School Daze

Trent's class photo with the ubiquitious "bird" captured in this Kodak moment, the student at the front-left corner.
Trent’s class’s Kodak moment captures the student at the front left corner sporting the playground’s ubiquitous “bird” on his righthand.

Leslie and I dreamed of Bryce and Trent learning to some day speak fluent French. Although it was not our original intention when setting off to sail around the world, the new emphasis toward cultural immersion in lieu of sailing around the world affords us this opportunity. It is one of the main reasons for our extended stay in French Polynesia, allowing us to enroll Bryce and Trent in a French public school; first in Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, then maybe in Raiatea, Society.

At first, we were all excited to start school, all of us except Trent. He was, and remains, less convinced of the benefits surrounding the acquisition of a new language. For Leslie and I, learning to speak French has become a requirement of them. In August of this year, Bryce and Trent made Nuku Hiva history, perhaps even Marquesas history, becoming the first Americans ever to attend school here. At first, Bryce welcomed the attention his unique circumstances offered. Everyone watched his every move. Girls flocked to him, requesting instant girlfriend status (being a small island of limited population, many kids are related, making it difficult to date, so new blood represents new possibilities). He was instantly popular. Trent on the other hand did not welcome the global attention. No matter where he went, on campus or off, he felt the inquisitive gaze of locals. When at the store, what products would he buy, what items interested him? At school, kids stared to see what clothes he wore, what technology he brought, what skills and attitudes he might introduce. He did not welcome the unsolicited attention that being a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned American brought him in a school 98% brown-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned Polynesian. Conspicuous simply for his differences was an uncomfortable circumstance for Trent. I tell the boys to remember how it feels to be different in appearance from the general population and to be treated like a freak, so that when they find themselves in a circumstance where they see someone different being introduced into their cultural, that they reach out to them to help them feel at ease, to welcome them in a more constructive and caring manner than their current classmates are.

Another challenge for the boys is entering a scholastic social structure unable to communicate. Not understanding what kids are saying to you or each other, not understanding what the teachers are saying when they are teaching, describing the assignments, the homework, and handing out the tests is akin to living a nightmare for an honor roll student like Bryce, or a student like Trent who likes to please others, especially his teachers. “They think because we don’t speak French that we’re idiots. They can’t believe we’re so dumb, coming from America. It’s not fair. We know more about most of these subjects then they do. Just because we don’t speak their language, doesn’t mean we’re dumb. Even little kids think they’re smarter than us just because we can’t answer even simple questions,” they protest. Again, I ask that they always remember this injustice so that when they meet someone learning English, or even a new skill, that they accord them the same allowances that they feel the Marquesan students, and even some of the French teachers, should extend them. For the first 6 weeks, most all the teachers were sympathetic to their circumstance. After the first school break, a one-week vacation, patience ran out. Nearly all of their teachers began treating them as if the grace period for learning to speak French were over. Apparently for many, six weeks is all it should take to be able to speak French.

The boys were learning. And as in when learning any language, they were beginning to understand what was being said, more than they could speak, especially when others made the effort to speak very slowly and deliberately. When a debutant linguist asks a native speaker to speak slowly, he or she slows down from 70 mph to 55 mph, but still freeway speed. What a very beginning student of a language wants is for a person to speak at 5-10 mph, crowded parking lot speed. You want each word clearly spoken and separated from each other with a fair pause in between. Only someone in the process of learning a new language seems to appreciate this requirement. Others soon tire of the effort and slowly ramp back up to freeway speeds. As parents introducing non-speaking students to their class, it’s not fair to ask teachers to teach their class in a manner necessary for Bryce and Trent to understand, either by translating in English or by slowing speech to a snail’s pace. So, to assist their learning, we hired a professional French-as-a-second-language teacher, experienced in teaching French to Americans. Bryce and Trent meet with him outside of school, 3 times a week. In a constructive environment, he instructs them in basic French, addresses their language questions related to any recent experiences, and helps them with their homework.

Language is not the only challenge confronting Bryce and Trent’s introduction to school in the Marquesas. Cultural differences make for difficult and unpleasant social lessons. Petty theft, lying, vulgar acts and language, and threats of violence are commonplace behaviors in Taiohae’s secondary school. The boys’ backpacks are pilfered through when they’re not looking, during recess, lunch, or physical ed. Bryce and Trent’s stationary supplies are taken from their desk when the walk away to approach the teacher with a question. Locker locks are picked open and items removed. Those whom Bryce thought were his frie