Anchorage, Alaska, USA
Forty-three years ago when I was but an average American monolingual 10 year old from a small town in New Jersey, my father received word from his job that he and our family would be relocated to France for a couple of years. In 1960, the first year we lived in Paris, my younger brother, my twin sister and I were sent to the "Ecole Bilingue de Paris". The "bilingue" part meant that my sister and I, as 5th graders, had to attend the first grade French classes where the teacher would routinely demean and embarrass us in front of the younger students who already knew French. She would make us memorize the simple readers and recite them in front of the class. When we didn't pronounce each word exactly right she would take her hand and form our mouths correctly until it hurt. I remember being humiliated at the time. At lunch we were corporally punished by the Principal for putting our hands in our laps while we ate instead of using both hands to hold both utensils as is proper in France, etc., etc.
I have been told that I went home each night and cried to my parents. I don't think my brother and sister reacted in quite the same overly sensitive way that I did, but at one point my parents were so worried, they contemplated sending me back to the States to live with Aunts and Uncles. I am SO HAPPY they didn't. Now when I look back on those years, I don't remember the sad, crying times. My parents have had to tell me about that part.
My memories are wonderful and include such things as walking under the Eiffel Tower each day to attend gym class, having classmates like Christina Onassis and Louis Jordan, Jr., and strolling down the beautiful city boulevards and getting to tour Europe by car with my family on vacations.
The following year in sixth grade we moved to Normandie and attended a regular French Lycee. Not being completely fluent in French was not easy, but kids adapt so readily. We were accepted and treated like every other French student. We eventually became quite fluent in French and had minimal problems. When we returned to the States, we just continued in the class level we would have been in as if we'd never left. We may have missed some important lessons, but I'm sure nothing that could have compared to what we gained through our experiences.
I can't imagine my life without having had those experiences. I feel so much richer for having had them, and, had the opportunity arisen, I would gladly have taken my own children overseas during school years. (I did, but only on short trips). It wasn't easy to say good bye to friends in the States and then to friends we had made overseas, but looking back, all those friends and places have added to our lives, both at age 10, 11 in France and then at age 14,15,16 in Spain.
I guess that's why I continue to take students overseas each year. I want them to be able to broaden their horizons as I did, even if it can only be for a few weeks. I also adamantly encourage overseas exchanges with foreign host families or becoming a host family oneself.
12 July 2003
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