The Center of Attention In a Small Swiss Schoolhouse

I DID not go to Switzerland to learn and surely not to teach. When I asked a Swiss friend of mine, Evodie Zurcher, if I could visit her class, I was hoping only to be an observer. What I did not count on was being a participant, a teacher of sorts, with 14 six to 10 year olds.Evodie's class is in a two-room schoolhouse at Mont Soleil, at 3,000 feet in the Franches Montagnes in French-speaking northwestern Switzerland. It all seemed so quaint when I first got there; Mont Soleil is a pastoral setting of one-lane roads, dark pine trees, huge farms, and, when the sun shines giving the area its name, "Mount Sun," a clear view of snow-capped Alps in the distance. Evodie was eager for her students to meet me, an American and a New Yorker, who speaks French well although not without grammatical mistakes. Her students, and a dozen 11 to 16 year olds in the other class taught by Olivier Tsaut, are children of the country. They live in a rural area that's not frequently visited by tourists, least of all Americans, who tend to flock to more popular places like Geneva, Zurich, Lucerne, and even St. Moritz. Any contact the students had had before with Americans was limit ed and not at all personal. I had made this trip to Switzerland, a country I knew well and have visited many times before, to see my friend. I did not count on recapturing something of my own youth and childlikeness. It was all an unexpected dividend to a trip that was meant only as a break between jobs. The minute I walked into Evodie's classroom and heard a chorus of voices announce in sing-song unison, "Bonjour, Madame," I knew I could not get away with anonymity. Nor did I want to. At first I sat at a table in the back of the room while Evodie finished a lesson. The classroom was decorated with student artwork and posters of children from other countries, especially from South America. As the students filed to Evodie's desk to have their papers corrected, they swiveled their heads to get a better look at me. When I made eye contact and smiled, they invariably snapped their heads back and giggled. The first introductions were going to be more difficult than I thought, and I was nervous. But what made me feel uncomfortable? Was it that the observer (I am, after all, a journalist) was being the observed? Finally, a little boy with a freckle-dotted nose ventured near. His cotton sweat shirt read, "Snow!," and I read the word aloud in English with a motion across the front of my own sweater. "Tu connais le mot?" I asked. "Do you know the word?" "Snow," I repeated. "Neige." His face lit up with a grin. "Oui!" he said. aime la neige!" Another child and another, many with sweat shirts that had small phrases in English printed on them, gathered around me for translations. They laughed and I laughed, and clearly we were going to get along just fine. No one was more relieved than I. THE truth is I am not used to being around children. I actually like children and have come to the age in my life when I spend more and more time thinking about motherhood. But I am firmly entrenched in the world of adults, and I was beginning to think that I was banished from the world of children. Fourteen little students from Mont Soleil, however, changed all that. When the lesson was over and all the papers corrected, Evodie called me to the front of the classroom. "You have all met Patricia," she said in French. "As I told you, she's from New York. And she's going to talk a little with us today." My mouth felt as dry as an old sock, and I breathed a silent prayer that I wouldn't make some horrible faux pas in French in front of these children. I paused for a moment and gazed at the faces that looked back at me. Little Sonia with blond curly hair, who looked like a cross between Shirley Temple and Heidi; Mathias, whose dark brown eyes and thin face had won my heart immediately; Nicole, Nathalie, Anouk, Marina, Bruno, Claude-Alain, Reta, Ihilo, Herve, Mickael, Zeat, and Claudia. "Vous savez que j'habite a New York, et on parle anglais la-bas," I started, explaining that I lived in New York and I spoke English all the time. I figured we'd start with the basics. Then I launched into a monologue about life in New York, the land of gratte-ciels (skyscrapers), which was still a sleepy 5 a.m. to our 11 o'clock in the morning at Mont Soleil. The children seemed interested, but it had nothing to do with what I was saying. I realized that what they wanted to do was experience me, to find out what I was all about. A lecture on life in New York was cheating. These children needed a song. From somewhere in my memory came the words and hand gestures to a song I had not sung since the age of seven. And while I can carry a tune, I'll never quit my day job, as the saying goes. But there I was, risking being foolish, feeling vulnerable in front of these youngsters, and teaching them how to sing, "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider." I wrote the words on the blackboard in English, gave them a quick translation in French, and taught them the accompanying hand gestures: right forefinger on left thumb, then left forefinger on right thumb to imitate the spider's walk. We sang it together, the children doing a wonderful job of pronouncing the words phonetically in French-accented English. "Zee eet-sy beet-sy spi-dair went up za water spoot. Down came za rain an' washed za spi-air aa-out... ." "May I teach them a game?" I asked Evodie. "Sure," she said, smiling at me, knowing I was enjoying this as much as the students. We played until lunch, which in Switzerland is an hour-and-a-half break for the entire family to eat the main meal of the day. Outside the school, several parents waited in small cars to take the children home. There was no bus or public transportation for the children, some of whom lived three miles from school. Many came each day on foot or bicycle, and in the winter, a few on cross-country skis. Evodie and I did not have far to go. She, like Olivier, lives in one of the two apartments upstairs in the schoolhouse. AND so my week went, with time spent with the students, conversing, correcting papers, playing games, and, always, singing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider." It was more of a challenge to spend a morning with Olivier's older students, who asked me questions about United States politics, the popularity of George Bush, and the Gulf war. There were no games here, but an intense dialogue that kept me on my toes, especially when it came to searching for the right word in French. Students, who pass the appropriate exams, can at the age of 12 go to a school in the valley, and then on to college or university. But the majority stay at Mont Soleil until age 16 when they earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Then they become apprentices, many with plans to become dairy farmers like their parents. I visited one of these farms one day during the midday break with Evodie; we were the guests of Otto Oppliger, the president of the local school commission, and his wife. Their three children joined us, including Corine, who had been chosen by lottery to represent the school this summer at a celebration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of Switzerland, which was to include an audience with the president of the Swiss federation. The Oppligers, like the vast majority of parents of Mont Soleil, are intensely proud of the school, which is a bit of an anachronism in the age of classrooms with computers. But without the rural school, the children would have to travel to the village to be taught, and then they probably wouldn't come home for dinner; something would be lost, they reasoned. And as for the community, which is really nothing more than a scattering of farms and a couple of rustic restaurants, the school serves as a focus. "They miss something of the extra things," Otto admitted, the sports, plays, special trips. But Evodie, who has made a conscious effort to introduce her students to as much art and culture as possible, defended the quality of education at the rural school. "I taught in a bigger school in the city of Bienne," she said. "I teach the same way here that I taught there." Having so many grades to teach at once sometimes means that she has less time with each child individually, Evodie admitted. But then the older students help the younger ones, and that helps them all. When the meal at the Oppligers' was over and Evodie rushed back to the school, I stayed on for a while to visit and then walked back. It was a particularly beautiful day, a break from rainy weather, and the cloudless sky gave way to the mountains in the distance. A soft breeze rustled the branches of the pines and only the harsh cawing of a couple of crows disturbed the peace. At the bottom of the hill, I spied two of Evodie's students, their legs pumping their bicycles up the steep incline. But when the y saw me, they stopped and waved their arms overhead. They hurried to meet me halfway, but their intentions were not just social. They had some questions for me. "Are there bicycles in the US?" one boy asked intently in French. "And farms? And cows?" Yes, Yes, Yes, I replied. "Is it like here?" they asked. I PAUSED and looked around me at a vista that looked too beautiful to be real, especially in comparison with Manhattan, where I live. Then I looked into their faces, the open honesty of childhood. "No," I said. "Where I live is not exactly like it is here. "But when I go back," I continued, m going to take a little piece of all this with me." They giggled and pedaled on. I kept walking, knowing that they really couldn't understand what I meant. Not just yet.

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