This Saturday morning I deviated from my norm. Foregoing the customary pleasure of a visit to Martel market, I went to Brive in order to play the proud parent and watch my daughter collect her baccalaureate.
We’d been discussing the ins and outs of my attendance all week long. Tilley wasn’t at all keen. Anything to do with school, apparently, freaks her out. It would be stressful enough to gather together with her peers for one last time and troop across the stage – or whatever it was that they were expecting her to do – without a proud, beaming papa there to witness it.
I’d consulted the Oracle at Delphi (my sensible wife) about the issue. While respecting our daughter’s position, there are times when you have to exercise executive power. She couldn’t make it herself, since she’d be slaving all morning over a hot massage couch. But she felt it right that one of us should represent the official wing of the family. It didn’t seem right somehow that our daughter’s school career should end with a whimper. My presence would help the kid achieve some kind of closure.
Standing in the covered walkway outside the lecture theatre where the ceremony (as I imagined it) would take place, I looked out over the quad at the gaggles of ex-pupils, no doubt talking about what they’d been up to this summer, and thought back to all those prize days and graduation ceremonies. My parents must have felt very like I was feeling at that moment: proud as punch, but as awkward as an interviewee for a job. Did I, for example, go and find my offspring and then hover around her like one of the moons of Saturn? Or did I simply respect her independence and just continue to stand there like a lemon? I removed my sunglasses and secreted my pork-pie hat in my bag in an attempt at anonymity.
My mobile phone vibrated in my pocket. It was my daughter. I could see her with a bunch of friends across the quad. She played her final card: Dad, I don’t want to be mean or anything, but I haven’t seen any parents. I stood my ground. Well, I’ve seen parents and I’m a parent. But I did double-check with the personnage on the door that it was OK for parents to be present.
The proviseur arrived. The school principal: a suitably tall man with a wavy, salt-and-pepper hairstyle set off by a light-grey suit. He ushered everyone inside the raked auditorium and I took my place roughly half way up in an attempt to be ‘neither mickling nor muckling’, as Billy Liar might have put it. Another lone father sat down one seat away and we acknowledged each other diffidently. My daughter shuffled in with her friend, Pauline, and to my surprise and pleasure came to sit down beside me. Clearly then, the days of being forced to wear a parental burka, forbidden to open my mouth in public lest I bring her shame and dishonour, were over. Maybe I have entered the stage of our relationship where I will be presented to friends as a kind of ageing and slightly eccentric dignitary.
As the auditorium filled up with noise and young adults, another of my daughter’s friends joined us. She’s been bombarding Tilley with texts since she started her preparatory course in Toulouse, asking her to check her English translations. With six hours of exams every Wednesday, her course sounds a bundle of laughs. Another friend has started studying for a medical degree in Limoges. After a week of constant lectures and private study every evening, she has yet to meet anyone. Under circumstances like that, I would have given higher ed a miss.
When the show finally kicked off the customary 15 minutes late, the principal underlined this relentless emphasis on hard work and results by showing some slides that illustrated how The Daughter’s school was consistently above the national average. It’s no wonder then that when Debs asked a nine-year old girl the other day why we went to school, the child replied ‘To get good marks’. When pressed for any further reasons, she answered ‘To work hard’. Learning, then, and things like discovery clearly don’t come into it. You’re taught, it seems – from a very early age – that if you don’t get good marks, you’re just a failure.
And so there was nothing as I had remembered or imagined. No opportunity to celebrate each individual’s success in graduating from school by calling out their names so they could walk across the stage to the sound of their fellows’ applause and receive their diploma, a brief moment of glory and recognition for what they had gone through. Only those with a mention très bien, who would probably go on to the grandes écoles and perpetuate France’s very own and very anachronistic elitist system, were called out to come and receive a cheque for 50 euros.
By then, however, the whole thing had generated into chaos. No wonder Tilley hadn’t wanted me to come. What on earth had I been thinking of? Everyone knows that the French couldn’t organise the proverbial pee-pee-up in a brewery. No wonder the Committee awarded the Olympics to London and not to Paris. After the head had had his illustrated say, he passed the ineffectual microphone to a series of guests, who were drowned out by the constant babble. I was shocked. Either it added fuel to the theory that today’s child has got the attention-span of a gnat or, more surprising to someone who has always maintained that the general standard of social behaviour is much higher in France than it is in the UK, no one has taught these former pupils how to show minimal respect to others. I wanted to stand up and yell For God’s sake will you shut the hell up! Only, I was hampered by a lack of idiomatic French and a desire not to traumatise the fruit of my loins.
So, alas, did it end with a whimper after all. The kids piled out of the theatre to go and pick up their pieces of paper in three separate rooms according to the type of bac they followed. Needless to say, there was an aperitif offered in the refectory. I stayed long enough to drink a glass of grapefruit juice, sample the petit fours and avoid the soupe de champagne and the meaty nibbles. Still feeling acutely awkward, I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me.
Later I told Tilley about the shock I’d experienced. Why hadn’t the principal not simply instructed everyone to be quiet? She told me that it was just the way it was. Only the teachers who use menace and threats manage to gain some order. She and her friends knew enough to be quiet and listen to what the teachers had to say, but in most classes the noise level was so high that she couldn’t even hear what it was they had to say. Surprise, surprise, the testosterone-fuelled boys were the worst, egged on by the gum-chewing, earring-fiddling airheads who hang on their every idiocy. Now you can see why it’s not just me being a drama-queen, she told me with feeling.