WeWriWa—Madame Druillet’s kindness


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’ve gone back to my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors during the early postwar years. We’re now in Part IV, “An Exile Driven on By Fate,” in which the friends travel through Italy and France before finding a place to call home before immigrating.

The friends are currently staying in Nantes, France, the home of almost-15-year-old Marie Sternglass. Though Marie was full of hope and excitement when they arrived, those feelings have completely disappeared after rude treatment by old acquaintances, discovering another family living in her old house and refusing to give her back any of her belongings, and learning her father didn’t survive.

I’ve skipped ahead quite a bit so I can start my Halloween-themed excerpts next week. In this scene, Marie and her friends are in the home of her mother’s friend Eléonore Druillet. Though Madame Druillet has some special belongings which Marie’s mother gave her for safekeeping, and promised to speak to a policeman friend for help with reclaiming the things in the house, Marie barely reacts to these happy developments.

L’An 2440, Rêve S’il en Fut Jamais (The Year 2440, A Dream If There Ever Were One) is a French version of Rip Van Winkle.

View of Cimetière Miséricorde in Nantes, Copyright Llann Wé²

Mme. Druillet served them a snack of hard-boiled eggs, tomato and carrot salad, macarons, pralines, opera cake, and hot chocolate. As they ate, Mme. Druillet made smalltalk with Caterina, Artur, Imre, and Júlia, and taught the others the French words for some basic objects in the apartment. Marie didn’t say much of anything, and just picked at her food. She was still picking at her food when everyone else had finished eating, and her hot chocolate had grown rather lukewarm.

Mme. Druillet set the tableware in the sink and went into her bedroom. Several minutes later, she returned with a black mink coat draped over her left arm, an antique lamp in her right hand, several books tucked under her left arm, and a framed photo of Marie’s parents on their wedding day and a peacock feather fan in her left hand. Marie barely looked at these items, though she caressed the fur coat.

“Those were her favorite books,” Mme. Druillet said. “She knew she couldn’t save all her books, but she wanted these in particular to come back to. She also gave me all sixteen volumes of The Human Comedy, which are in a trunk under my bed.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Marie mutely looked at the books, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Three Musketeers, and L’An 2440, Rêve S’il en Fut Jamais. She’d often looked at these books on her parents’ shelves and dreamt about the day she’d be old enough to read them, and all the other adult books in the house. Now they represented the life she’d once had, the life that was hers no more. Books on shelves were things for other people, happy people with intact families in their own homes. Not war orphans who no longer knew how to be normal.

“Look in the coat pockets, Marise. I hid the rest of the items in there.”

Marie catatonically reached her hand into each pocket in turn and pulled out French hook garnet earrings, a sapphire necklace, an aquamarine bracelet, several costume rings and bracelets, pink pearl hairpins, emerald clasp earrings, and a turquoise necklace. Though her eyes normally sparkled at the sight of jewelry, now she just mutely regarded each piece as though they were insignificant scraps of paper.

Why are so many U.S. public schools so awful?

Once upon a time, many U.S. public schools were very good. Though they obviously lacked the rich resources available to private schools, they nevertheless employed solid teachers and taught everything they needed to. There were also many after school programs. Now the educational system is deep in the toilet, leading many parents to choose charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling.

What might be some of the problems which cropped up over the last few decades?

1. Funding, funding, funding. With less money coming in from taxes and donors, schools are unable to pay teachers more, improve the buildings, buy updated textbooks and technology, send teachers to conventions where they can learn new pedagogy and techniques, or hire more teachers.

2. Common Core. Who thought this was a good idea? It’s as pathetic as the Regents system in New York. I understand the importance of learning specific subjects and having basic standards, but education shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all paradigm, with no deviation allowed for struggling students or students who learn most optimally in different ways. And what’s with the jacked, non-intuitive, overly complicated math rules?

3. Speaking of Common Core, teaching for tests instead of tailored to each individual student and making the material enjoyable. I failed chemistry my sophomore year in part because my awful teacher only taught for the purpose of passing the almighty Regents final. When I repeated the course in summer school (with a teacher who was also a former pupil of hers), I pulled an 84 on the Regents, since the material was actually taught in an engaging way, and the teacher wasn’t going by a script she dared not deviate from.

4. Overcrowding. This makes everything even more difficult for teachers and students alike.

5. Outdated pedagogy. Just because something worked, or at least you were convinced it worked, forty years ago doesn’t mean it’s still effective and relevant today.

6. And speaking of, outdated textbooks. There’s no reason for kids to have to learn from books that haven’t had any major revisions since 1970. Math obviously doesn’t change, but science, history, literature, and language are constantly evolving, and people think differently about them in each generation.

7. Lack of options for gifted and advanced students. I was barred from entering kindergarten a year early, not allowed to skip any grades, and excluded from my elementary school’s Advanced and Talented track. I also attended a lot of sub-par schools. In a private school, my intelligence could’ve been nurtured so much more, and I would’ve been gradually eased into more intense coursework instead of tossed in without a lifeboat my sophomore year.

8. Again speaking of, kids of wildly disparate abilities are heaped together. This makes it harder for teachers to tailor lessons and assignments based on abilities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It also increases the risk of bullying and cliques, and smart kids feel stupid when the teacher caters to the lowest common denominator with snail-paced lessons and material they’ve already mastered.

9. No longer teaching basic skills like library research, cursive, and typing. Society has failed when modern students take pictures of a whiteboard with their phones instead of God forbid taking notes by hand, and when they only know how to text instead of touch-typing and handwriting. And since when are students allowed to do 100% of their research online instead of using actual print sources?

10. Teaching towards university attendance only. The entire world isn’t wealthy and bourgeois. Many students go directly from high school to a blue-collar job or working on a farm. They don’t have the luxury of attending college or university.

11. Being unable to fire a tenured teacher, no matter how demonstrably awful.

12. School days beginning too early, when science shows it’s unhealthy for young people to be deprived of sleep. A better model would be beginning at 9:00 and ending at 5:00. A longer school year would also be very helpful, as well as a longer lunch break and healthier food options.

13. Hearkening back to several other points, bad teachers. How can kids succeed when they have sub-par teachers?

14. Lack of after school programs, particularly for at-risk youth.

15. Outdated, ineffective discipline. Newsflash: Detention doesn’t teach any lessons but anger and annoyance, and it’s often doled out to students who didn’t do anything to deserve punishment. Like, why does being one day late with a paper merit an hour of sitting in a desk? And what if older students have part-time jobs they can’t miss? Parents like mine will also freak out if the kid doesn’t show up at the car or get home on the bus at the usual time. Don’t even get me started on how some schools, esp. in the South, still use corporal punishment.

16. The general strain of anti-intellectualism and dumbing-down of society.

17. Too much busywork.

18. Failure to diagnose and treat things like depression, anxiety, mental illness, abuse, and trauma, which all have a huge impact on academic performance and overall behaviour.

19. Lack of parental involvement.

20. In recent years, putting more emphasis on political and social issues than actual academia.

Foreign language instruction in schools (and why it frequently falters)

Once upon a time, students were expected to come to university with at least reading fluency in French, German, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Now graduating seniors in the U.S. can barely be arsed to learn basic Spanish. What in the world happened over the last hundred years?

Since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was published in both French and English instead of French only, English has overtaken French as the world’s lingua franca. Hence, many Anglophones feel there’s no need to learn another language, and foreign language is seen as just another class required for graduation, not a skill anyone will need or care about afterwards.

My parents decided for me that I’d learn Spanish in junior high, and wouldn’t let me take French like I wanted. They insisted French is outdated and irrelevant in the modern era, and that Spanish is more useful. The last laugh was on them, since it turned out French would’ve been much more useful to me on account of all the old books I’ve read with untranslated French and all the Francophone sources I’ve used while researching my historical fiction. I can read a lot of basic French for that very reason. In fact, I’ve used French far more than Spanish!

Over the last few decades, Spanish has completely replaced French in most areas of the U.S. as the de facto language to learn. I would never say I regret spending seven years studying Spanish, nor that I have any dislike towards the language, but I never developed a love for it like I feel for Russian, German, Estonian, or Italian.

No one should learn any language as a thoughtless default. You should have a genuine passion for it. Maybe show students samples of writing in all the languages offered at that school, and play clips of people speaking them. Tell students about some of the awesome novels and films in those languages. That way, they’ll have a concrete feel for what they might like and form a personal connection.

It’s just not realistic to interest someone in a language by talking about how useful it’ll be if their job sends them to a Francophone country in Africa, how French and German are the best languages to learn for grad school research in a field like history or political science, or how many people speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. You can’t predict what’s going to be relevant to their adult lives, and a lot of these selling points are meaningless to the poor and working-class.

I would’ve taken Latin my junior year if my family hadn’t moved back to Pennsylvania, where the small rural school only offered Spanish and French. The Spanish IV class I took was so far below my capabilities. E.g., I learnt preterite tense sophomore year, my fourth year of Spanish (and the second year for kids who only started it in high school), while these SENIORS were only just learning it! Once I even politely asked the teacher if a verb form shouldn’t be xyz because it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse the other students with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

I was able to read parts of Don Quixote my senior year (in a real Spanish class), yet I felt overwhelmed by the material in my seventh year of Spanish at community college. Suddenly I had to read a lot of stories, poems, and novel excerpts, and do a significant amount of writing in Spanish. My previous classes hadn’t prepared me for that level of proficiency and immersion.

The objective of learning a language shouldn’t be reading classics like The Aeneid, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Candide, or Doctor Faustus to pass the AP or regular final year test. It should be reading newspapers, watching films and TV shows, and communicating with native speakers. Endlessly memorizing vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions isn’t a winning strategy for developing full fluency.

Spanish students are also put in a disadvantage if they don’t learn vosotros (informal plural form of you used in Spain), under the presumption they’ll only encounter Latin American Spanish.

Though you can’t entirely escape having to memorize grammar and vocab at some point, language is acquired much easier and more naturally through immersion, particularly when it’s of personal interest. E.g., someone who loves makeup and hair could watch beauty vloggers. A film buff could watch films. Someone who already loves a few writers or poets in that language could read side-by-side editions. An aspiring chef or baker could watch culinary vloggers.

Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina is a groundbreaking classic that should’ve become the norm for all language instruction. The entire book, minus the credits page, is in Latin. From the very first line, you’re reading and understanding the language perfectly based on context, pictures, and definitions, declensions, and conjugations in the margins. It begins very simply and gradually becomes more advanced, constantly building on everything that came before. There are also exercises at the end of each chapter, filling in the blanks and answering questions.

Most U.S. schools also start way too late, in seventh or ninth grade. It’s much easier to achieve native-level fluency before age ten.

Learning a language shouldn’t be about knowing just enough to pass tests, watch films that have subtitles anyway, and muddle through simple conversations.

Why I think Sudbury schools are ridiculous nonsense

From the time I first heard about Sudbury schools maybe 5–10 years ago, I was absolutely stunned and horrified. While I’m a huge advocate of progressive pedagogy and self-directed learning, I draw a very sharp line at so-called schools where students get to do whatever they want all the time. It’s radical even for a democratic school. At least London’s famous Summerhill School and Israel’s Democratic School of Hadera have actual classes and tests!

The adults who work there aren’t called teachers, since classes are held only by student request. Many photos from these schools show kids playing video games, watching non-educational videos, reading comic books, and other decidedly non-academic activities. Students are even allowed to sleep every day without any investigation into what’s causing this.

HUGE safeguarding red flag when parents are excluded from their own children’s education, with no information or decision-making powers. If I’m blessed with kids before time runs out, I sure as hell would want to know if Samuel or Margalit were playing Minecraft, reading comic books, or sleeping all day instead of engaging in actual academics!

When there are serious problems at real schools or in workplaces, they’re not “solved” by freaking Democracy Circles. Can you imagine you and your co-workers discussing how much you hate the boss on company time, and having the authority to fire the boss or put him or her in the naughty chair for a month? Or a clique of school bullies deciding on the punishment for unpopular kids after lying to teachers about what’s really going on?

Barring a legit learning disability, children should not be illiterate past kindergarten. I’m absolutely horrified that anyone would think it’s totally normal to not know how to read and write at age TEN or higher. We don’t live in an oral culture. Successful life and learning are kind of really dependent upon literacy, and huge knowledge gaps are created when kids don’t have these beyond-basic foundational skills.

Guess what, not all learning is meant to be fun, creative, and self-directed. Left to my own devices, I would’ve learnt a lot about history, world languages and literature, religions, social sciences, art, and music history. The only math class after sixth grade I enjoyed and excelled in was trig. Science didn’t come easily to me either. And forget about gym class!

What kind of fantasy world are you living in where children Magickally develop interest in and learn everything they need to know about algebra, geometry, trig, biology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, even basic math without any formal instruction or natural inclination that way? Oh, wow, Janey figured out that 10×4=40 by counting the wheels on her toy cars! What a born mathematical whiz kid!

Many times, children have to be formally instructed to learn something, and we often don’t discover a special interest for a subject unless we learn about it in school. You’re not preparing them for adult life in the real world if you lead them to believe they don’t have to follow directions and schedules, do things they don’t always want to do, and sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time.

Kids depend on adults to steer them right, not let them do whatever they want all the time and figure out on their own how to read, write, and do basic math. Even many progressive schools that give students great leeway in choosing their own curriculum and assignments still teach math and science more traditionally.

True self-directed learning looks like a student studying Latin, German, Japanese, painting, European and Middle Eastern history, anthropology, psychology, astronomy, botany, British literature, and zoology alongside core requirements, and choosing fencing, archery, horseback riding, and swimming in gym class. Not playing video games and watching anime all day and counting that as educational.

And did I mention they graduate by writing an essay proving they’re ready for the adult world? Don’t even get me started on their creepy “age-mixing magic.”

Even in a proper school, self-directed learning isn’t right for everyone. Some kids need formal, traditional classes and instruction, have no motivation to explore subjects independently, and wouldn’t know where to begin with creating their own assignments.

If I have kids, they’re 100% NOT attending a hippie free-for-all school!

WeWriWa—Rage intensifies


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’ve gone back to my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors during the early postwar years. We’re now in Part IV, “An Exile Driven on By Fate,” in which the friends travel through Italy and France before finding a place to call home before immigrating.

The friends are currently staying in Nantes, France, the home of almost-15-year-old Marie Sternglass. Though Marie was full of hope and excitement when they arrived, those feelings have quickly faded. She’s now at her old house, which has a very cold, hostile new owner who admits she burnt the photos and children’s watercolors which were left behind. Marie can also see some of her family’s belongings in the background.

Nantes Synagogue, Copyright Jibi44

“Those are my family’s things inside the house, you connasse! You didn’t buy those paintings, that mahogany side table, that white grand piano, those beautiful Persian carpets, or the dress and slippers that other woman is wearing! Allez vous faire foutre!”

“Why don’t we go back to the hotel so you can calm down?” Caterina asked. “Then we can go to the Red Cross or the synagogue.”

“That’s an excellent idea.” The stranger slammed the door in their faces.

“Perhaps you can ask the police for help,” Móric said as Eszter and Csilla steered Marie back onto the street. “French police are different from Hungarian police or Soviet soldiers. They might help you to press your case and give you a warrant to search your house.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“What’s the use of trying?” Marie slumped against Eszter, her whole body shaking. “All that remains of my former life is the photo I hid in my shoe. Perhaps my father and Pierre already came back here and were kicked off the property too. They might’ve left France already, and think I’m dead. I was stupid to believe everything would be sunshine and rainbows.”

“You could find good news tomorrow,” Eszter promised emptily. “Maybe your father and brother are here, or you’ll find some friendly faces. You can’t know until you try.”

“Right now, you only need to think about calming down and getting to a safe place,” Caterina said. “I’ve never seen you nearly that angry before. I really thought you were about to hit her or claw her face off.”

“You and me both,” Imre said. “I never realized Marika knew words like salope and connasse, let alone that last sentence she said to the woman.”

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