As soon as we had installed ourselves in Brittany for our spring stay, it was time to catch up with friends. After five months away there was plenty to talk about. We shared news about families, jobs and health, we learned the local gossip, and, inevitably we swapped views and insights about Brexit, the Gilets Jaunes, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron.
Amongst our exchanges one story was very special. Beatrice told how her eldest grandchild – Alice* – had challenged her school teacher and, in so doing, righted a classroom injustice. Later, Alice gave us her own account of the event. Now thirteen, she is in her third year of secondary school (‘college’). She is thoughtful, independent-minded, modest and terse – at least with adults. Things have changed somewhat since we first met her as a shy, four-year old.
During a music lesson Alice saw a girl near the front of the class launch a paper aeroplane. It started at the front on the right, did a graceful semicircle above the heads of the pupils at the back, and landed in the front on the left. Late in its flight it was spotted by ‘Miss’ – the teacher. While flying a paper dart is silly, it is also common, and for many teachers it would be ignored or dismissed, probably best with an amusing comment. In this instance, ‘Miss’ immediately became annoyed and turned to Jacques, a student on the flight path, and accused him of the launch. Without asking questions she ordered him to leave the room and go straight to the headteacher to explain his behaviour. This was serious! Jacques had a record for misbehaving and for ‘Miss’ the plane had obviously been a stunt instigated by him.
At that point, and before Jacques had set off, Alice intervened. Talking directly to the teacher in a clear and calm voice audible to all, Alice accused her of being unjust, unfair and prejudiced. The class fell silent as Alice continued: “It is clear that you did not see who threw the dart and rather than enquire, you jumped to a conclusion about its origin that happens to be wrong. Your action was unreasonable and unacceptable and well exemplifies a well-known study on discrimination carried out in a school in the USA”. Sitting back on her chair, Alice told of the experiment in which, unbeknownst to teachers, the names on the students’ records they read were swapped around so the well-performing students had reports that showed them to be troublemakers, while the badly-behaved children were pictured as attentive and high achievers. The outcome was frightening; after a few months the performances of the two groups of students had been reversed. As a result of the belief of the teachers, those assumed to be bad, deteriorated, while those now depicted as ‘achievers’ improved. “Miss, in the way you have singled out and unjustly accused Jacques you have exemplified this problem”.
HThe teacher ignored her and remained silent whereupon Alice said that while Miss expects students to pay attention and respond to what she said, when a student speaks to her she does not listen. In response to the absence of any apparent reaction, Alice repeated her argument – twice. After the second time, a handful of classmates stood up and chanted “Alice for President”, “Alice for President” and, with this, applause broke out among all of the others.
The teacher managed to regain classroom control and finish the lesson, only to absent herself from her next scheduled class. Jacques did not go to see the headmistress and eventually thanked Alice. The actual dart thrower owned up and was reprimanded. Alice’s courage did not attract any official recognition.
Here was a moment in which a young girl showed great moral courage. An injustice had to be righted and through careful argument, coupled with bravery and principles, Alice very publicly spoke out and won. She did not much like Jacques but that did not matter, she believed greatly in justice and it was essential that justice was honoured. From her point of view she simply did what was necessary. This she saw as nothing special and told no one apart from her parents and her granny, not even her best friend.
When Alice had finished her account I asked her what she planned to do as a profession; her answer should not have been a surprise: “I would like to be a judge”. France would be lucky if that were the case.
* Alice was happy to be interviewed but stipulated that I do not use her real name. To keep her in good company, the names of the others involved in her story have been changed too!
The illustration shows a paper dart made by Jean-Claude who had gained the necessary manufacturing skills when at school in his native France some fifty years ago.
For help with the production of this blog, I would like to thank Alice, Beatrice, Jean-Claude, Marie, Rohan and Vivien.