“Are they going to survive?” I asked Franck.
I clutched the white metal gate as I watched our two daughters make their way through the preschool playground. I had never seen such a place of utter lawlessness.
Despite the larger than life statue of the Virgin Mary that loomed over the courtyard, French children were punching each other, taunting each other, and bullying each other while a cluster of three teachers stood well off to the side of the mayhem, chatting as they sipped coffee out of china espresso cups. I had learned about the French laissez-faire philosophy in Grade Eleven history class and here it was in action. It would have been entertaining to watch if not for the fact that Franck and I had just jettisoned our daughters into the deep end of it all.
Two and a half year old Camille in her yellow sundress and white sandals glanced back at us and furrowed her dark eyebrows. She lifted her shoulders and lowered her head as she marched straight to her classroom door. She made eye contact with no-one. I couldn’t take it, I just had to make sure she-
I began to open the gate, wincing as it made a screeching sound.
“Non! Non! Non Madame Germain!” One of the teachers in the cluster shook her finger at me. “No parents allowed in the courtyard during school hours!”
“How did she see me?” I turned to Franck. “She didn’t even turn around when that red haired kid was yelling for help when the other boy was beating him to a pulp.”
“They see what they want to see,” Franck said, putting his hand over mine and closing the gate. There was more metallic squealing and the teachers heads all snapped in our direction.
“I bet they don’t have the gate oiled on purpose,” I muttered.
I noticed Franck’s knuckles were looking rather white as well. “Allez,” he said. “We must leave them.”
I caught sight of four and a half year old Charlotte walking to her classroom, which was unluckily located at the far end of the schoolyard. Her blond hair was pulled up with two ladybug barrettes and she dragged the Barbapapa that we had bought her the day before. She smiled at a boy who was running in her direction. He shoved her as he ran by and knocked her cartable off kilter. Charlotte steadied herself and kept walking with that brave smile still plastered on her face. A little girl with angelic blond braids stuck her tongue out at my daughter. Charlotte was blinking back tears by the time she reached the classroom door, even though she was still smiling. She saw us and gave us a small wave that was so courageous it made my heart feel like it was splitting in two.
Franck had to drag me back up the path and out the heavy wooden doors of the school that were promptly locked behind us.
Once we were in the parking lot I threw myself against his chest. “We’ve made a terrible mistake,” I mumbled in his T-shirt.
The girls weren’t even supposed to be going here to Sacred Heart in Beaune, they had been all signed up to attend the village schools in Magny-les-Villers and Villers-la-Faye. Three days ago a teacher friend of Franck’s had phoned to tell him they couldn’t take Camille – there were simply too many children in her year. We had been left scrambling to find a school for the girls so we could have some time to work. Franck had thought of Sacred Heart because it was where I had gone to school during my Rotary year in Burgundy. They luckily – or so I had thought at the time – had spots for both of our daughters. Now I knew why Sacrée Coeur wasn’t full like most other schools; this place was where Burgundian society put all the hardened future criminals.
Franck kissed the top of my head. “We just need to give it time Laura. We all have to adapt. I went to preschool in France and – régardez! – I’m still here.”
I stared at the now locked doors. “I can’t stand the thought of my girls locked in there with all of those horrible French children and the teachers who don’t care if they get kill-“
“We had good reasons for coming back to France,” Franck interrupted. “Not just for us, but for them.”
Maybe we did, but my daydreams of family outings to Beaune’s market, introducing the girls to pain au chocolat and escargots, and having them become completely bilingual in French had lost all meaning.
“I can’t remember why they were so compelling, can you?” I asked Franck.
Franck glanced at the closed doors and frowned. “Not at the moment, to be honest. I do know one thing though.”
“Stéphanie told me about a Judo class that Tom takes. After we pick up the girls from school today we’re going straight there to sign them up.”