So, there I was having entered Junior School, having learned what a tin of sardines was in French in some very bad French lessons at school, moving to a foreign country with very little preparation and just the sense that this would be a big adventure. I didn’t want to go until I was told we were going to be living in a ‘mansion’. Nice house, but not that nice.
I had absolutely no idea how difficult it would be.
I was put into a francophone school, two form entry where only one other person spoke English. She was American but had been there a long time and I think enjoyed the status of being the only foreigner. All I can remember is how she sneered at me. It took me two terms to learn French: by the end of the first term I could understand everything and by the second I could pretty much say everything I needed to. There were moments though.
I remember not starting my Maths problems because I was in the back row of the class throwing up into my hands as the school was far too formal for me to just run out of the class. The teacher asked why I hadn’t started and my neighbour pointed out that I was being sick and I remember thinking, oh that’s what throwing up in French is (“vomir” or informally “dégueuler”).
We were lining up in the corridor to go to confession as it was a RC school. Somebody accidentally tripped over my feet so I was accused of having to do it deliberately. I was banned from confession which upset me not at all and had to spend time with the year above. What made that afternoon difficult was that I didn’t know what “to trip” was in French (“faire un croche-pied”) so I couldn’t explain what I had, or hadn’t done wrong.
She, whatever her name was, had it in for me. We had to queue up for the school bus and she would always accuse me of queue jumping, “dépasseuse” and be abusive until I let her and her friends in front. It all sounds so trivial, but it hurt.
At the end of the first year I was jumped a year as I got on better with the year above. It was slightly better but the damage had been done and everyone knew they were free to pick on me without fear of retaliation. There was of course resentment that I had avoided a year of school. Some of them were nice to me but quite frankly it was too little and too late.
So why didn’t I retaliate? I didn’t know how. My parents didn’t believe in violence, and neither do I. They also didn’t believe in making a fuss, in complaining when something was wrong. They certainly didn’t believe in standing up and saying “I’m not happy with this.” I was supposed to walk away and ignore what was happening. I had no sense that I could stand up for myself or even that I could complain to the teachers.
So three years of being bullied and then secondary school. My father had chosen one for me and I begged to go to the one where the majority of my peers were going. I think I was so scared about the prospect of starting again, even though a clean slate would have done me good as I wouldn’t have stood out as much with fluent French, that I wanted the familiarity of those I knew. For once in his life he listened to me and agreed.
It was a mistake as the pattern continued. I learned to take a book to school to read at playtime. I did make one new friend and I used to go round to her house sometimes. She I trusted enough to ask her what slang phrases meant, phrases that I would have been laughed at for asking anyone else and that my parents would have known (or told me if they had!) My French teacher hated me too; I later met the only other English student who had been to that school who had similar problems but had somehow managed to resolve them. This was the one teacher whose extra support I needed but by the end of the second year she was threatening me with repeating the year. That and the fact that I would have to start learning English as a foreign language without chance of escape was I think what finally persuaded my father to change schools for me, although my mother put it down to a letter she wrote to him. I was dreading the idea of English as I had no formal learning in grammar or spelling in English and had the feeling that any mistake would be treated with derision.
So I was transferred to the British School, a highly expensive type of school designed for children of diplomats who might be changing countries on a regular basis and therefore needed to settle in quickly. Many of the children were there for the whole duration but there were some people in and out quite quickly (I remember meeting Amina, who had come from Africa and had never seen snow before and watching the joy on a 13 year old as she sees snowflakes for the first time). I made a bad friend at first, a leader who had her little coterie and picked and chose people according to whim. I realised that it was her, not me, which helped when she dumped me and I made my first proper friend who had just moved over from England. I settled in, enjoyed the informality of the school and the fact that I moved from being bottom at French to joint top. I was finally happy.
After two terms at this school, my parents and I moved back to England.