My mother’s side of the family is French and when I was young, we used to spend my birthday weekend/Memorial Day visiting with them. And while there were many aspects of these trips that I enjoyed, the visits were never very kid-friendly. I usually felt underfoot and like one of the adults was doing me a favor by watching me*. Then, when you factor in all of the adults speaking French and/or (though usually and) about France, relatives I didn’t know, and art/music, it was like being in a constant state of confusion.
And every year, things really came to a head when we went out to dinner on my birthday. It was a big affair that involved fancy clothing (often my arch-nemesis, the pale blue frilly blouse that had a habit of unbuttoning itself every few minutes and the flowered skirt that “I-was-absolutely-under-no-circumstances-to-spill-anything-on”), my very best table manners, and sitting across the table from my 100-year-old great-grandmother who terrified me.
My mother insists that she has never met anyone who has ever lived up to my grandmémé’s standards, and while I understood that it was probably true, I still was determined to be the anomaly. Of course, things never went as planned, and I somehow always managed to mess up and be swatted at within five minutes of sitting down. The swatting would be accompanied by some remark in French that I did not understand, and some adult would whisper in my ear what I supposed to say in response. I would manage to bungle the sentence, the adult would have to apologize for me, and the cycle would continue until I finally gave up on trying to be perfect and got incredibly antsy.
It was on my eighth birthday that my dad introduced me to what he called “French math.”
“Okay, Eleanor, so you know how you have to kiss everyone hello and goodbye? Now, I want you to add up how many kisses that is going to be. Remember Mémé, Grandmémé, and your great aunts each get four, and everyone else gets two.”
I’d work out the sum in my head, and then my dad would change it up so that I had to come up with the number of kisses for the people with blue eyes or everyone wearing black. Eventually, this turned into me making up my own rules for calculating kisses, and I’ve done it during every long family dinner since.
So the next time you find yourself stuck in a room full of French people you are going to have to kiss, you can pull out this trick and go wild.
Note: You can adopt it for hugs when you’re not with the French, but the level of difficulty and fun vastly decreases, so I’d suggest that you instead spend your time changing the lyrics of Yankee Doodle or plotting escape routes in case of an attack.
*Or often not watching, with the case in point being the time I nearly drowned in the pool when I was five because all of the adults thought someone else had an eye on me.
The reader selected post for last week was a tie between “How to Shut Up a Bully in French Class” and “Explorations in the World of Ella’s Nutrition.” And as I’ve spent a portion of this evening discussing classroom dynamics with my mother, I’m going to write about the former.
Freshman year of high school was terrifying. I began the year with few friends in my classes, and the high school was huge–two buildings and close to two thousand students. I was absolutely adrift. I don’t think I had any friends over at my house until about March, and if it weren’t for meeting Cecelia and hanging by Tal at lunch and Audrey in English and History, I would have turned into even more of a wallflower. My life revolved around reading in my bedroom and observing other people. It was pathetic and extremely depressing.
Ella at fourteen.
What I probably looked like 90% of the time, minus the billowing flannel nightgown.
Of course, none of this is to say that my life remained this way for the rest of high school. The next year, everything did an almost a complete 180° shift, and I was constantly busy and surrounded by friends.
But for that first year, I was downright miserable, and it showed, the way that those things often do. It wasn’t that I cried or walked around looking distraught, I was just wide-eyed, quiet, and very timid–a perfect combination for being bullied.
French class was the worst. I knew no one, there was extreme familial pressure to do well (We’re French for pity’s sake, Ella! You should be able to communicate with your grandmother and great-aunts by now!), and my fear of making mistakes was amplified tremendously. I was not going to be the person who made themselves look ridiculous in front of the entire class. And of course, the exact opposite was what went down.
There was a senior boy still stuck in French II, who despite not being particularly smart, had a mean streak a mile wide and managed to extremely intimidate me by flippantly breaking rules and constantly talking about being on the varsity wrestling team.
You should never doubt the fear that a letterman jacket with the words “Varsity Wrestling” can instill in a freshman girl. Some part of me was sure that if I did anything to offend him, I would be find myself with both arms pinned
behind my back and my face smashed into the linoleum. And having once slammed my face into a concrete curb while being chased by a vicious goose (true story), I was already intimately aware of the sensation of hitting your head on something hard enough to bruise your brain and nearly fracture your skull.
So a few weeks into the class, this kid (who amusingly shares a name with an ex-boyfriend, though the similarities stop there), discovered that I was rather vulnerable and very worried about grades.
He may have been seated all the way across the classroom, but he managed to find out what I scored on everything from homework to the midterm and mocked me for it. The teasing got worse whenever I had to give a presentation or do anything that required me to speak in front of the class. But having been heavily bullied in elementary school, I tried to do what I did then and just turned the other cheek. I figured that if I ignored him long enough, he’d give up.
Unfortunately, turning the other cheek does not work in all cases of bullying. I just had to ride out large portions of elementary school, and this charming boy was making it look like I was going to have to spend French class the same way. You can spend all the time in the world thinking about Jesus, the Scriptures, and the importance of forgiveness. You can even pray quietly in class for God to grant you the ability to forgive the bully and for the tormenting to stop, but it’s pretty rare that the bullying will entirely stop unless you also take some form of assertive action.
One day in the spring, I was staring our of the window thinking about the Confession of Sin while our teacher passed back our latest test. When my teacher dropped mine on my desk, I noticed that I had earned a 93%, despite all of the time I had spent studying. I had been worrying about the oral section for days, and seeing that I had, in fact, not done very well on that section was frustrating and very discouraging. I knew at that point that I was going to be spending the summer in France studying at a university and living with a host family. My current speaking skills needed quite a bit of improvement. Close to six weeks alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language was already stressing me out. So I tugged on my hair, bit my lip, and tried very hard not to cry.
At this point, the boy had already noticed not only my grade, but also that I was close to crying. But as he began to mock my reaction, I realized something: I have a high A average in this class, I thought, He is nearly failing it for a third time. Putting aside the morals of bullying, he just doesn’t have the authority from which to criticize my grades. And I knew what I needed to do.
I looked up, tucked my hair back behind my ear, and said in a voice loud enough to be heard by him and most of the class, but still be ignored by the teacher, “Hey, at least I get ninety-threes. When was the last time you even got close to an A?”
A few people made ooooh’s and laughed, but he just opened and shut his mouth like an unintelligent goldfish. I turned back to my test and neatly filed it away in my binder, smiling a little at my jab. Score one for Ella.
And while I wish that I could say that he never did anything to me again, that would be a lie. But the teasing certainly did decrease, and I got better at standing up for myself.
Years later, I’ve continued to think about the incident–my joy to have come up with my own stinging retaliation, his shock, and the bullying before and after–and I must admit that I actually feel bad for him. Being a senior in a room full of freshman and sophomores must be rough, particularly if you are very close to failing the course. You can’t graduate without fulfilling your foreign language requirements, and I’m sure he was worried about not being able to leave in June. No one wants to be in high school forever, and I also know that when I feel stressed and ashamed, I don’t always act with grace.
This is not to say that I’m okay with what he did–hurting people, no matter how you are feeling is wrong and deplorable–but I understand how he must have felt. No one ever acts without a motivation, and that motivation is almost always emotion-based. I hope that my response to his bullying didn’t further harm his own self-esteem, and I wonder now if it would have been better to just continue turning the other cheek, even if what he said upset me. But such is the way of the past and former choices–what happened happened, and getting stuck debating what could have been is never productive.
Here’s the poll for next week’s post.
Rules: You can only vote once and select up to four choices before hitting “vote.” Unfortunately, if you hit “vote” without selecting multiple options, you will be unable to go back and select other choices as well. I’m sorry, but that’s the way the poll website runs. Additionally, when I did have unlimited voting on previous polls, some people used it to vote upwards of eighty times for their favorite. And as I’d prefer for this blog to run as fairly and democratically as possible, rules have become a necessity.
You can also find me collecting lovely images and words on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/. I’d love for you to follow me on my trek into the wilds of tumblr.
For Foreign Language Night, my French teacher has been teaching us to sing this ridiculous French pop song:
Doc hates it so much that on Friday he was begging that we do more verb exercises than sing it. I just find its awfulness amusing and enjoy watching my classmates sing along, but hearing it three times a day everyday of the week is getting to me. Playing it that often would be somewhat acceptable if our performance was within a week, but Foreign Language Night isn’t until the thirtieth. This is classic Madame. I just wish that I was in the same class as Cecelia.
While I was running errands for over three hours with Pippa and Dad, I kept thinking about pop music. Of course, as soon as I got home, I had to look this video up again:
Laughing at it made the dark rainy afternoon disappear for a few minutes.
Today was one of my lie-in-bed-and-try-to-calm-down days. Aren’t days like this the bomb diggity? (That phrase is totally underrated.)
So after I had had my lovely morning cry, I started going through old pictures in my iPhoto. Besides discovering a bunch of pictures that I took of myself back in 2006 (oh God) when Macs first started having built-in web-cams, I found all of my pictures from the summer I spent in France when I was fourteen.
I went with a program to Angers to study French at a university and live with a host family that had eight kids. It was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t my memories of Versailles or Saint Malo that kept replaying in my mind, instead it was my walk to the university and how gorgeous it was.
The front steps of the house:
The lamppost on the corner (Yes, I did try to re-enact Singing in the Rain here, and yes, people thought I was crazy):