I love external approval. Yes, self-affirmation is healthier, but it doesn't hit the spot quite like earning the high opinion of others. I crave it, to the extent of putting my dignity on the line. This has never been clearer than over the course of a 5 day field trip, where I fought for the attention of 58 French 10-year-olds.
Now, I’ve been working with kids for months without this problem coming up, but the tables turned with all the extra time with students outside of the classroom. We spent a week on a farm, la Ducherais à Campbon, with two fifth grade classes, their teachers, some chaperones, and another English teaching assistant. From Monday to Friday, the kids rode ponies, made bread and butter, visited dairy cows, went on adventure walks, searched for insects, and learned some English, which was our responsibility as teaching assistants. We lead 90 minute language activities and forced the kids to listen to our native tongue as we infiltrated their cafeteria groups and nightly after-dinner games.
It was pretty clear from the start that English was at the bottom of the students’ priority list, as there’s no way a couple of unintelligible foreigners could compete with pony rides and a friendly pig named Ramona, but we bridged that gap as best we could with exaggerated enthusiasm and several repetitions of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” They were shaky on the lyrics and relevant vocabulary, but I can’t say they didn’t pour their whole little hearts into EEE-AYE-EEE-AYE-OH.
By the end of the week we’d won over most hearts and minds, particularly the girls’, but there remained some stragglers who kept shooting me what-are-you-doing-here looks all the way until they boarded the bus on Friday. I smiled brightly, waved, and yelled ‘Goodbye!” in English until they pulled out of the parking lot, even as I was realizing that I had just relived my my middle school nightmare: fighting rejection by the popular kids.
I do realize that I am an adult woman who gains nothing from the approval of children, but something about the summer camp vibes of this environment made me feel like I was one of them. This isn't a problem in my schools. There are still students who don’t join in with those who cheer my name as I enter the room, but it doesn't bother me. The kid-adult divide feels much more defined in this setting, so their occasional disapproval just rolls off my back. They have to sit in desks, raise their hands to speak, and ask permission to use the restroom, but I get to walk around, talk however much I want, and leave when I please--because, that’s right, I’m an adult.
Recently I was taping flashcards to the wall of one of my classrooms, and I heard a student behind me gasp, asking the teacher, "she’s allowed to do that?” I nearly burst with pride and confidence. I taped up the rest of my flashcards, thinking that I could paper every inch of those walls if I had the printing money to do so, because I’m a teacher and they’re students, and there’s not one thing they can do about it. So there.
And yet, during the field trip, I was surprised when a staff member overseeing a carriage ride counted me as one of the two mandatory adults present. Je compte comme adulte? I asked, and the other chaperone looked mildly concerned when he nodded slowly at me and said, euh, oui.
It all had something to do with sleeping in the same dorms, having the same bathroom breaks, and sharing the same rectangular tables as the kids that sent me sideways. The teachers, chaperones, and local staff all ate at a big round table, but since part of the teaching assistants' duty was to make English part of the daily fabric, we sat in the little seats at the little tables with the little people. Incidentally, all these poor kids wanted was a nice break to gossip freely in French to their friends about who burped in their sleep after lights-out, and yet there we were, asking “what’s your favorite color?” every five minutes. Meanwhile, we were served soup in little bowls while the round table was set with voluminous ceramics, and it wasn’t until the other assistant had the wherewithal to stare down one of the staff members that we were offered some of the grown-ups' Camembert. I didn’t even think of asking, as bent as I was on getting Jean and Philippe to fill me in on their class's current it couple.
Now, just to be clear, it was a nice week with good kids and supportive teachers. I had as much fun getting to know the other grown-ups, the real ones, as I did jumping around and making animal noises with the students, many of whom made a strong effort with their English. Whether or not I was served soup in a pink plastic bowl versus a hefty ceramic one has nothing to do with the staff and everything to do with being a 23 year old who didn’t consider asking if she might have an extra serving. Besides, it was all worthwhile when, on the last day, one of the popular girls strutted up and asked me to braid her hair.
This was it, I thought, finally. I've accomplished something real.