Mar 4, 2015

Nose to the Grindstone: Cap Gris Nez


It's pretty obvious how much I love France, and living in France, but even I have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. And that line is at high school.

Part of it is because Gigi herself has started thinking about high school, and what she's thinking is that she doesn't want to go to high school in France.
I'm sure she's heard me and Anthony talk about it, and is influenced by our opinions. But I also think she's demonstrating a pretty deep knowledge of both the French school system and her own health and happiness.

One of the biggest factors for her is that high school kids here generally stay in school till 5 or 6pm, Monday through Friday, and then usually have school on Saturday mornings for testing. This is not because the kids are staying after school to do sports or activities. There are, virtually, no sports or activities at school. They're in class till 6pm.

Or, Gigi reasons, she could be in a American high school, five days a week, getting out at a pleasant 2:30pm or so. Time for an activity before snack time, hang out a bit with friends, have dinner with the family, and still plenty of time left for homework.

Oddly, the classes in France don't start as early -- or as regularly -- as in the States. French high school and middle school students go in to school according to their individual schedules (and leave the same way), so that one class of students might go in at 7:45, and another at 9:30, on any given day. It's taken some getting used to...for me and Anthony, that is. The girls have no problem with this, having done most of their schooling in France, at this point.

While the long hours may be Gigi's biggest pet peeve, I've got other gripes to go with it. French high school students are bombarded with homework, because everything is leading up to the Baccalaureate test spread out over their final two years. Their entire future will be decided by this. So not only are they not encouraged to do extracurriculars, they are actively discouraged. One of the music teachers at the local conservatory laments that just when the students are starting to get really accomplished and able to tackle significant works, having studied music for almost 10 years, they all quit, en masse, as they enter high school. It's nose-to-the-grindstone time.

I'm bothered by the high school culture here, in general. It's not just the smoking, though the smoking does bother me a lot -- not because I think my kids would ever start smoking, because they hate it with the self-righteous passion of San Franciscans -- but because they would inevitably be breathing in second-hand smoke, no matter who their friends are, from the bottom all the way to the top of the class. Smoking here is not just for the "bad" kids. It's for all the kids, and often especially the stressed-out best students.

More than that, I'm bothered by the weight (literal and figurative) of the homework and the importance placed on testing and grades. Our girls do well in school, but even then, we don't want them living just for grades and numbers and test scores. While I will be the first one to admit that French students graduate high school better educated than Americans, in the sense of knowing facts, I think the price they pay is too high: not enough emphasis on creativity, collaboration, well-rounded pursuits, risk-taking, and happiness, among other things. We want our girls to enjoy high school, as much as it can be enjoyed. And we know it really can't be enjoyed in France. I know a lot of French high school students, and I've never once heard one say school is "fun". They seem, universally, to call it "miserable", even the ones who do very well -- perhaps especially the ones who do very well.

Our French friends with older kids have all given us the same response when we tell them of our plan to go back to the US in time for high school: "You're absolutely right. Good thinking."

By the way, I'm not arguing that American high schools are better than French, or better than anyone else's for that matter. I can imagine a host of arguments in favor of high school just about anywhere, but whenever we argue it out, we all fall firmly on the side of avoiding French high school. American high school is just our most obvious other choice.

We have, roughly, a couple years to make this happen. If our goal is to avoid French high school, we have until Seconde, or what we'd call 10th grade: French high school runs for three years only (and middle school is for four years). If our goal is to have Gigi start in 9th grade, when most American high schools begin, we'll need to be back a year sooner.

THE CHEESE: Cap Gris Nez

Cap Griz Nez -- meaning Cape Gray Nose -- is a cheese named after a cape justting out into the English Channel from the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France. The cape is located near Wissant and Maroilles, and the cheese shows it. Like a Sablé de Wissant is rough-textured, and like the Maroilles, it's orange-crusted and stinky. In terms of pure olfactory power, it's right up there with its sister cheeses and is clearly not for wimps.

This cheese just seems like something that would come from this terroire. The Cap Gris Nez is home to a lot of Jurassic fossils and the rocky layers are made of sandstone, clay, and chalk. This rocky cheese is aged a minimum of  two months -- not exactly a fossil, but certainly many people will be petrified when they smell it.


I feel that any cheese that has both "gray" and "nose" in the name must be the correct one to choose for a story about the overall drabness of the high school experience in France, where students are nose to the grindstone for three solid years in pursuit of the ever elusive perfect Bac score.


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