Nostalgia gives you weird taste

back umbrellas

I’m French. But I’m not super French. I’m not the kind who wears a beret, or rides a bike wearing ballerina shoes, with a bouquet of flowers in the basket. In fact, you probably wouldn’t detect much of an accent if you talked to me. I am being coy and modest; you would definitely not hear an accent, because I don’t really have one. But there is an area of interest that makes me French as f***: my taste in movies.

When I moved to the US five years ago, I had never thought of myself as a Frenchwoman. I mean, when I lived in France, there was no need for me to define myself as such. But after being shipped to one of the thirteen colonies, my identity was summarized by my nationality. The first few months were rough, it was hard for me to live life as a foreigner, and I was really homesick. There was only one cure for my homesickness: I had to wrap myself in some sort of nostalgia blanket. So, for the first time ever, I started listening to a LOT of French music. Some of it classic and amazing:

charlot Do yourself a favor and listen to La Bohème.

Some of it cringeworthy and terrible:

lavoine lahonte Do yourself a favor and never listen to this.

Apparently, this is a classic expat move: you start out as a Freddie Mercury-loving, normal person, and then you uproot yourself from your home and you start liking a lot of weird shit from your country. Everyone I know has done this and, like me, ended up feeling more comfortable about their expat status. Even better, I started feeling at home in America (and I still do). That’s also when I started teaching French. I wanted to transmit more than passé composé and indirect object pronouns to my students: I wanted them to be aware of my country’s culture.

Hence my newfound passion for French movies. Because, have you ever tried to get American students to listen to depressing French tunes?

je suis garbage

Spoiler alert: they don’t like it. But they do like movies. So sure, French movies are also depressing, but my students felt like they were grasping French culture, much more than when they were merely looking at a textbook.

Now, let me correct something. I said that French movies are depressing, and that’s somewhat of a shortcut. Yes, most of them *seem* depressing, and even the comedies are dark. But if you look closely, you will realize that it’s because they are honest, raw, realistic. I often joke with my students about how French comedies are all set up the same way: a group of friends are having dinner, and then shit happens. Someone starts talking about a long-forgotten secret, feelings get hurt, everyone screams, and then they stare at each other in silence. Boom, nailed it. But when you think about it, doesn’t that sound realistic? When does drama happen, in real life? A lot of times, drama finds you when you are amongst loved ones and someone says something they shouldn’t have said. My students like discussing that, and even if they (and I) still love American blockbusters (I am shamelessly stereotyping French AND American movies here, forgive me), they also enjoy the realness of a French dark comedy.

But there is a genre that I love, and that they LOATHE. I literally cannot get them to like it. I can’t even get them to see it as funny, even in the 23rd degree.

The French musical.

demoisellesparapluies

I love French musicals, especially the ones by Jacques Demy. I watched them countless times in my childhood, and rediscovered them during my nostalgia period. My favorite, Peau d’âne, translated to Donkey Skin, is the rewriting of an obscure and creepy fairy tale. It is the story of a young princess whose dad wants to marry her, because she is the closest thing he can get to his late wife -yeah, I warned you, it is CREEPY. So, the princess decides to flee, and disguises herself as a disgusting peasant by wearing the skin of a donkey. So yeah, the movie is weird, there is no question about that. But it’s also wonderfully witty, the music is gorgeous, the costumes are wacky and colorful, and it could be analyzed in a million different ways. My favorite part is when the donkey-skin-wearing princess is baking a cake for the prince and sings the whole recipe. When she cracks an egg, a chick comes out, and it’s so kitschy and cute that you can’t help but smile. But not my students, noooo, they just keep on hating it. They just stare at me and think I’m a weirdo.

peau d'ane Catherine Deneuve/Donkey Skin gets me.
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Students’ pet

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When you start teaching college classes at age 21, it’s not easy maintaining the balance between being liked and being respected. For my very first class, I donned my most serious-looking blazer and wore my glasses, hoping to be a believable French instructor. I arrived stupidly early for an 8AM class and when the first student came in and asked ‘Are you the instructor?’, I thought to myself, ‘It’s on.’

My first semester was a complete success when it came to being respected. I liked my students as human beings, but I made sure I remained at a certain distance from them. I never granted any extensions, maintained the attendance policy with the flexibility of Margaret Thatcher, and after a couple of weeks, the students had internalized the rules and did not even try to get me to bend them.

Then, my second semester came and my balance was destroyed. I was beginning to feel more comfortable in a teacher’s shoes and THOUGHT I had things under control. So, I let myself become a little bit more buddy-buddy with my very likeable students. My class had a very collegial vibe to it, the room I was assigned to had several small round tables, which facilitated communication between students, and they learned a lot. They spoke very often and their French improved on a daily basis. However, they started asking for more and more extensions and clearly did not fear my decision-making power at all. They were never disrespectful, but knew that I was somewhat of a pushover. I said no when the requests were too ridiculous, but they could sense that I wanted them to like me. Until one day, 5 minutes before the end of the class, I started reminding them of what would be on the quiz the next day and what they had to review for. They became bored with the explanation and couldn’t wait to get out of there, so one of them put his things away. Then 2. Then 3, and the rest followed. They were all seated, but the combined noise of all of their notebooks re-entering their backpacks prevented my voice from being heard. So, I stopped talking, and waited. They started looking at me in a puzzled way, and stopped moving. I then proceeded to tell them that, since they wanted to leave *so badly*, then they didn’t need to know what would be on the quiz, which I had decided to modify at the last minute. They all panicked and asked me what they needed to review, but I didn’t budge. I kept telling them that they would need to wait until the next day to find out.

As it turns out, I never changed the quiz, and left it as it was supposed to be. But I like to think that their annoying behavior made them review like crazy that night, for things they did not need to memorize.

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After that ‘incident’, I always made a point of maintaining a certain balance between being chummy with students, and remaining their teacher above all else. I have been teaching for 5 years now and never had a major problem, but I did learn recently that the most annoying classes don’t necessarily hate you.

Last Fall, I had 2 sections of French 1, which is very hard to teach. The students are usually freshmen, just getting started with their language requirement, and have never taken French before. One of my two sections was delightful. They kept on participating, and even if they were not the *strongest* bunch grade-wise, they were sweet kids and always seemed motivated. The other section, on the other hand….Well, when you teach 2 classes, there’s always a good one and a bad one. But that one took the cake. They were disruptive, a few kids occasionally got up to ‘go to the bathroom’ and came back 20 minutes later, others were on their computer the whole time, and I had trouble believing that these were college students, who were all above 18. I felt like I was teaching middle school.

Now, some of these kids were actually super motivated and very good, but their learning experience was somewhat blocked by their immature classmates. When my supervisor observed me, she picked the worst of the two sections to sit in. I warned her beforehand, but I had no idea how disastrous it would be.

scott2

The kids were disruptive as ever, one student even got up to answer his phone. I had already given up on this particular kid, so I did not say anything and let him leave the room, thinking we would be better off without him. Another kid kept asking the stupidest questions he could think of -I know, we teachers always say ‘there’s no stupid questions’, but believe me, his questions were exceptions to the rule- and proceeded to eat THREE HARD-BOILED EGGS very slowly, right next to my supervisor. Long story short, I kept on teaching, I intervened once to tell them to stop talking and to be respectful, but I remained calm and collected the rest of the time. When I met with my supervisor to discuss the class, I was petrified. I thought she would rip me a new one, because to me, it had been the worst class I had ever had. She was in fact very reassuring, telling me that even if these kids were ‘dicks’ -her choice of word-, I still answered their questions without being condescending and kept my composure in order to tend to the students who were actually motivated. She even insisted that in her opinion, the kids had nothing against me and might even enjoy the class. I nodded and smiled, but thought to myself ‘hm thanks, but those kids probably throw darts at my picture every day, and would probably key my car if they knew where it was parked’.

Fast forward to the end of the semester, and the dreaded student evaluations. My sweet class gave me very ‘blah’ evaluations, the scores were good, but the comments were all in the line of ‘The class was good. She was nice.’ even though I had used some of my best teaching techniques on them. But the class of ‘dicks’…they were SO enthusiastic that I wondered if I had mixed up the evaluations. The response rate was huge, and they all had lovely things to say about the class and my teaching style. They liked how I answered questions without judging, and how I respected the pace of each student. It blew my mind! I thought I had a disastrous semester with them, but as it turns out, they viewed the class as useful.

I’m not sure, but I think the moral of the story is that students are weird creatures, and that nothing good can come out of trying to get them to like you.