Friday, January 31, 2014

Plus ça change, first grade edition

After lights out, after asking for a second hug and kiss goodnight, Le Petit had something to tell me.

"En fait, maman, M doesn't want to be my friend anymore."

M was Le Petit's first close friend this year, and before when he'd talk about the games they'd invent together at recess, a true, broad smile would break across his face.  He's not the kind of kid who expresses his emotions readily, so this made an impression on me.  But M is also a girl, and M's friends tease them for playing together.  "Les amoureux!" they taunt, and they won't leave them be. In the ruthless world of the primary school playground, there are certain rules not to be broken.

Le Petit is in CP, the equivalent of first grade, and since we moved to a new town over the summer, he is the odd man out in a class of kids who all went to nursery school together and he is having a hard time making friends.  It doesn't help that he prefers geography and history to Star Wars and Spiderman, and won't play cops and robbers because he considers it "too violent."  I have a hard time picturing exactly what happens at recess, and I can't always follow the ins and outs of who plays what and where with whom and when from the recaps we get at home.  But what I know for sure is that what Le Petit recounts in brief confidences before going to sleep drags me back thirty years to a playground in Olympia, Washington.

As much as love and friendship are universal, certain strains of human stupidity are as well.

I changed schools between kindergarten and first grade, and I still remember the first awkward day when I walked into the first grade classroom and realized that everything and everyone was Different.  My first close friend that year -- the first friend who understood me, truly -- was N.  He was a boy.  It took a month or so for the other kids to catch on that this was somehow not okay, letting a boy and a girl be friends with each other.  But catch on they did.  I can still hear the chanting, the sing-song "N loves E, E loves N!" that chased us around the playground, and our vehement refusals that felt like betrayals.

I told Le Petit this, after trying my best to give him space to tell his own story.  I think it makes him feel a bit better to know that he isn't alone.  At the same time, my story isn't a particularly optimistic one, because just like M with Le Petit, I was not brave enough to continue being N's friend in the face of constant teasing.

"But you're still friends with him, right, Mom?" Le Petit asked hopefully.  And I remembered that while we were bound by a certain outcast smart kid solidarity through fifth grade, after which my family moved and I once again changed schools, I was never N's friend again.  I've wondered about him over the years, and since Olympia is a small enough town, I've managed to learn that he's moved and has a successful career as a professor somewhere in the Midwest.  I'm curious, and truly happy for him in a way I'm not for almost any of the others characters in the elementary school chapter of my life.  But none of that changes that I was a genuine wimp at the time.

I was less blunt when I answered Le Petit (I hope).  "This happens in life, it hurts bad, it isn't fair, you have no control over the choices or stupidity of others," I then said, more or less, and with a hug I tried to wordlessly assure him that life goes on.  30 years on and counting.

"The problem is, I often find myself playing all by myself at recess."

Those words felt like a kick in the stomach, and I started thinking about my productive, busy days at the office and how at the very same time my little baby is out there on the playground all alone... but I did my best to hide it.

"And what do you do when you're playing by yourself?"

"It depends... sometimes I play hopscotch!"

Le Petit jumped out of bed and gave me a demonstration, hopping on one foot across his bedroom rug.

"And... sometimes I play silly airplane!  That's a game I invented with M... you run around with your arms like this," he showed me, "...and then you run into something and you crash!"

Spinning around his room with his arms stretched out, even though it was dark and I couldn't see, I was almost certain he had that same broad smile.  Everyone survives grade school, I tell myself; that's universal too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


My husband left for a week-long trip to Barcelona this morning, leaving me busy with two kids and feeling oddly lonely.  A long January Sunday was staring me in the face, so I made plans to meet a friend of mine near her place in Vincennes.  It was a good forty-five minutes away in a corner of the Paris suburbs I'm less than familiar with, but I thought I could swing it.  Le Petit would be coming with me, after all.

The little gray Renault Clio that my mother-in-law has generously loaned me, the car which is coaxing me into becoming a confident driver again after almost ten carless years in France, has no GPS.  This is no problem when I drive back and forth to work, which is the great majority of the kilometers I log.  This is no problem when I meticulously plan out my route ahead of time, with Google Map printouts at hand.  But I don't have my husband's sixth sense with Parisian geography, and I still need plenty of warning before heading on the white-knuckle Paris ring road called Le Périphérique, so I don't improvise.  But Le Petit has a bizarrely knack with geography.  When he's in the car with a map on his lap, I am not exaggerating, I feel more confident than when I'm using my husband's car's GPS.

I'm not sure when he started mapping out his world in his head.  By age five he was drawing maps of France at school, from memory.  The summer he turned five I bought him a laminated Michelin road atlas of France on a whim, and ever since he spends most of his time on family road trips with it open on his knees, following along with his finger and comparing his itinerary to the one displayed in the dashboard.  He knows and loves only one app on our iPad: Google Maps.  He used to spend hours following roads to all corners of the earth, especially (for some reason he has never disclosed) Siberia.  He can place all the countries in Europe on a blank map -- all the countries, from the Baltic to the Balkans.  He started to learn to read by deciphering road signs, so desperate was he to learn where roads were going.

Back in September, he went with me on a shopping trip to a nearby shopping mall.  I found myself in the wrong lane and forced to turn onto a highway going the wrong direction.  He calmly talked me through the route to turn around -- he'd done it once before, with Papa -- and the next time, when I went by myself, he wanted to make sure I'd be OK on my own.

"Because, maman, if you get lost I can't come and get you!" he'd warned.

Today before our afternoon outing we looked at the map together on Google.  The A13 to the Périphérique to the Porte Dorée, I told him, and we'd meet my friend at the Château de Vincennes for a walk in the surrounding park.  I got the kids herded down to the parking garage, buckled into their car seats, and was preparing to go when I realized I didn't have the detailed map of Paris.  I considered unpacking everyone to run back in but we were already late, so I explained my predicament to Le Petit and gave him an unhelpful map of the southwestern suburbs (we were headed southeast) and a large, undetailed map of the entire Paris region.

"Do you think you can get us there with this?" I asked.  He thought he could.

By the time we stopped for gas, five minutes later, he'd already corrected my itinerary.

"You're wrong, maman, the exit we want is Porte de Vincennes and not Porte Dorée!"  And he explained my error clearly with the help of the undetailed map.

"You're right, then."  Of course he was.

Later, as I was mustering all my nerve on the Périph amid the swerving cars and motorcycles, I asked Le Petit to advise me on the lane to stay in.

"Don't worry," he said with authority, "You won't exit soon.  First there's the A6, and then the A4, and only then will will get to the Porte Dorée and the Porte de Vincennes."

"There's Porte de Châtillon..." I said vaguely.

"You're far still. The A6 is at Porte d'Orléans."

As he told me all this, I had the distinct feeling he was telling me from familiar memory, as if he were introducing me to classmates by name.  He was not just reading off the map.

A little later, I noticed a bridge.

"We must be nearing the Seine!" I remarked, glad to have finally grasped some landmark.

"That's the bridge over the train," he corrected.  "The train for the Gare d'Austerlitz.  The Seine is just afterwards."

Oh, right.

We exited to a large boulevard and a remarkable mess, the kind that one finds at any "Porte" into Paris, this one made worse by double-parked trucks packing up a large open-air street market.

"Where do I go from here? You wouldn't happen to know, would you?"  I asked Le Petit, prepared to pull over, park and pull out my smartphone if necessary.

"Go straight!" he said, "The château is straight ahead.  You can't see it from here, but it isn't far, I promise."

That's when I remembered that he'd visited the park before -- two years ago, at age four-and-a-half.  Once after that, too, with my husband, at five-and-a-half.  That was enough for him to be certain of his way.

We met my friend, we had a grand time at the Parc Floral, playing on the giant slides and running around the garden.  The weather was mild, there were kids everywhere.  We stayed until closing, and the sun was setting as we headed back to the car.  The Périphérique was slow on the way back, so I let Le Petit choose a somewhat extravagant alternate route, the A4 to the A86 to the N12 with one emergency pee pee stop somewhere after the N118.  

I don't hide how impressed I am with my little navigator, but I try to remind him, too, that it is OK to make a mistake.  "You know, if you ever don't know where we're going, it's fine.  We'll stop and we'll figure it out.  It'll be OK."  I don't want him to think the whole world relies on his sense of direction, and I know that at the moment a good portion of his whole world is Mommy and Daddy.  Even if he knows the world map (it hangs over his bed; there's also a globe on his dresser and three or four atlases in his book shelf), he's unlikely to accurately evaluate his own place in it. It's scary being a kid.

He doesn't seem unnerved by the pressure, or if he does, he doesn't tell me.  Meanwhile, I gain confidence with every outing together, and that is strange: isn't it supposed to work the other way around?