"La Rentrée": Stage 1 of my education as a parent in France

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008. Day one, year one, of my son’s first “rentrée”. We moved to France in June ...

This contribution was made an American mother who has recently moved to Paris

La Rentrée: Stage 1 of my education as a parent in France

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008. Day one, year one, of my son’s first rentrée. We moved to France in June and Stephen turned six last month. An American style kindergarten has been his only “school” experience up until now. (I put school in quotation marks because, from what I can tell, school in France and school in the US are two very different adventures.)

The public schools in our area of Paris have a good reputation, so we didn’t really take the time, or have the time, to consider other options. The administrative obstacle course to register him for a public school came to an end, or so I though, almost 6 weeks ago. There were several false starts at the first obligatory stop , the office of affaires scolaires at the mairie. Something was always missing i.e., passports for myself, my husband and my son, up to date vaccination certificates for Stephen and proof of residence. This proof is usually a recent gas and electricity bill, but we haven’t yet received our first statement so the office employee told me that a copy of the apartment lease plus a letter from the proprietor would be an acceptable substitute. On the third visit, I finally had it right and I left the mairie confident.

I hoped to immediately go to Stephen’s new school with the registration slip the bureau des affaires scolaires had given me so that the headmistress could add his name to the school roster, but it was too late. It was mid-June and the school was closed for the summer. No problem though, in September I only had to give the papers to the school head on the first day of school and that would be that.

As it turned out, things weren’t quite so simple. The different classes didn’t all start at the same time on the first day of school and the CPs or first graders began only at 9:30am. My husband and I brought Stephen at 9 so that we could meet the headmistress, give her the documents and, hopefully, say a word or two his new teacher.

We aren’t the only parents wanting to see the headmistress that morning, but luckily priority is given to families whose children aren’t yet officially on the list. We are told that the school had opened on September 1st, and that we could have done this yesterday, but now we would have to wait before being received. After 10 minutes or so my husband, in a hurry to get over to his still new office, assures me that Stephen and I can handle this by ourselves. After all, I am the one who took French in college, and I am the one who will be doing the talking.

The wait seems long, but the directrice finally signals us to come. She greets us with a polite “Bonjour Madame, bonjour jeune homme.” and a hand shake for both of us. We respond likewise, I give her the documents and we sit down in the chair across from her desk, me on the edge and Stephen in back of me. I thought this would be quick, but her manner indicates differently. She looks over the papers twice — a letter from his kindergarten and all of the documents I had previously taken to the mairie — as if she is trying to find something wrong.

Et le certificate médical?” Yes, I had forgotten it; forgotten to take him to a doctor to get the certificate of aptitude the employee at the mairie had mentioned almost as an afterthought as we were leaving the office – last June. The vaccinations are up to date, we have the enrollment slip from the bureau of school affairs, surely this isn’t going to jeopardize his first day of school. Stephen seems totally oblivious to all of this, so I stay calm. The headmistresses just keeps shuffling through the papers. She asks me if Stephen knows how to read and seems disappointed that he does! Then she asks him to write his name, which he prints out for her in big, uncertain letters. She watches and remarks that the children in his class are already writing their names in cursive by now.

Then comes the big surprise. The office des affaires scolaires has made a mistake. This is not the school he belongs in, not the school of our “secteur”. Besides, she tells us, both of her CP classes are full. However, she will pick up the phone, right this minute, to call the primary school that corresponded to our home address and tell them we are on our way over.

I can’t believe it. We live three minutes away from this school and I am going to have to take him to one that is at best, I imagine, ten minutes from the house. I sit quietly, patting the little legs that stick out from the back of the chair, while she talks with the principal of the other school. The conversation seems very business like and is relatively short. She hangs up and announces that the CP class in the “right” school is not only full, but full and running over. ”Vous avez de la chance!” she says pointing to our address on the admissions slip. Yes, very lucky! And, I have the impression, off of the hook. She confirms my optimism and writes Stephen’s name on the roster. He’s in!

Now, it’s Stephen who is beginning to look worried. Madame la directrice doesn’t waste anymore time. She will show him to his class, he will be bringing home a list of school supplies at lunch —this explains those heavy bags I noticed the school children lugging around — no, I won’t be able to meet his teacher and I mustn’t forget to bring that medical certificate in before Friday. “Embrasse ta maman”, she tells him. We opt for a big hug and off he goes to his first day of school.

And lunch? I have forgotten to ask about lunch. I manage to blurt out the question before she sweeps him away. “ La Cantine?” she says glancing back at me as they disappear down the hall. “C’est plein; plus de places. Après le toussaint peut-être”. No room until after Halloween? I don’t see what connection there could possibly be between Halloween and vacancies in the lunchroom, and after this first morning , I'm not going to ask.

My French friends tell me that French public schools are the best in the world, and for now I'm taking their word for it. But, as contradictory as it may seem, I understand that there isn’t a place to be had the private schools here!

  • Notes after week 1.

I don’t understand why the directrice seemed disappointed that Stephen had started reading. I struck up a conversation with a French mother who told me her 6 year old knows how to read and she seemed sure that others do too.

The first list of school supplies was followed by a second, and I have the impression that it’s not over yet.

Do they really use all of those notebooks with the tiny lines? And the ones with the little squares?

The teacher does want him to write in cursive. Big stress, I have a feeling .

There was a note from the teacher in his carnet de correspondance requesting a meeting with both parents. We’ll finally be able to meet her!


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