This week I’m doing my Christmas lessons. Although church and state are completely separate in France, something we call a laic society, they still get around the whole Christmas debacle by treating it as a cultural subject. Also, the schools at the secondaire level (collège and lycée) tend to just let their assistants do whatever the hell they want and, dagnabit! I have some commercial Christmas cheer to spread!
My lessons have been a melange of wintery images, a little bit of Hawai’ian influenced cheer, the bulbous red light on a reindeer’s snout, and cinnamony sugary goodness.
I started off the lesson yesterday by comparing and contrasting the different ways Americans and French celebrate Christmas. Not a whole lot of differences to be had, except that they use shoes instead of stockings and that in French tradition there is also some sort of elf monster that rides alongside Père Noël and whips all of the horrible children (my follow up question to that is, if such a frightening creature exists in French lore, why aren’t more of my students good little boys and girls in class?). I also learned that the seemingly odd reference in Christmas carols to the arcane sounding ‘yule log’ does not just refer to a piece of wood, but is a log shaped cake, or in French, une bûche de Noël. I ate a piece of one this last weekend without realizing its significance.
First I showed images of the family home, covered in snow.
“C’est jolie!” they exclaimed. One girl who was particularly entranced, decided “Ok, I go to America now.”
Next I showed pictures of stockings being hung, the general mayhem of presents being opened, and finally, a snapshot of the family taken in front of the Christmas tree.
“Ah,” someone cooed, “A real American family. They are cute!”
After the display of the pictures it was onto my mom’s cookie recipe. I, being the little overachiever that I am, had not only prepared the cookies in question the night before, but had taken pictures of each step and projected them on the board. See below.
(nonexistent cookie pictures here)
But before I could give the kids their cookies, I explained that they would have to sing two songs. Luckily, teenagers in France are surprisingly eager to sing.
And then joy of joys; the speakers on the computer… just didn’t exist?
“Ah,” one of the boys surmised after methodically investigating the computer for the problem, the speakers (he mimed) “not here” he said.
So I took a deep breath, took an imaginary gulp of liquid courage, and said “Alright, we’ll do it without the music.”
Because it was my bright idea to tease the students by bringing up a state whose history they probably knew nothing about since it’s neither New York or California, I went in with the Christmas song, Mele Kalikimaka. This is a song that’s mostly in English but whose lyrics are about a sunny Christmas in Hawai’i, so not like the standard snowy lot we (at least the continental U.S.) language assistants share. And I wanted to wow them with something new and demonstrate that America isn’t just a monolingual place. But since the song was completely unknown to them, and because there was no music accompanying me, that meant I had to sing the words to the melody in full. LOUDLY.
My two previous Monday classes had prepared me for this moment. I learned that if you quietly sing along to the music, your students will sing just as timidly. They are afraid of sounding foolish singing in English so to calm their nerves, you’ve got to make an even bigger fool of yourself. If, like me, you have a bad voice, you’ve got to check your dignity at the door and just go for it. Oh, and bonus points if you throw in some extra bravado for your students to imitate.
Line by line I sang, my wavery notes gradually gaining strength. After hearing their echoing parody, my bravado built and built until I ended the last stanza with a flourish. Listen to Bing Crosby’s version of Mele Kalikimaka. Now imagine it without music. Now imagine that Bing Crosby can’t stay on pitch. That was me. The class applauded.
“Again?” I asked.
“Non, non!” The boys chorused, vigorously shaking their heads. Certainement not again.
Then it was on to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Embarrassingly, I didn’t have time to translate the lyrics to French on my own and so printed something off that was pre-translated. As we looked at it, I realized the words were a literal word-by-word interpretation, and therefore made absolutely no sense. So we worked through it more slowly, touching briefly on the social injustices of the story. Poor Rudolph, it wasn’t his fault that he was different! And then I had them sing it again without pausing between lines, at which time I also went around the room, distributing cookies. .
Now, let’s pause here for a second. I invite you to fully appreciate what I am just now realizing: singing at full capacity and prancing about the room, perchance twirling around a desk here and there, I doled out sweets to the happy singing students. All that’s missing is a cape and a choir of cute forest animals and I would be Snow White.
The class was such a success that afterward as I was packing up my stuff, one of the French teenagers invited me to take a cigarette with him and his friends outside.
Again, non, 17 year old French boy. I don’t smoke, but thanks for the offer. I simply responded, “Hugs not drugs,” (which I hope confused him thoroughly) and promptly left the room in case he figured out what that meant and took me up on the offer.
Ah, the experience of teaching in a French classroom. I’d take my group of surly, French teenagers over a choir of cute forest animals any day, especially if I can magically transform them into cheery English-singing students. And yes, that’s my idea of a good Disney film.
Mele Kalikimaka toute le monde!