Where the National Education System meets après-ski
I probably don’t need to tell you that the French love their vacations.
One of the more notorious stereotypes out there concerning our friends from across the pond is that they live for pleasure, not for work. There are, of course, worse generalities to be associated with. But no one wants to be dubbed lazy, especially the French whose work habits have actually evolved over the years to be just as toxic as everyone else’s. That’s right, despite the government-sanctioned 35-hour work week and nation-wide shutdown for the entire month of August, many French people (particularly in the big cities) work late, get inundated with emails and Slack messages, and burn out (they’re just like us!).
The only French people sitting back living that sweet, sweet vacation life are kids.
French children are constantly on break. I should know, I used to work with them. I was a teacher in a bilingual school in Paris for 10 years, and the most magical part of my job (besides molding minds, changing lives, and eating delicious French cafeteria lunch every day) was a bajillion weeks of paid vacation time. And by a bajillion weeks, I mean 8 weeks throughout the school year on top of summer vacation (which usually lasted most of July and August).
This always seemed ridiculous to friends and family (even French friends and family who had never worked in the education sector). But I remember desperately needing these breaks every time they occured. Because - and pay attention, this might be news to you - kids are f***ing exhausting. Teaching elementary-aged children continues to be the hardest job I’ve ever, ever had. Being in a classroom full of bilingual children all day long can only be compared to wrangling kittens only if those kittens could open doors, scream, and wield scissors. Being constantly mindful of where one child is, what they are currently up to, and how they are doing mentally, emotionally, and physically is already pretty draining, but teachers have that times 20 or 30 every single day. Add meetings that could have been emails and demanding parents to the mix, and you’ve got a great recipe for exhaustion. So all of those weeks of vacation were appreciated, believe me.
But back to the kids for a second. Because they needed vacation, too. And they clearly worked better and absorbed more information when they came back well-rested and relaxed, a lesson that most try to hold on to later in life when the vacation time starts slipping away. French kids are not only #blessed with vacation time, but also with vacation options.
It’s time you learned about Classe Verte.
Before I dive into this, I should say that I went to a very basic public school in Missouri where class trips never happened unless you played on our (horrible) football team and traveled for the occasional away game. I realize that there are some Americans who grew up experiencing what I’m about to describe on a regular basis, but most of them went to bougie private schools and their parents paid tons for them to go on really spectacular class trips.
Classe Verte is for all French children. It’s subsidized by the national education system. It’s an opportunity for kids to either leave the city where they live and explore “green” spaces around France, or leave their green space to go to the sea, an historic site, or even learn to ski.
The first time I went skiing was right before my thirtieth birthday. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was sharing the bunny slope with a class of kindergarteners and their teacher. My surprise turned to shame when the same class graduated from the bunny slope and began whizzing past me with ease on the actual Alps. Babies skiing down the Alps like it was nothing. Kids from Paris, from Marseille, from everywhere in between. These same kids would likely go and explore the prehistoric caves of Southwest France the following year with a new teacher, then graduate to a weeklong sailing excursion the year after that.
Oftentimes, these trips are simple. City kids go and live on a farm and milk cows or goats for three days. Or country kids come to Paris and traipse around the Louvre or various cathedrals. But, for me, that’s already a lot. When you talk to French friends, they’ll roll their eyes and say that their own class trips weren’t that big of a deal (“We only went to Florence for a week when I was in high school, which was also the first time I got drunk and lost my virginity.”). But as a teacher, I accompanied my French pupils to the Pyrenees, Ireland, and even the United States. Yes, I got on a commercial flight with 20 Fourth Graders and flew to Saint Louis, Missouri so that they could practice their English for two weeks.
In a time when we’re all dreaming of traveling again, I’m thinking about Classe Verte and how the French prioritize travel and exploration. “Les voyages forment la jeunesse,” you’ll hear the French often say, and it’s true. So much of our formative years are shaped from travel… travel to school, travel to a friend’s house, travel around our hometowns, and then, if we’re lucky, beyond.
We’re going to have to re-learn all of it after a year-and-a-half of staying inside. My hope is that we in America will stop looking at vacation like a luxury and embrace the spirit of those little French babies skiing circles around me down the French Alps. We’ll see it as a part of our education.