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Back to school, French style

(Published in The Malay Mail on 10 September 2013)

Or as they say here: “C’est la rentrée!” Thank goodness for the start of new school year. I’ve been on a serious countdown for it to arrive, bursting to pack my now feral as rabid coyotes off to the school gates. Routine and early nights, at last.

But it’s a bitter-sweet experience. Like giving birth for the first time: you’re desperate for it to happen, but you know the experience is going to be just plain painful.

The scramble to buy new shoes, school uniforms, pencil cases; alarm clocks set for some ungodly hour; turfing sleepy-eyed, foul tempered ones out of bed; ugly traffic jams and the spectre of nightly battles over unfinished homework.


The back-to-school aisle in Carrefour on a recent Sunday morning.

“Big deal” I hear you say. A small price to pay for securing precious “me time” again?

Hmmm. Try doing it in France.

“It’s truly a study in French anthropology. You get to understand what the French are all about, and when it comes to education, they take it very, very seriously!” the Head of my daughter’s school section quipped on the opening morning last Saturday 31 August.

The American, with 30-years experience working in the French education system, was responding to a question about back-to-school supplies gingerly raised by a mum standing under the chandeliers of the crowded reception room.

The warning bells ought to have rung at that this point. But I thought she was joking — a clever ice-breaker to put parents at ease?

I’m an old hand at this back-to-school malarkey anyhow: four kids, six different schools in seven years spanning Houston, Kuala Lumpur and Manhattan. We’ve never once received a school supply list; but how hard can it be to sort?

Days later, like a thunderous, unforgiving tsunami, the supply lists started to roll in. One by one, from every class under the sun — maths, French, history, geography, science, art, English, music and from some I didn’t recognise.

Lists ranged from as many as 23 required items (blank CDs to a pair of roller skates; pardon?), to just two (science required a lab coat and a 96 page lined book, 24 by 32cms). As diverse as the requests were, they all shared two notable similarities: written in French and with painstaking precision.


The school supply lists. Some teachers kindly arranged all listed items, labelled in French, on a table to help parents understand what was required.

Take a look at this extract from the eight item list entitled “Matériel Arts Plastiques”:

2. Une pochette de papier à dessin blanc, également format A3 (42cm x 29,7cm). Épasseur: 180g/m2 ou plus.”

My French — which was coming along swimmingly until now — belly-flopped spectacularly on sight of this art list. My online translator buddy told me I would buying white drawing paper of a particular size and thickness, or was it referring to its weight? Visions of me standing in a crowded Carrefour stationary aisle armed with a tape measure and a set of weighing scales sprung to mind.

Talking of paper, French writing paper is quite unlike anything I’ve come across. The French possess a natty sixth sense for making everything simply beautiful. From stately chateaus to ornamental gardens on busy road intersections; there’s sensory overload everywhere you look. The same follows with their handwriting. Les enfants learn their exquisite “écriture en attaché” (joined-up writing) from an early age, and the Grands Carreaux, or “squared” writing paper, with its tiny 1mm blue lines, red margin and violet vertical lines facilitates this.

C’est incroyable! I can’t wait for my kids’ scrawl to be transformed.

La rentrée is not just about lists though. Their love for precision includes much form filling. All necessary of course. Yet some complain it’s typical of “French bureaucracy” and a pain in the proverbial. After three nights in a row spent completing school forms, sticking in passport photos, filling in bank details, contact details, health status and dietary requirements, employment and marital status, I could see they had a point.

I won’t bore you with the extensive booklists either. Except to say we have been spoilt in our cushy expat paid private school bubble-of-an-existence until now. Welcome to the French state system. I am now not only intimately acquainted with the bookstores of Paris, but I am also a dab hand at labeling and wrapping them in transparent plastic covers. Maybe I should start my own “La rentrée” business next year? I reckon there is money to be made…

Gone midnight last Thursday, as I packed a wad of completed school documents into my youngest’s bag, I caught sight of his “Fichier de lecture book”. It had opened just enough to reveal the heading of the front page. I chuckled, in a half-demented way, when I read: “Viva la rentrée.”

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