Expat Story: Lessons in cursing

Expat Story: Lessons in cursing

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Newly-arrived Amber in Normandy accidentally uttered a swear word in French when faced with a class of third-graders who simply would not listen.

I was charged with the care and well-being of 200-ish young French school children, aged seven to 10 throughout three country schools. They made up a total of eight classes. Some went smoothly almost every time. Others though, made me wish I’d pursued engineering instead of education.

Every day, I attempted to fill their little minds with visions of New York and Chicago, teaching them expressions such as “Hey! What’s up?” and, for a culture of eternal romantics, “I’m in love!”

I thought I knew it all— I had the world at my fingertips. I was a fresh graduate from university, ready to tackle the world with my loving (but vulgar as I came to learn much later) French fiancé. Within minutes of my arrival in this grand country, upon hopping in the car and taking off from the airport, I’d already started to learn some of the most useful French I’d ever learn —anything and everything that is acceptable to say in traffic when someone cuts you off at a roundabout without signalling, and not in a classroom.

Little did I know that fiancés don’t come with parental advisory warnings.

I had one group of seven- and eight-year olds who were particularly rowdy. They prided themselves on doing as little work as possible, and filling all of that dead space with idle chitchat.

I would stand up in front of the class, trying to persuade them that repeating after me is fun, and that everybody loves to learn a new language. And if all else fails, I would resort to bribes: “If you repeat after me, we can play a game.” Sometimes it worked, but usually it was in vain; there was no motivating these kids.

My powers of persuasion didn’t have the same effect here as they did back home, with a group of sweet little angels who always did everything I ever asked. Or maybe that’s just my selective amnesia kicking in.


Finally, I resorted to my last option: randomly call on students to participate. Once I’d expired all of my students whose names I knew because they were well-behaved, I moved onto those whose names I knew solely because they were constantly written on the blackboard with an assorted number of Xs beside them.

Tension and frustration was building within me as my patience waned thinner and thinner as each second passed slowly on my watch.

“Mathieu,” I said desperately, hoping to have made a good choice. “No,” he replied, arms crossed, blonde curls wagging back and forth as he shook his head indicating that he was not in the slightest bit interested in participating.

With my blood pressure rising as the time mounted, I didn’t even stop to think as the words came gushing out of my mouth.

“I don’t care” is what I had harmlessly intended to say. What I ended up saying was more along the lines Rhett Butler’s most famous line in Gone with the Wind “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”.

Something I’d intended to say so innocently had turned sour so quickly.

Mathieu’s eyes grew wide, and others soon followed. Their little jaws, littered with wiggly and gaping teeth fell to their desks. Their little arms fell to the side as they stared, blankly at me. Two seconds felt like a lifetime.

Once the initial shock had passed came the aftershock shrill laughter of 20 seven- and eight-year olds. I turned beet red, hiding my face in my hands and that’s when I said a bad word.

No sooner had it left my mouth that I realised I’d confused the two very similar words that start with f – fiche, which is harmless, and fous, which is, in the language of children, potty talk.

I stuttered, stumbled, grasping at my composure and trying to pull myself back together. Why had I done something so stupid?

I felt the temperature rising, the hair on the back of my neck standing up and that familiar sinking feeling in my stomach. My lack of patience quickly turned to anger as I heaved deeply, pursed my lips, and raised an arm, pointing towards the door.

“OUT!” I said, to seven of the most rowdy children, jettisoning them into the hall where they landed in a disgruntled pile wondering what they’d done wrong. It was a last effort to regain something resembling composure in the classroom, but there was no use-- the teacher had said a bad word. That takes any and all priority in a classroom filled with third-graders.

Needless to say, my lesson was over. I shuffled my papers together, clutching them to my chest as I fled. I’d reached the point of no return.

Letting my flight instinct get the best of me, I shut the door hard and mumbled as I made an excuse to the teacher who was in the room next door, saying that her kids were just too wild to teach that day, and lowered my head in shame as I cowered out of the building, hoping that I wouldn’t get a call from the school board telling me I’m fired- or worse, a call from the PTA telling me that I’m a horrendous example for children and should have my mouth washed out with soap.

Neither of the above happened. I survived my first of many slip-ups as I came to call them later on, but became more and more comfortable blaming them on my ignorance because that was something the citizens of France could grasp and empathise with. This poor, young American girl with her stupid-monkey-French who is completely ignorant and doesn’t know a gros mot from a salutatory greeting. Oh, poor dear!

While that was not entirely true, it gave me the excuse I needed to excuse myself and be forgiven for my gaffe. I just never imagined there would be so many vulgar expressions in a language filled with so much passion and love. Apparently the passion goes both ways.

I learned an important lesson that day that would have been apparent to any outsider looking in, watching the train wreck, screaming at the conductor to just pull the breaks and stop! But somehow it never dawned on me in my ex-patriot, far from home, head-in-the-clouds daze: Do not repeat car language outside of the car. Simple as that.
Lesson learned. Class dismissed.

Amber / Expatica

Reprinted from ExpatWomen.com, the largest free global website helping expatriate women living overseas. Do you also have a tale to tell about your life in France? If so, we’d love to hear it! Your story could be based on a real-life experience or be fictitious. Click here to send your story!

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