Like many American teenagers, I sit at home on a Tuesday writing this when I would normally be in school. Unlike most American teenagers, I am in France.
I’m not french. My dad got a two year job six years ago and we’ve been here ever since. Not that I’m complaining; I have learned to love this country and its people. Yet, I am American, and I have a lot of family and friends in the United States that I talk to all the time. I also have a lot of European friends.
Knowing children around the world and speaking a few different languages helps put COVID into perspective. I know what it’s like for American teens in a few different states and what is happening with teens in more than a few countries.
Here’s what it looks like for teenagers in France. To put things in perspective, I am in a regular French public school. The English call private schools “public” – this caused some confusion when we first moved here – so to clarify, I am in a regular, free government run school.
French school lasts 12 years, just like in the United States, but they count down to zero (the last year is called “Terminale” so English speakers have the impression that we are waiting to catch a disease. deadly). The sixth year is the same in the United States and in France but, afterwards, the seventh in the United States is fifth, then fourth, then third. So, I’m now in second grade, which is the American equivalent of 10th.
My classes are French, English (yes, for French speakers – it’s not a very difficult course), Russian, mathematics, physics and art. They are similar to the class schedules of my friends around the world; teachers around the world cannot be blamed for a lot of creativity in curricula. I was elected class president this year. The extracurriculars are the debate club, rowing on the Seine and Krav Maga. I also work on YouTube videos to teach French language and culture to American teenagers.
Everything was completely normal until last year when, on March 12, French President Macron announced that the whole country was going to lock down for COVID. We’re from Florida and realized it could happen so we treated it like a potential hurricane. Weeks ago we drove 45 minutes to the one at Costco in France and bought a lot of things including enough toilet paper to last until I graduated from high school.
Still, the lockdown has been difficult. The school went online and at first there was total chaos at the start. The teachers did not know how to connect. Many students did not have computers or tablets, and a few did not have the Internet. The French government ultimately said online courses would be compulsory but would not count towards our annual grades. In some classes, less than half of the children even showed up, especially as the lockdown continued month after month.
At the end of college, there is a test that helps decide what a person is going to do. Some children go to secondary school, but others will go to a “vocational school” where they learn a trade. There are a lot of trades to choose from: auto mechanic, baker (of French breads and pastries – yum), cook (of French cuisine, of course), hotelier, and even stonemason for old buildings and much more. They teach every job imaginable that doesn’t require a college degree.
The test that helps determine where a child will go is called the Brevet, but, thanks to COVID, it couldn’t have happened, so schools have used the annual test scores, the Brevet practice and guessing. I ended up finishing my college with a “Three coupons,” highest honors, and was sent to an academic high school. But I know a few children who have opted for vocational school. There is nothing wrong with it here. Honestly, a graduate of a French pastry or chef program – maybe even a stone sculptor – can probably earn as well or better than someone in the United States with many college degrees.
The lockouts ended over the summer and Macron encouraged everyone to take vacations saying it was good for the economy and good for people emotionally. In France it is compulsory to take two consecutive weeks of summer vacation after work and most people go somewhere. My parents are a little paranoid about COVID so we didn’t go anywhere but I have friends whose families were crazy and went everywhere; a friend took four different vacations. Fortunately, no one got sick.
The outdoor cafes were full of people all crowded together talking. Things didn’t look much different from other summers, except there weren’t any American tourists.
This school year started normally. Then the emails started: A child was COVID positive. Then another and another. Aside from the official announcements, everyone at school knew there were others who would disappear without telling at school. Finally, a few weekends ago there were three children, including a friend of mine, so school went every other day. The school called the class presidents to tell us and get our advice, which was good, but I’m not even 15 yet (soon, but not yet). They were asking a teenager to see how it would affect us emotionally. Unlike the United States, France cares a lot about our emotional well-being.
All over the world, children seem to have the same stories: school is open. The school is closed. Classes are online but everyone online is disconnected and bored. They make assumptions about the ratings, even though the ratings could mean a lot in the future.
I guess now we’re just waiting, going with the flow like fish in a fast flow where there’s not much we can do one way or another. My parents tell me it’s not normal at all, but it’s the only reality I know and it’s the same for all my friends, Europeans and Americans. My parents tell me that we will all grow up to be tougher and more resilient than other generations. I guess only time will tell.