TAPIF: One Year Later

At the beginning of October 2014, I began my year in Compiègne with the Teaching Assistant Program in France. One year ago.

I was supposed to arrive at the end of September, but plane engine issues coupled with airport strikes in Paris (Ah, la joie des grèves françaises!) delayed my arrival in France by 10 hours. However, I arrived. And what a year I had!

When many people describe a profound experience, they say it “changed my life.” This often implies that something (a quality, an idea, a person) was missing before the event took place. My seven months in Compiègne were not life-changing in the sense that I became someone I wasn’t. Rather, I changed because qualities that lay dormant in me were revived and strengthened, and even some faults were diminished. I begin to think that growth is not so much an addition or subtraction as it is a refinement of spirit. If God formed us fearfully and wonderfully, He must have given us everything we need to go through life, and sends people or experiences into our lives accordingly to draw out and refine these different qualities in us.

I’m not going to write a “listicle” for this topic because it’s too simple. Rather, I’ll just share two of the most poignant lessons from my time in France, hopefully in a semi-coherent manner.

I’ll be honest: I’m no expert on children.  I took a babysitting class in middle school, but there were never any kids in my neighborhood to babysit, and my youngest cousins lived far away. I never took a pedagogy class in college. So no, I didn’t really know what I was in for when I accepted a position teaching middle school English. Since I returned home, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from prospective teaching assistants expressing the same fear: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taught anyone anything! How am I supposed to teach them for a whole year?” To those assistants who might be reading this post: you don’t need a long resume of teaching experience to do this. You just need to be a resource.

On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, and many of France’s prominent political cartoonists were killed. The next day, I walked into my weekly conversation club with a lesson all ready. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Miss, can we talk about Charlie Hebdo?” I could see the fear and pain in the eyes of my 12- and 13-year-old students, so I agreed. We spent the whole hour discussing the event (in English) and I said very little. The class carried the conversation all on its own. My only remark was at the end of the lesson: “There are many people in the United States who are thinking of you and who support you.”

Kids are used to adults not taking them seriously. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, and I’m sure it was the same for you. The best thing you can be for any child is a willing listener.

Outside from teaching, I became bolder. I learned bite the bullet of fear and take chances, especially when it came to meeting new friends.

There is a stereotype that the French are not as friendly and open as Americans are. In my experience, this is only partly true. Most of the French people I met were very friendly and open, especially once they found out I could speak French well. But it was not the same smothering friendliness that you often see from Americans. It was a reserved politeness that slowly, organically developed into friendship.

I found out about the Communauté Chrétienne des Étudiants (Catholic community at the local university), a week or two after I arrived. It took me another month to work up the courage to attend a meeting. What sort of community was this? What if they never had an international student before? What if my French wasn’t good enough? And was I even allowed to join because I wasn’t a student?

God makes swift work of our doubts when we trust Him and take a leap of faith. I attended my first CCE Mass and dinner in November, and my only regret was not going sooner! In this community, I found warm, welcoming people from all over France and the world who cared about me and made me feel at home. Some of my best memories of the year come from this community. It was so wonderful to make real French friends!

And of course, I can’t forget the other language assistants I met from all over the world, an eclectic little family of expats that supported one another exploring a new country. And abundant kindness flowed in from my roommates, my coworkers, my students and their families, and even the everyday compiègnois. Most greeted me with a kind bonjour and smile, and many went beyond the call of politeness, inviting me to dinners and parties, or taking me on excursions to tourist sites in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to leave a place that had become like home in less than a year.

Toward the end of my stay, I thanked as many people as I could in person for their welcome and hospitality. One friend responded,  “It was nothing. You were so dynamic and happy that you fit right in.”

Goodness attracts goodness. You don’t have to be an outgoing or extroverted person to find friends in a strange land. You just need to be present, be open, be kind. There will be times of loneliness and homesickness, and that’s OK. But if you have courage enough to reach outside of yourself, you will make a home wherever you go.

Merci à tous qui m’a très bien accueillir pendant mon séjour à Compiègne. And bon courage to all the new language assistants in France this year.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Loving Regina George

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(Photo credit to shame-full.com)

I’M BAAAACK!!! (in the States, that is.)

Don’t get me wrong; I loved my life in France. But one of the things I missed the most about America was my college’s Catholic community. I was reminded of how much I missed it three weeks ago during our Fall Retreat. Our theme for the weekend was community: what it is, how we could strengthen our bonds of community at our school, and how we could bring that same spirit of community to the rest of the world.

One of the most poignant and challenging talks of the weekend came from one of our new campus ministers. He talked about community through the lens of Jean Vanier’s book “Community and Growth.” Vanier is a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded L’Arche, a community for adults with developmental disabilities that has offshoots all over the world. One part of the book discusses enemies, or people we don’t like for one reason or another. How can we love them as God loves us? Vanier says that in order to build community throughout the world, we have to recognize that every single person has flaws and virtues alike.

During that section, one scene from Mean Girls played through my head. Cady (Lindsay Lohan) demands of Aaron Samuels what good he sees in his girlfriend, queen bee Regina George (Rachael McAdams). Aaron retorts with, “There’s good and bad in everybody. Regina’s just more up front about it.”

I think everyone can name one or two people in their lives who were their own Regina Georges — people who were just so mean and nasty that you couldn’t help but hate them. After our campus minister finished his talk, I realized how much of a grudge I still held for my own Regina Georges, even though hadn’t seen them since high school! I still associated anger, pain and malice with their memories because I had never found a constructive outlet through which I could express my feelings (and no, I’m not talking about hitting them over the head with a croquet mallet.) Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I hate confrontation. I just can’t do it. Even though these few individuals in high school were mean to me and to others, I could never bring myself to tell it to their faces. So I turned to God.

When I got back to my room that night, I wrote in my journal: “10 Things I Admire About ________” I made myself list 10 different things for each person. It was hard! I had to let go of my prejudices and see these people for who they really were: flawed human beings, yet beloved children of God. To each list, I added a bonus #11: “He/She is my brother/sister in Christ, therefore I should love them accordingly.” As soon as I finished, a wave of relief washed over me, as if my heart had just dropped a heavy burden that it had been carrying for many years. Jesus calls us to forgive one another, every single time, every single day. Believe me when I say forgiveness doesn’t just heal the person you forgive; it heals you, the forgiver.

Vanier also suggests that our enemies are a reflection of our own flaws: “Their presence seems to awaken our own poverty, guilt feelings and inner wounds; it seems menacing and brings out in us either aggression or a sort of fear and servile regression…Others bring out our envy and jealousy; they are everything we wish we were ourselves. Their presence reminds us of what we are not; their radiance and their intelligence underline our own poverty.”

When I looked over the lists I had made, the one trait that dominated them was confidence. These people knew their worth, and would walk into a room with their heads held high, talking to anyone and everyone with no trouble at all. These are traits that I don’t have. Therefore, I saw their confidence as arrogance and ridiculed them, thinking “I’m better than them because I tear myself down daily, become a wallflower at parties, and tell myself I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, etc.” That is a false sense of modesty. True modesty says “I am beautifully and wonderfully made, but not more or less so than anyone else in the world.”

So if you’re butting heads with your own Regina George, try making a list of his or her most admirable qualities. If you prefer, you can change #11 to: “This person is a human being, with both flaws and virtues. Therefore, I should treat them with the same amount of respect and love that I would show the person I love the most.” Even if it doesn’t change this person’s attitude toward you, it will change the way you act and think about them, and the world will be a little more peaceful for it. Remember, we are all human, and God loves us all.

À bientôt!

Vicky