To passers-by I would have appeared a normal adult, but for an hour or so I became a reticent school-boy dragging his feet. I just did not want to go to school.

The immediate background to this metamorphosis was straightforward. Some weeks earlier my wife had asked what I wanted for my birthday. I plumped for lessons in French conversation. The reasons were simple. First, I was soon to retire from work and was looking for a serious intellectual pursuit to ‘keep my mind occupied’. Second, we had just brought a house in France and my French was embarrassingly poor. I knew bits and was adept at pointing, but conversation was out of the question. The dividends of my fifty-year old ‘O’-level French had long expired. The problem I envisaged then was that without a good grasp of French, staying in France would always be hollow. Studying French would satisfy both of these challenges.

On my birthday my wife told me that she had found a course at the Institute Français and that I had been enrolled for twelve, 90- minute, lessons starting in a fortnight or so. But there was more; in order for the Institute to tailor the course to my needs, I would first need to take a French competency test. This was arranged for the coming weekend (Saturday morning at 11.00am to be precise!). My heart sank. I felt distinctly uneasy. Indeed my concerns were so obvious that my wife immediately offered to accompany me to the Institute. There was to be no backtracking now.

On the Saturday we set off in good time and holding hands. We spent the train journey in silence, although my mind was anything but. Did I really want to learn French, to subject myself to a test, to reveal my ignorance, possibly to be ridiculed? Surely I was too old for that. Would there be others there who would sail through? I had not sat a test for probably 30 years, why expose myself now? Why subject myself to the loneliness of humiliation?

Gradually my sense of disquiet increased, and as we neared, the negative thoughts displaced those original reasoned arguments. For whatever reason, I adopted the manner of a child taken to his first day at school, just as I must have done 60 years earlier, although then it would have been with my father.  I walked slowly, dragged my feet, and sulkily looked down to the ground. I felt that I was half my wife’s size (as I would have done with my father). Moreover, using words of one syllable told her I did not want to do the test. I would have turned back. Next we walked up the steps to the Institute and, as befits a parent, my wife spoke on my behalf, introduced me and with an ‘understanding’ (condescending) look the receptionist took me to assessment room. She explained what I had to do (written and oral!), and left. I was alone – it was all just awful.

I completed the test, regained adulthood, and started the course a week later. Since then I have been to classes at the Institute almost every week without a break. It was so very right for me. I love my French which occupies an important part of my retirement and has indeed made France a most wonderful experience. What a waste it would have been if I had been allowed to give in to my childhood fantasies. But I imagine battles between the adult self and the childhood self are commonplace. On this occasion it was so very blatant, and potentially so very damaging.

3 thoughts on “The child within

  1. Being good at forgetting/excising bad experiences, for me it is the inspiration of childhood which consciously affects my behaviour (unconscious negative impacts are no doubt there also!). So I have returned to doing more cycling, enjoying picnic lunches and planting runner beans etc. And I suspect that part of my pleasure comes from the “re-visiting”. In the blog example the pain came from the re-visiting. We can’t change our childhoods but educators (eg the French Institute) can modernise their methods away from those used in our childhoods. Why should an assessment of level of French knowledge be turned into an exam?
    Ian

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  2. Everyone needs someone in their life who is prepared to go to unreasonable lengths for them. This was the view of Elizabeth Newson, Professor of early Childhood education at Nottingham University in the 1970s. When children meet situations in which they realise that there may not be someone who will look out for them, they experience panic, the fear of humiliation and real fear of the unknown.The settling in of children into school is probably one of the most important things a teacher ever does. It has a lasting impact throughout life. This is one of many reasons why the early years of education are the most important.

    Transitions are important, and the processes of transition deserve our study. Moving into retirement is a serious thing, and the way others support and help is crucial. Having a person with us who is committed to helping, who empowers and quietly insists can be just what is needed to overcome the transition. It allows us to face situations which are less than ideal. This often needs to be a relative or friend, but in an ideal world it would have been the French examiner. One way or another, we find ways through, but we can make life easier for young children as well as recently retirees,, if we give it some thought.

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