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Bad Students May 18, 2014

So I was a bad student. Every evening, I would head home with school snapping at my heels. My reports testified to my schoolmaster’s disapproval.CHAGRIN ECOLE When I wasn’t bottom of the class, I was second to last. (Champagne all round!) At first severe spelling difficulties, rebellious when it came to memorizing dates and places, incapable of learning foreign languages, and with reputation for laziness (lessons not learned, homework not done), I brought home pitiful results unredeemed by music, or sport, or indeed any extra curricular activity.

I was an object of amazement, and continual amazement at that, as the years rolled by without any signs of improvement to my educational torpor. “I’m flabbergasted!” and “Well, I’ll be damned!” are phrases I associate with adults starting at me in total disbelief, as they registered my failure to get my head round anything at all.

She’s never really got over the fact that I was a bad student.

From early on, my future appeared so compromised that she could never feel entirely confident about my present. Not destined to become anything I wasn’t equipped to survive as far as she was concerned.  I was her precarious child.

EcoleThere is, of course, the question of root cause. How did I become a dunce in the first place? Child of a middle –class civil servant, born into a close, loving family, surrounded by responsible adults ho helped with my homework… My father was a polytechnicien, my mother a housewife, no divorce, no alcoholism, no emotionally disturbed relatives, no hereditary defects, three brothers who had all passed the baccalaureat (all mathematicians:; two became engineers, the third an army officer), normal family routine, healthy diet, books in the home, cultural interests commensurate with background and era: painting up to the Impressionist poetry up to Mallarme, music up to Debussy, Russian novels, a predictable phase of reading Teilhard de Chardin, Joyce and Cioran if they were feeling really adventurous, calm, laughter-filled and cultivated mealtime discussions.

Despite all this, a dunce.

Since 1662 the French word cancre has referred to a student who doesn’t succeed at school. This compromises an extension of the word’s primary meaning: “crab”.

It’s a telling metaphor. The dunce is a student who doesn’t follow the straight and narrow path of normal schooling he moves slowly and sideways, far behind the students ahead of him on the path to academic success…

Einstein, Balzac, Chaplin, Edison, Charlemagne, Debussy, Darwin, Picasso and dozens of others were dunces. If they’d been “no-hopers”, they would have stayed that way. Exceptional gifts which school didn’t know how to bring out were waiting deep inside their duncedom.

Duncedom is a tumor from which certain children suffer, and of which they must be cured, for it can prove fatal to society.

So the dunce is not just a bad student. That he is a bad student is, rather, a consequence of being inhibited by his duncedom, as is his potential to be lazy, unruly, violent, a liar, a truant etc. “Bad student” is then an inadequate and even inaccurate translation of cancre, since it attempts to pass of consequence for cause.

Happy Student

Our “bad students”, the ones slated not to become anything, never come to school alone. What walks into the classroom is an onion: several layers of school blues – feat, worry, bitterness, anger, dissatisfaction, furious renunciation – wrapped round a shameful past, an ominous present, a future condemned.  Look, here they come, their bodies in the process of becoming and their families in their rucksacks. The lesson can’t really being until the burden has been laid down and the onion peeled. It’s hard to explain, but just one look is often enough, a kind remark, a clear, steady word form a considerate grown-up, to dissolve those blues, lighten those minds and settle those kids comfortably into the present indicative.

Naturally, the benefits are temporary; the onion will layer itself back together outside the classroom, and we’ll have to start all over again tomorrow. But that’s what teaching is all about: starting over again and again until we reach the critical moment when the teacher can disappear.

If we fail to set our students in this course … their existence becomes potholes on an indefinite missing. Of course we have not been alone in digging the tunnels or not knowing how to fill them, but these women and men have still had one or more years of their youth, sitting in front of us. And it is not nothing, a year of schooling (damn): this is eternity in a jar.

Excerpts from the book School Blues by Daniel Pennac. Link to the article about his book in French Chagrin D’Ecole.

 

One hell of a dream September 12, 2011

Fall 2000-Spring 2001 I was in NYC, struggling to adjust to new culture and find ways to go to grad school. In the summer of 2001 I made a friend, who got killed two months later in a car accident. When I learned about her death, I was in California, on a spontaneous trip from San Fran to Los Angeles. Running out of money, I couldn’t continue my trip even further, so I remember getting to the Los Angeles Airport and buying a $100 ticket in cash to New York, where I still had some of my stuff. It was the 10th of September 2001.

What is really strange, I remember being on the plane and having the feeling of detachment and emptiness. I wasn’t afraid of anything happening on the flight, as I had nothing to lose, I thought. In a way I didn’t see any meaning in my life. I was just passing by.

When I arrived in New York, I went straight to my friend’s place, who lived in Brooklyn. In the morning of Sept 11, I was still sleeping when the land line phone rang. I didn’t want to pick it up but to continue sleeping. The answering machine was on and I heard my friend saying: “Marina, wake up, wake up, the war has started”. I immediately picked up the phone and still not completely awake tried to understand what she was saying. She told me about the first tower going down. And then I turned TV on and learned the whole story: the terrorist attack on America. My friend’s apartment was in the basement of a small house, the owners, an Orthodox Jewish family, lived upstairs. According to their religion they didn’t watch TV, but on that day, the couple came to watch TV too. We all wanted to know what will happen to the country, to us, to the whole world. We felt horror, grief, shock and fear. We felt compassion for all. As I stepped outside the house, in the middle of the day there were no sun, only grey clouds covering the sky and pieces of ash falling down on us. It did look like the end of the world.

I was scared and wanted to escape, to go back to Massachusetts, but couldn’t do it for several days as all public transportation was shut down between cities .When I finally made it back to the Vineyard, I met up with a friend of mine who knew Lena, the one who died in the car accident. That friend said that we should not worry about Lena, as she definitely went to heaven, not hell. Still horrified by the latest events, I was thinking too much about Lena, the victims of 9/11 and myself… How unfair their deaths are. Who decides who will die or who will live? Are we worth living?.. And right after our conversation I had a dream:

I’m in the office, there are people around me, who are working. I’m doing something as well, probably, work too. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a man dressed as a government official comes to me and says: “Your time is up, you have to go.” Taken by surprise I couldn’t help but ask in return: “Already? And who decided? Where, to hell?” He doesn’t answer, which I interpret as “not heaven”. I try again by asking: “Is it final?” He quietly says: “Yes”. All I could say is “I don’t agree, I demand to see a decision maker”. He, definitely surprised by this turn in our conversation, pauses but then gives me a sign to follow him. I enter some private office, the messenger man leaves and the door closes behind him. And in there I see another man, more established, in gray suit, sitting at the desk. He doesn’t speak, because he knows that I asked for this audience and I’m the one who will be speaking.

I don’t even remember how but I sat in a chair in front of the table and full of emotions I started my emotional speech.”Why do you think that it is my turn that came? Is it because I didn’t do any good deeds in this lifetime? Because I only wasted my time given to me? If I haven’t done anything so far, that doesn’t mean that I will not do anything in the future. You are supposed to give everyone a chance. There are circumstances and a person may experience difficulties, but that doesn’t mean that she is not capable of anything good. I know that I have a lot ahead of me. And may I ask what kind of right do you have to deprive me of my life, when my parents are alive? My mother told me that she will not be able to survive the death of her children. Did you think about consequences of your decision?  That by ending my life you will end the life of my mother?”

All that time the man in gray suit, who was the boss of that department or the chief of death, and on whose decision depended whether I’ll live or die, didn’t look at me even once. He was busy writing something in his notebook. I couldn’t see what he was doing exactly or what his was writing. Maybe he was taking notes about my life, or was studying my life case. I was scared as I thought he was calculating and weighing what I’ve done more in my life – good or bad. In every moment he could stop me and say “Enough, your case is closed, not sufficient evidence to let you live…”

And suddenly, I saw him put his notebook on the desk and I peeked in it. In front of me in this whole grayish setting I saw on the paper a big red heart that the man drew while I talked. And in that moment I realized that I’m allowed to live more but under condition that I create more good things in my lifetime. And I woke up.

Reposted from http://www.theultimateanswer.org/blog/2011/09/11/ten-years-ago-my-dream/

 

 
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