and many believe that our society is now over, as they think Obama will reveal his true terrorist colors and turn us into a socialist country that doesn't pledge allegiance to the flag anymore.

Can't make this stuff up. Glad to hear the discussion went so well.

Alice said...

as i was listening to obama's speech that night, the first thing that popped into my head was the mlk "i have a dream" speech. i even talked to my co-workers about it the next day and found myself re-reading the transcript and making mental notes. let's talk about that sometime.