La vie n’est pas encore belle

By Darrell Baskin

Over a lunch break last Friday, I met with Jack’s main teacher who is thankfully very compassionate and wise.  Our five oldest children attend the same French public school, as many of you know; and we typically ride our bikes and scooters for a mile under an expansive panorama of snow-capped mountains to get there each morning returning home for a lunch break before riding back for the afternoon session.  I can’t imagine a better way to spend time with my kids in the midst of a regular old school day.

As a parent whose childhood memories stretch back nearly 38 years to include all-too-vivid accounts of being bullied, scolded by teachers, swatted by principals, and ridiculed by peers, I have felt that I could empathize well and share personal experiences with my children corresponding to each year of their education.  Of course, I also recognized that I never lived in a foreign country or attended a school that didn’t operate in my mother tongue.

When his swimming instructor fist-pounded his head several times at school last fall, Jack swore he would never go back to that swim class, and we agreed, met with the principal and pulled him out.  That was the last straw for Jack’s only other American classmate—he hasn’t gone back to school since.  Jack rebounded well, but we have learned that not all French teachers are reliable, and we’ve taught Jack that his teachers sadly don’t necessarily have his best interests in mind.

When his language instructor ridiculed him and called him “bizarre” in front of his small American class (the Americans have breakout sessions on French grammar about four times per week), I confess that I went and asked some of the other students to verify what Jack said in case it was just lost in translation.  He was indeed called bizarre.  I reported this and how Jack did not like to be forcefully grabbed by the arm by this instructor to the principal.  To the surprise of his teachers, I requested and was granted permission to spend a half-day with Jack at school.  His French teacher minded his behavior in class, but did engage in what I would label “shaming tactics” such as ripping up someone’s paper in an ostentatious manner if they did it incorrectly or giving the students a hard time if they didn’t have the right response to his question.  What was the most difficult for me that day were the small moments when nobody was watching while we walked to the gym (about a kilometer away) when I saw how the kids naturally grouped together and chatted away while leaving Jack with a halo of empty space around him.  Most of the time Jack and I strolled side-by-side, but I took a position at the back to make sure kids crossed the streets, and it was at those times when he would look back and smile at me, that I could see the sad eyes of a lonely boy that haunt me even now, months later, as I type.

A week ago today, Jack was back in the French class (after I had attempted to pull him out but Jack had been cajoled into returning).  This time (per the other two students in class and Jack), another American who was one of his close friends taunted him by repeating in a baby voice, “Oooh, le Français est trop difficile.”  Then his teacher joined in as well, repeating the same phrase and earning the laughter of the other students.  It wasn’t the first time Jack cried in that class, but it was the last.

The sacrifies my children make have not been of their own choice, but mine.  We lived without heat in our van this winter.  It wasn’t pleasant, but despite multiple fruitless trips to the mechanic, we managed it, and if we had to, we could do it again (as we will do the opposite this summer without AC).  But the emotional hardships are harder to countenance.  The only solace I have as a parent who has watched all of my school-age children suffer uniquely due to our decision to move overseas is that I am obeying God.  If there were any doubt about His calling, I would be writing a much happier blog post from the comfort of my home state with a belly full of breakfast tacos right now.

We have filled our free time with as much fun as we could; Jack, Hudson and Seattle joined a ski club and went skiing in the French Alps for 3 months and each skis better than me now (granted that’s not saying much); we eat our weight in delicious, not-too-crusty baguettes every week; we make pizza and watch a movie on Friday nights; we have nerf gun wars almost every day (and we’re taking them apart and modifying them to increase the distance (and pain)); we’ve memorized more of the Bible and talked through our hardships; we get to go on enviable vacations (some would argue that vacationing with seven kids under 11 years old is a bit of any oxymoron).  Nevertheless, the good has not erased the bad nor made it much easier to bear.  We point our children to Jesus as much as we can in word and deed.

This is not going to be a tidy blog entry in which all the loose ends will be tied up in a few paragraphs.  I have forbidden Jack’s teacher from ever sending him to the French instructor (and I will not be negotiated out of this position).  We got permission from the school for him to miss a half day a week to meet with an amazing French tutor who lives up in the mountains, has five kids of her own (in France, this is unheard of) and believes in Jesus Christ.  I felt that one of the best tools for Jack to overcome the demons at school was to help him learn the language—he had been tuning out the French instructor for obvious reasons and usually just puts his head on his desk during much of the rest of the class day according to his main teacher.  She said that when he first arrived, he smiled a lot, was very attentive and made some efforts at speaking, but all of that has eroded away now.  My poor son.

Now that our departure for Burundi is delayed and starting the school year in France next fall is a possibility (that hopefully won’t be realized, God willing that our house gets finished); I have realized the necessity of equipping my son better to tackle the problems at hand.  We had been accustomed to telling the kids that learning French would be great, that it would happen passively and that it won’t be important for them longterm.  But I’m changing my tune and repenting of taking the easy street for my kids rather than encouraging and equipping them more.  Life just seemed too overwhelming to ask of them just one more thing.

I know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him.  Jesus said that if we loved him, we would obey His commandments.  But this is a hard path for me, and I need Jesus to shoulder this burden from me, for it is too much for me to bear to see my children suffer.  Please pray for our family when you think of us.  My Sunday school teacher in West University used to say, “If you’re not sure what to pray for, pray for me.  I could always use your prayers and they won’t be wasted.”  If I could be so bold, I would make the selfsame request for me and my family.