I do a lot of whining on this blog about homesickness and personal insecurities--to those of you who still read along, thanks for hanging in there--but most of my work and life experiences over here are delightful, of course, such as all the time I get to spend with French elementary school teachers. They unintentionally give me the perfect little boost when I've been overthinking about the future again.
In short, y’all, they’re just adorable, and they make me feel good about myself. Granted, this may be the case for all elementary school teachers regardless of their nationalities, but this is my first time working with them as a colleague instead of sitting before them as a tiny baby student. So I feel like I’m getting to sneak behind the scenes and infiltrate the teachers’ lounge to gain a perspective that tiny baby Julia could only wonder about, back when I was sure that my teachers simply dematerialized the second the last student was whisked away from the circle drive.
It turns out that teachers are actually real people with real lives and strong, often sassy, personalities. Go figure. I knew this about my middle and high school teachers as well as my college professors, of course, but what I remember about being a student at Grahamwood Elementary is mostly a blur of gentle reprimands and safety scissors. I can recognize now that the faculty there probably did experience the full range of human emotion and got groceries sometimes, at least in theory, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a small part of me that still has her doubts--doubts that are now quickly fading away as I hop between my little French schools.
For me, the best place to watch teachers being human is over lunch, or at least it has been here in a country where we have a 90 minute lunch break. The bells ring noon, and the teachers lead the students who go home for lunch to the front office, while other administrators lead away the students eating at the cafeteria. With no little ones to herd, I go straight to the microwave and warm up my food while waiting for the others to trickle in, their shoulders visibly looser with the relief of passing off their wards to somebody else for a while. I watch wrinkles smooth out and fists unclench as they swoop in with their tupperwares of last night’s roast or microwave-ready bags of couscous or carrot purée. Since these schools are all pretty small, with only one or two classes per grade, the whole faculty that doesn’t go home for lunch can all sit around the same table, which makes following or pretending to follow the conversation much easier for me.
Before that starts, though, a small line usually forms behind one or two microwaves as every single person heats up their food, most having emptied their tupperwares out onto one of the real, ceramic plates stacked in a cabinet next to glasses and silverware. I have yet to see a colleague chow down on a cold sandwich from a brown paper bag, and they never forget to pack a little dessert, either. Some will bring a couple papers to grade with them from time to time, but most sit with nothing on the table but their food. We all relax and take our time to eat while gossiping mercilessly about which of the students was the biggest pain that day, the latest trainings they were all required to take, and whatever ridiculous thing President Trump just did. I’ve had to step up both my lunch and politics games so I don’t embarrass myself with sub-par food and mediocre ideas against their hot lunches and informed opinions--though I can still often get away with quiet nodding.
Once everyone has finished their plates, the room shifts back into motion while a handful walk to the nearest sink to wash their dishes and others pour coffee for whoever wants some. Somebody will usually break out some chocolate, too, for nibbling with coffee. At this point, about forty-five minutes have probably passed, and the lunch period is only half over, so most of the teachers head back to their classrooms to get a last bit of work done, and I just go on a nice walk or do some reading. I have yet to see anyone pull out a glass of wine on the premises, but there’s definitely a couple bottles in the cabinet at at least one of my schools, and all three are planning faculty Christmas parties where there will be several drinking options. One of these parties will be taking place during their 90 minute lunch on a Tuesday.
In the end, realizing that my old elementary school teachers were real adults makes me feel more like one, too, just for noticing, and that's a big help during this period in my life where I have never been less sure of what I’m doing. Every time they groan over an 8-year-old who got the best of them, ensure that there is both wine and cider at the holiday lunch, or just complain about the weather, I relax a little bit, sometimes even join in the conversation. I tell myself that they don’t have it all figured out either. Granted, they have much more figured out than I do, especially when it comes to civilized work lunches, but still. Every little bit helps.