Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Øieblikket Part 3

One might wonder why I haven’t been talking much about France. Why am I still prating about philosophy, eternity and politics? Don’t I realize I have to prepare for a big trip?

I do, actually. Sarah and I are currently gathering the necessary documents for our visas. We’ll have to get temporary (3-month) visas, then apply for student visas once we’re in the country. We’ve decided to look for an apartment once we arrive; Dr. and Mrs. Hubbard have generously agreed to let us stay with them while we search, and word on the street is that the best way to find a good place is to make contacts who’ll know about places you can’t find online. The Ithaca practice of signing a contract to lease an apartment 4–6 months before you move in is apparently unheard of in Marseille. Once you’ve got a place, you move in right away. That’s what we hear, anyway. We’re playing this by ear; it’s only 9 months of living, after all.

The thing is, time and transience are on my mind precisely because of the upcoming trip. I have gone through several moves in my life, and I was sure some of them would carry radical changes. I’ve learned that I adapt quickly to a change in environment. But I’ve also observed that the change is never quite as sudden and shocking as I expect it to be.

Take Peace Corps. I was more nervous about teaching than I was about living in an African village. Living just means taking care of myself; teaching means the responsibility to imbue (or preferably educe, as some of the Cornell faculty would have it) understanding in whole classes of students. “Begin teaching” was the great barrier. But you don’t become a teacher all at once, as I was afraid I’d have to do. During training, one day in the first few weeks, I went from being someone who’d never stood in front of a classroom before (not entirely true; I did audit the math teaching methods course at St. Olaf, where I had to give a couple of sample lessons—thanks, Dr. Wallace) to someone who’d given a ten-minute lecture on some 8th grade algebra topic. By the end of training, we’d had to plan four week-long courses, two at a time, on fuller topics (one of which was Thales’ theorem for 10th grade, as I’ve mentioned before; the others were a 7th grade session on decimal numbers, an 11th grade session on analytic geometry, and a session on probability for Terminale—like 13th grade). Moreover, we’d practiced writing out a plan for an entire year. When I got to Kérouané, I still didn’t know what I was doing. But neither did my students; I didn’t find out until a couple of months into school that my 9th graders had not had a math teacher in 8th grade, and after I learned that I was amazed they were doing as well as they had been. We seemed to be able to guide each other in useful directions. No moment came that declared, “Now you are a teacher.” Being a teacher came in small steps.

I use this as an example of adaptation. It’s not sudden; it’s not a time when everything must come together in an instant. I’m having to remind myself of that. I expect adjusting to France will take almost as much effort as adjusting to Guinea did, particularly since the time in which I’ll have to do so is more compressed. But I don’t have to fit in immediately. The necessary steps will come. One day I’ll look back and realize, “Hey, I’ve become a French grad student.” Which isn’t nearly so great as becoming a teacher, but will be nice to reach anyway.

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