They twittered away in French every time I turned to the blackboard, which didn't so much offend me as remind me that I'm not trained to be a teacher. "Besides," I thought as I erased vocabulary words to make room for more, "can I really complain"? It had been a dream of mine to live and work in France and there I was, living off 12 hours of work a week, in love with a Frenchman, traveling and integrating into the culture. "Really, what bliss!" I thought, as I dropped the eraser.
"I'm always dropping things," I said out loud to them, showing them my embarrassment. Oops. They stared. I remembered thinking university students would be more mature than the high schoolers I taught the year before. Some smiled kindly while others whispered to their friends about the bar, smoking pot, the girl in the third row, concerts, lunch, and other things I wished I couldn't understand. But my French had gotten good. What seemed to work when they wouldn't pay attention was to say something in rapid, solid, authoritative French, or copy the announcer lady at the train station as though I were about to signal the arrival of their next train out of there. Putting on my best SNCF voice I said, "Mesdames et monsieurs, votre attention, s'il vous plait." This worked and made them laugh. Then I turned to write another word and dropped the chalk.
"Aie oolwiys doo dat!" came a voice from the back with the kind of French accent that you hear in films, the kind that the waiter has, not the sexy kind, the unnerving kind. Well, unnerving to an English teacher. That little twerp took a cheap shot at me and what was I supposed to do? Send him out on his way? I had a hard time stomaching the fact that half of the students in the university were only there because it was free. The government was paying their rent as long as they showed up to class. "I hate my job," I thought, "I need a vacation," though I had already had one or two that year, bless the French.
Class ended, they said goodbye as they filed out of the room. The twerp came up to me and tried to explain that it was just a joke for his friends, he didn't want to be mean. I lightly brushed him off and sped out of there. Then, by some miracle, or rather by the absolute predictability of the French system, public services went on strike. (heavenly sounds of angels singing). The students chained up the school in protest of a new law which meant that I couldn't work and was still being paid. "I love my job!" I yelled when I next saw Cyril, my boyfriend, who then brooded, knowing the strike would last at least a month. He'd still have to work. We decided that the next free day we had together, we'd go to the beach.
It was by far the prettiest of beach trips that year. The bay of Saint Jean de Luz was smooth and waveless, only gently shushing across the shore, the Atlantic wide and turquoise expanding out to an open, cloudless springtime sky. Basque houses climbed up lush hillsides in their typical white with red or green trim, while stylish European tourists sauntered by below in sandals and big sunglasses.
Unable to resist a calm, shiny sea, I swam for a while and then set out to accomplish my two goals for the day. One was not to get sunburned and two, eat ice cream. Any doubts and insecurities about my teaching abilities slowly vanished in the lazy beach ambiance. I retired to my towel to let the warmth of the sand radiate up into my muscles, turn me to a very contented jelly state. France was spoiling me and I knew it. Before we packed up our things to head back, I took a look at everything around me and silently vowed to try harder in the classroom.
Go before you go, they say, so when it was time to roll up our towels and hit the road, we stopped at a self-sanitizing public toilet on the way to the car. It was an oval building with one heavy door and a system of red and green lights outside for your sanitary convenience. Cyril went in first and I lollied about admiring the view.
As the sun started to turn the landscape to marmalade, a group of kids were still diving off the dock and looking for interesting things in the sand. I wondered at my luck. Cyril finished in the bathroom and, ever the gentleman, held the door for me. An uneasy feeling came over me as it swung shut behind me with a heavy metallic "clack".
I could hear water running somewhere. Squinting through the dim room, I noticed the squat pot starting to sanitize itself a few feet away. I turned to leave, sliding my hands up and down the cool door, only to find a large panel with no handles or locks. I heaved my weight against it, but it wasn't about to budge. I bit my lip and tried to breathe, deciding it wasn't so bad. Only a little bit of the spray from the toilet was hitting my feet. I decided to wait it out next to the door when I heard a funny clicking noise. The walls sprung a leak and sanitizer sprayed wildly in all directions. With no place to hide, jets of the stuff pierced my cotton clothes. My ears filled with the echo of rushing water.
I wondered at the futility of it as I started yelling and banging on the door from the inside. My nervous voice was echoing off the round tiled walls, cold and wet under my fingers. I had to laugh when I saw my one hope of exit – a red button above a plaque that read "To exit…" The rest of the words were rubbed off. Weighing the possible consequences of pushing it with the toxicity of the spray, I placed my finger on it, held my breath and pushed. In an instant, I was back out in the sun gasping at the fresh air, feet soaking, boyfriend heartily laughing.
With the Basque hills fading into night behind us, we drove inland to face our daily lives. I mentally listed a few things to remember for the weeks to come. Don't tolerate smart ass students, try not to drop the chalk, appreciate the things around you and never again let anyone hold the door for you in a self-sanitizing toilet. I think these will be useful for anyone teaching English in France.