Je Vais Mal

Don’t worry, this isn’t another political-ish post. Not today.

I feel like I’ve hit my stride with teaching French to preschoolers. When my announcements on the playground of, “Hey friends, I’ll be teaching French in the Discovery Room for whoever wants to join me!” are met with 4-year-old boys exclaiming to each other, “FRENCH! Let’s go!”, abandoning the (awesome) pirate ship they were playing on and racing to the classroom, I’m going to call that success.

My adventures in teaching French began with a fear that when we moved to Colorado my children, no longer attending French immersion preschool, wouldn’t get enough French. So I offered to teach a lesson a week at their school in Colorado. Now, four years later, I’ve figured out what does and doesn’t work for the 2-5 year old set, how to expose them to just enough of a new language  and culture so that they learn an appreciation, pick up some words and phrases, and stay engaged.

My initial attempts at total immersion, while well intended, just didn’t work. At 30 minutes a week with a population that has the attention span of, well, a 3-year-old, once they realized they couldn’t understand me, they lost interest. I’ve found that lots of repetition, a variety of visual aids and expressive use of the language, along with a smattering of English explanations, keep these kiddos interested. It’s working; 10 to 15 kids join me each week and most of them stay for the entire class. This is a preschool where kids can choose where they want to be during the day; the fact that they choose my class over playing with toys is a good sign that they are into it. Sometimes, they bail. Then I know that either the call of the swings is too strong to overcome, or my lesson needs some tweaking.

I begin each class going around the room, greeting each of the kids with a cheery, “Bonjour!” and asking the other kids to greet each classmate as well. Then we ask, “Comment ça va? Ca va bien (thumbs up), comme si comme ça (hand waggle), ou ça va mal (big pout, thumb down)?”

For some reason, the kids have decided it is hilarious to tell me, “Je vais mal,” and give me a big thumbs down while bursting into giggles.

So we go with it. I throw out my arms and wail, “Mais, pourquoi !?” Half the time, they burst into fits of laughter, and now the kids know the word, “betise,” as in – he or she is being silly. Sometimes, they tell me they miss their mom. Several of them now know how to say that in French: “Maman me manque.”

These mostly 4 and 5-year-olds, with 30 minutes a week, know basic greetings, please, thank you, how to count to 10, a few phrases, and a few songs. The other day, one of them made a butterfly with his hands and said, proudly, “papillion!”

All of this makes me glow with joy, but honestly, the best thing is how excited they are to learn French. When I walk into the classroom to pick up my son on non-French days, a few of them approach me and ask if it’s a French day. They pull me over to their parents and ask me for help remembering a word or two so they can show off their new skills. I hear from parents and teachers that the kids throw French words into conversations and talk about French classes. Today, one of my most dedicated and enthusiastic students brought a book in French she was given as a gift – Boucles d’or et le 3 ours – to proudly show it to me.

I’ve grown to love my time with these kids. It isn’t always easy to figure out ways to engage them, but their enthusiasm, those bright eyes soaking it all in, and their adorable enunciations make it worth the effort. I hope that at the very least, they will stay interested in languages and cultures.


My Husband is an Immigrant

My husband is an immigrant.

He went to one of the best high schools in Paris, and then one of the best preparatory schools. He graduated from the top university in France (Ecole Polytechnique) for math, science, and engineering. He came to the US first as a visiting scholar, and then was invited to return for graduate school. Soon, Hewlett Packard snatched him up. That great brain of his helped create some of the first all-in-one printers and some of the first digital cameras. Now, he works for Google.

He came to the US because of the unique opportunities our country offered. Like many immigrants, he stayed because he felt welcomed, challenged, and knew he could have a career here that would surpass what was available to him in France at the time. So here he stayed, collaborating with other immigrants, working alongside American-born engineers.

Would he have followed the same path today? Would our technology industry, strong as it is, be attractive enough to great minds like my husband’s despite the current administrations’ policies and attitudes toward immigrants?

A dear friend who is also married to a French man said to me recently, “Carol, we’re one Freedom Fries incident away from our husbands being the next ‘bad hombres.’” (Mauvais mecs, if you want the French version.)

Remember Freedom Fries? After 9/11? Because I do. I remember the subtle and not so subtle comments and jabs I received about being married to one of “those French guys.” The traitors who didn’t support Bush’s Iraq invasion. The ones who should be thanking us for eternity because they aren’t speaking German right now. The ones who should be rubber-stamping all US policy, not daring to stand against us citing something like principles.

While I don’t purport to sit here in my privileged life and compare rude insults made to my husband and me during those years to the instability and terror immigrants and refugees face now, to the families being threatened and torn apart by the travel ban and ICE knocking on their doors, I will say that I got a glimpse of being the vilified “other”, and while I recognize that for us it was mild, it was still, well, awful. And it was hard not to be scared.

My husband’s father was born in Tunisia, where the overwhelming majority of the population identifies as Muslim. We wondered, during the Freedom Fries years, if we were one terrorist attack away from my husband’s nationality and his father’s birthplace marking him as a threat to the USA. We wonder, now, how many of our enemies are emboldened by #45’s recklessness. How many more of our allies he will offend. How that will play out for us, here, foreign and domestically born.

How far will this vilification of otherness go? What level of inhumane, undignified treatment will we accept as a country? How long will so many dehumanize those who are deemed not “one of us,” not deserving of “belonging”?

Like it or not, immigrants are the reason our tech industry has led the world. Many of our engineers, many of our greatest minds, came from countries now banned. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple; his parents fled Syria. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, is a Russian refugee. Immigrants founded a disproportionately high number of companies in this country.

My life with my immigrant husband and our two children is filled with more love, joy, and adventure than I ever imagined I would experience. That, and French fries. He isn’t the “other.” A nameless, faceless, maligned immigrant who shouldn’t be here. He’s a human being, a husband, a father, a hard worker, a brilliant mind, and a now a US citizen who still holds hope for the country he grew to love when he first came here more than 20 years ago. Despite it all. I hope this country doesn’t let us down.

My husband was featured in an article in our local paper. You can read that here: