French at Aquinas College
Miranda Burel '17
September 17, 2018
A year ago, I was a bundle of nerves.
Before last fall, I hadn’t spent more than five days in France in my whole life, despite having a French minor. Yet there I was, preparing to live in a country where I had a small understanding of the language and knew exactly one person. I was terrified.
I applied for the program on a whim. Monsieur Bédère had insisted for years that I study abroad in France (I went to Ireland), and in the penultimate semester of my fifth year, he pulled me aside and told me I should apply for TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France).
I laughed him off, claiming that I wasn’t qualified to do that, even though you only need a Bachelor’s degree, English fluency, and moderate French. And even if I was qualified, I told him I wouldn’t make the deadline, even though I had nearly two months. But after some minor self-reflection, and reminders that not getting accepted is the worst case scenario, I frantically emailed M. Bédère and M. Pichot over Christmas break and submitted the application in AB on my third day back to school.
Then, I had to wait. And I waited for a long time. In May, I graduated, not really knowing what my plans were, holding out hope that I would eventually move to France. It wasn’t until June that I was accepted, and not until the end of July that I found out my school placement: I would be teaching 9 hours a week at a lycée (high school) in Boulogne sur Mer and 3 hours a week at a collège (middle school) in Wimille. In August, I traveled to Chicago, twice, to get my visa, and in September, I blindly rented an apartment, packed up my suitcase, and left. In October, I began.
My first week was overwhelming. I had dinner my first night with my prof référent, Mélanie, and her family, and the next day I was introduced to all the other English teachers, my new colleagues. I explored town and walked around the ramparts of the ville fortifiée where my flat was. I went to the sea. I went to training in Lille with about 200 teaching assistants from other languages including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and German. I took videos of my flat and the garden and bought cheese and wine and consumed them while dancing alone in my apartment. It was euphoric. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
And I was.
Meeting my students was frightening and thrilling. I taught 12 hours a week, and my classes were split in half, so I would get 30 minutes with each group. For weeks we spoke in broken Franglish, using translators and hand gestures and photographs to try and get our point across. I told them about Grand Rapids and how Aquinas had as many students as their entire school. I disappointed them when I told them I’d never been to New York or Hollywood, and I didn’t know who Johnny Hallyday was (RIP). We played games and talked about Harry Potter and danced to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” because that was the only Christmas song they knew.
While there, I developed a deep appreciation for the French school system. That’s not to say I don’t have issues with it, but as a teacher’s assistant doing her gap year in Europe, it was kind of a dream. They’re in session for six weeks, then they break for two, and the system repeats.
Within my first month of living in France, I traveled to Paris, Budapest, and Vienna. For Christmas I went to Oslo, then Dublin, and back to dear old Tullycross. I went to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, London, and Bath for spring break. I finished my time in France by traveling back to Budapest, Vienna, and swinging by Prague. I even traveled to Oxford and Stratford upon Avon with my students on a field trip to England. Beyond the breaks, it was remarkably easy to travel on weekends, too. I frequently went to Lille and Brussels and could have gone further if I didn’t love my new little home so much.
I am unbelievably lucky that I got to travel as much as I did. But I’m even luckier that, near the end of every great trip, I got so excited to go back and see my students. I almost always had fun with them. I’ll admit there were a lot of days where I didn’t want to go teach, and I would complain about it even though it was an incredibly easy and fun job. But every class that I left, I felt fulfilled. Countless classes were filled with laughter, and by Friday, I would walk home feeling lighter and happier than I had all week.
More than that, I was surrounded by so many good and helpful people. Everyone I worked with was kind and welcoming, and a few of them became very close friends. I found it easy to get along with other assistants, had Sunday roast and game nights with my professors and their families, I went to the sea year round, took time for myself, and enjoyed what I had even though I knew my time was limited.
I know that not everyone’s experience as a teacher’s assistant is a good one, and there were times mine wasn’t either. But in hindsight, it was an opportunity I’m so glad I took. I got to travel through Europe and meet people I never would have met. I become stronger in a language I loved and took time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do next. It was seven months filled with growth and change and self discovery, and I am extraordinarily thankful I ended up taking that step. I wouldn’t change trade for the world.