With headphones in my ears, a scarf around my neck, and hands in my pockets, I begin my daily fifteen minute walk to Lycée Professionel Jean Guehenno. It is Monday morning and the start of a new week in my job as an English teaching assistant in Vannes, France. As I battle the cold temperatures and biting winds on my route to the high school, I enjoy a few minutes of my favorite music and attempt to get my thoughts in order for the day. My colleagues wonder why I do not simply catch the bus; but I value this walk to school. Even on rainy days, I do everything within my power to walk, and only succumb when I can see my clothes will be overpowered by the downpour. For me, the walk serves a purpose. It is more than just my means of transportation to work. On those early mornings, where the fog from a good night’s sleep has just barely lifted, it gives me a chance to prepare myself mentally for the day ahead.
I know as I approach the school that my music-driven march will soon be disrupted. Vannes is such a small town that it is quite common to run into students outside of school. Today, with my path directing me toward school, it is only a matter of time before I see a group of them heading in my direction. As we draw closer, we make eye contact, and I am greeted with an enthusiastic “Hello!” It is the first of innumerable greetings I will receive throughout the day at school.
In the months preceding my move to France, I communicated with the other English teachers at the school via email. They explained that this high school is a vocational school; most of the students will not go on to college. Rather, they are all learning a trade. A wide variety of professions are taught at my school, including accounting, health care, metalwork, automobile maintenance, and restaurant service. While the students are typically motivated to learn their vocation of choice, general academia is often far less appreciated. English, for most of the students, is not a high priority, and unfortunately, they often behave like it in class. And when I pass students in town and attempt to extend the conversation beyond “hello,” their enthusiasm melts.
After being warned about the school, and then witnessing it firsthand, I had low expectations for my role as the English assistant. Yet, I soon discovered that the students’ disdain for English only extended so far as the language; they welcomed me wholeheartedly. When I accepted the position, I anticipated that most of them would have never met an American before. However, I was not prepared for the kind of reaction I would receive from the students. Though ‘lost in translation’ can only begin to describe the communication difficulties I encounter in lessons every day, my nationality has transformed me into an exotic foreigner at the school. For most of them, America is a fabled land filled with celebrities. Their only exposure to the United States is from television, films, and music. They cannot understand why I would want to come to France when I could live in America, and they are always disappointed when I have to explain to them that I have not personally met Barack Obama. Though I seem to dash their dreams when I undermine their American stereotypes, their enthusiasm to greet me and work with me in class never wanes.
Relying on their excitement, my lessons try to bring a real vision of America into their lives, specifically the Southern United States. Coming from Georgia, I try to teach them as much as I can about my home. On this particular Monday, I have two hours with the restaurant students. Half of them are learning to be chefs, while the other half are studying to be waiters. They aspire to work in the finest restaurants in France, and some of them hope to work in restaurants abroad. With this in mind, I base my lesson on a role play, whereby each group must enter a given restaurant and order off the menu. The restaurant of choice? One of my hometown favorites, Slope’s BBQ of Roswell. Slopes’ is hardly the kind of restaurant these students will work in, but I cannot pass up the chance to push a bit of Southern culture upon them. Before they can begin working on their dialogue, I give a stripped down explanation of barbeque. In French, the word is often used to describe grilling meat, so its meaning as a method of slowly smoking meat is entirely unknown to them. After clearing up this discrepancy, we move on to discussions describing other delicacies, like collard greens, fried okra, and black-eyed peas. By the end of the lesson, my mouth is watering, and my desire to fly home immediately is at an all time high.
After five different classes, rotating between teachers each time, my day is finished. The teaching assistant position is highly unstructured, which both works in its favor and against it. While I have a high degree of autonomy in my lesson choice and execution, I have little direction. Communication with all the teachers I work with is essential, so that I can plan ahead for the next week. Unfortunately, as I start my walk back home, the ensuing “hellos” I receive from passing students remind me of another negative of the job. Changing classes so often means that I do not know most of the young adults I teach. After over five months on the job, I still only know a handful of my students’ names. As the English department tries to maximize my interaction with as many of the school’s 800 students as possible, and therefore introduces me to new classes every six weeks, I can only connect on a personal level with the few that have worked with me the most. So while I do my best to influence as many as possible, I am limited in the impact I can make on each one. Accepting this fact, I face the difficulties of the job and choose my goals. I know that while I may not remember each one of them, they will all remember their American assistant. With a bit of luck, I hope I can implant a few positive ideas about my culture, so that they will have a better understanding of where I come from. I resolve to pass on a real vision of America, the South in particular, and to teach them a good response to “What’s Up?”