One of my priorities for my time after retiring was to go back to my “career roots” and play with kids in child care. After five months of negotiating the French bureaucracy, I have finally been cleared to play with kids at the crèche. I received a letter from the president of the commune in which he confirmed that he had approved my request to volunteer at the center next door to our apartment.
I consider myself extremely fortunate. Ex-pat friends and French friends made me feel very unlikely to succeed in my efforts. The ex-pats said that they had been rebuffed in their efforts to volunteer. The French friends explained the French system and the belief that if the government and the unions had set the appropriate and correct staffing, volunteers would be redundant. Both explained that the French unions also looked askance at volunteers because of the threat of replacing paid employment with a volunteer (much like America’s Head Start program… in which the goal was to garner ‘parent involvement’ but was also a way of keeping staffing costs low…)
The steps were: an informal phone call offering to volunteer followed by a formal letter in which I had to specify my intentions followed by my resume in English and French followed by my certificate of insurance followed by my criminal history clearance (THANKS Jim!). I finally got to meet with the director again and to set up a volunteer schedule. The director had asked her staff who would be willing to take on the responsibility of orienting an American who spoke less French than the kids in the three-year old group… Luckily for me, Frédérique was willing. She has been a real friend – meaning she has been patient with my mistakes in French.
It has been as much fun as I could have predicted. The staff members are all very professional and take their work seriously which makes my role even easier. I haven't met all of the staff yet, but in my short experience, the focus is on the kids - not between the adults. I haven’t asked the specific question related to ratios, but it appears that Frédérique has two assistants and the three of them are responsible for 10 kids. (The 10 kids are all two-/young three-year olds. There may be more than 10 but that is the number of kids who were present last week.)
At “circle time” yesterday, another lead teacher asked me to teach the kids a word game in English. I was not ready for the question – I expected that I needed to learn their songs and word games – so I reverted to “Five little monkeys jumping on the bed…” I will do better.
My time at the crèche should also help improve my French vocabulary. At the end of the afternoon, when we brought the kids in from playing outside, I sat and read books with the kids - mostly picture books for toddlers - but every page or so, I came upon a word that I didn't know or rarely use... For example, raccoon is raton laveur – nice of the French to include the washing function (laveur) in the name. ¿Why is it that the raccoon usually gets the role of sidekick of the protagonist bird/fox/rabbit/caterpillar…?
I had to smile to myself when one of the teachers came over to me and, after offering an insight into the behavior of one of the kids, asked about my background. The questions were fairly light but after asking her questions, I watched as she reported to her colleagues. (The director had told them that I had experience in working with kids but apparently not much more.) I expect that they already have an idea of what a handful I will be…
We took the kids to the library (two children per adult as per the field trip rules) for story time and I learned more songs and words and expressions. At the library, the librarian/story teller asked one of the boys his name. He replied: “Gabing.” His Provençal accent was about the strongest that I have heard from the kids. (In this area, people add a “G” to the end of words ending in “N.”) On the way back from the library, I said to the two children who were holding my hands: “I can’t wait to get to the crèche so we can eat our shoes!” To which even the younger of the two said: “We don’t eat shoes! We eat food!”
And eat well! Yesterday, the lunch was calamari and wild rice in a light cream sauce, beets, apple slices, yogurt and, of course, pieces of baguette. I asked Gabin what wine he would prefer with his calamari but he replied: “more water, please.”
One “snotty-nosed” boy came over to participate in the story I was reading. His nose ran all the way to his chin. How do you say Kleenex in French? I said: “Ça coul. Allons chercher un mouchoir.” (That flows. Let’s go find a handkerchief.) – but, of course, not soon enough. He gave me a hug and left his calling card all over my sleeve…
I have discovered that as I try to memorize the names of the kids and the staff, it seems that foreign names are harder to memorize… Or maybe it is my age… I am, after all, 15 Celsius…
The neatest aspect of the volunteer experience is confirming how of one world we all are. The laughter at my clowning or at my poor French, the joy and excitement of kids explaining everyday events or creating fantasy or the kindness of kids towards each other are the same in any language or culture.