Jan 28, 2016

Le Bac, Le Fac -- Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Goutte


I've written about French elementary and middle schools, but it looks like I may never write about French high school and university experiences from a first-hand parent perspective. There are plenty of good reasons to return to the US: my husband misses San Francisco's nature and sports; the work visa is expiring; we've been away from family and friends a long time; there's a shadow of terrorism over the city; we'd kill for good tacos or Chinese dim sum. But of all the reasons, it's the schooling that will send us running back to the US.

This is ironic, since France is known for its intellectual prowess, and education, and we are head-over-heels in love with the affordable tuition here. Not to rub it in, but for our two girls to attend an excellent, highly-competitive private school, we pay a total of around $10,000 per year. And that includes both lunch and a special native English pull-out section for bilingual students that nearly doubles the tuition. So to break it down:

Tuition alone: 1,800€ (x2 kids)
English section additional fee: 1,650€ (x2 kids)
Lunch (4x per week, since they have half days on Wednesdays): 830€ (x2 kids)

Facing the down the barrel of high school, Gigi has stated, categorically, that she wants to be in the US for high school. We have gone to great lengths to raise our girls bilingual, and to place them in French schools right from the beginning. They are both doing well in school here and have great friends. They love France, and they love French. So what's the problem?

One of the worst issues is that high schoolers generally get out of school around 6-7pm, four or five nights per week. They may have Wednesday afternoon off, but if they do, they almost certainly have regular Saturday morning testing instead. Even in middle school, some schools (like the famous Lycée Henri IV) have some students come on Saturday mornings. Gigi already gets out of school at 6pm several days per week. This is just for actual class time. There are no after-school activities at school because by the time class is out, it's time to go home.

And, yet, she still does many after-school activities on her own. We often eat dinner at 8:30pm. The only reason she can keep up her extra-curriculars is that she's fast when it comes to homework; some of her middle school classmates have already given up activities in order to have enough time for schoolwork. That just seems sad to me.

French high schools are based almost entirely on preparation for the Bac, the Baccalaureat exam at the end of school, and all that matters is that score. Which university you get into -- even what you are allowed to study at university -- comes down almost entirely to your Bac scores.

Unless, of course, you want to go into a more competitive/intellectual field. Then, after you crush your Bac, you still have to do a year or two of what is called "Prépa"; this is short for "Préparation", even though at one-two years, there's nothing short about it. Prépa is full-time test-prep schooling in order to crush the next step: the entrance exam for the "Grandes Ecoles" (the elite universities). So if you want to go to medical school, and be pre-med before that, you'll first need to be pre-pre-med, taking two years to study for the entrance exam. It's not just an exam but also a contest (even called a "concours") for a place in le fac (le faculté) of your choice -- law, medicine, science, letters. Your ranking in the scores directly determines which choice school you get.

Nobody gives a flying rat's patootie if you are well-rounded, happy, athletic, artistic, musical, creative, funny, kind, a good writer, a good tuba player, a good chess player, a passionate volunteer. Socially awkward? No problem in France, where there are no essays, interviews, or extracurriculars needed to impress the admissions committee (or, more accurately, the admissions algorithm, as it's all done by numbers and computer matching).

You can take the girl out of America....But Gigi knows that if she goes back, she will have school only till 2:30pm or so, and that the schools will then host tennis teams, school newspapers, model UN clubs, theater productions, and pancake-eating clubs (truly, one of the schools she's drooling over in San Francisco actually offers this). She's been looking at the websites of these schools, and to her, American high school looks like summer camp. It may be difficult and rigorous, but the fact remains that she'll be able to choose elective courses (a truly revolutionary idea that hasn't reached France yet), speak out in class, and possibly even -- gasp! -- laugh and have fun with the teachers.

The French send their children off to school with "Sois sage!" ("Be well-behaved!) while we Americans send ours off with "Have fun!" I don't think it's wrong for Gigi to want to have fun and enjoy her high school experience. The people I know who've gone through high school in France would tell you -- pretty much to a person -- that high school here is miserable. All work and no play. A total grind. This partly explains the high level of smoking among high school teenagers, even at -- especially at -- the more competitive, rigorous, elite schools.


University is more like an extension of high school, except you test into a specific subject. You have some choice, but not much. Where you go and which fac you study is based on your Bac and/or Prépa scores. The computer assigns you a school, in order of (you're getting it now) your ranking and score and in conjunction with the schools you've put on your wish list. From the beginning, you don't study subjects outside your concentration, and changing your "major" means starting all over again. Coming from a liberal arts tradition, this is simply hard to fathom.

It's not just Gigi that wants to learn in a more creative, fun, individualistic way (all of which is understandable). We want this for her, too -- to enjoy school, after-school activities, and her own unique passions. Even Pippa, young as she is, is starting to understand the difference. Looking at the websites for the schools back in San Francisco, Pippa is amazed that there is a place where school looks so fun. The girls will miss their friends and their favorite teachers, but they won't miss the classes where the teachers' main methodology is humiliation, anger, punishment, and rote memorization (and no, these are not necessarily bad teachers -- they're pretty typical French teachers, actually).

Granted, the schools we're looking at in San Francisco are private schools, and great ones at that. So perhaps it's no wonder their methodology is so appealing. What is less appealing is the tuition, and we're not even sure how we're going to swing it, once we move back and if they get accepted, since the total tuition with lunch will be 9-10x higher. So it's not that the American system is perfect. Besides paying for it, we realize there will be other stresses; we know that private school and college admissions in America are highly competitive, just in a different way than in France. Instead of competing on test scores, you're competing on your report card, whole resume, essays, interviews, passions, hobbies, and personalities. And some test scores. Still stressful, but at least there's more room for fun, creativity, and individuality along the way.
Goutte -- also sometimes called Goutte de Chèvre, is a raw goats' milk cheese from the Vendée. The word "goutte" means "drop" as in "a drop of water" or "tear drop". No surprise then, that the cheese is shaped like a drop of water, or a tear drop.

It's a soft, spreadable, thick and creamy mild cheese with hints of herbs and flowers and the sweetness of the original cream. Delicious. It's mild enough to serve as a fabulous canvas for jams and honeys, but is also lovely plain.


An essay discussing -- or, more truthfully, lamenting -- the blood, sweat, and tears of high school and university students here in France calls a for a tear-shaped cheese. Let's be honest here: If you ever have to choose between attending French high school or eating French cheese, I recommend you go for the cheese.



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