My Students, The Conquerors! A Teacher's Class-Trip Diary

En route
En route
Mara Goyet

A niggling feeling of doubt came over me. Had the school trip been educational? Was it even a school trip, i.e. was the presence of two teachers and a class of students any guarantee of learning?

We had worked hard all year, I can tell you that much. We knew everything there was to know about the Bayeux tapestry and William the Conqueror. Intellectually speaking, we were irreproachable. The problem of a school trip -- or the beauty of it -- is that it is not just an educational excursion into foreign territory, and more than an intellectual odyssey on wheels.

What were we expecting exactly, leaving with a class of mostly 12-year-olds, to travel from Paris to Hastings via Falaise, Bayeux and Brighton, in the footsteps of William the Conqueror? A moral recapturing of the treacherous British Isles? Historical understanding? An entrenchment of our knowledge? A mobile exploration (by bus, ferry and shuttle) of the course?

Clues from a bus seat

We quickly came to realise, even before leaving, that the journey itself would be more important than the destination, that the form would be just as important as the content, that there would be bygone history and future tales to create, frustration and elation. This week was not to be judged by the cover of our guidebooks.

The first symptoms arrived the night before our departure. I was thinking about legalities. Do I have the right to administer a dose of paracetemol? Could students cause bodily harm with an audioguide? Nowhere was safe. A black cloud of hazy, uncertain, mostly unforeseeable responsibilities appeared before my eyes. I reassured myself that there are certain absolutes: I know, in advance, that the first night in the restaurant in Herouville-Saint-Clair, Calvados, we would have chicken wings, veggies and ice cream. With such a menu, nothing bad could happen to us.

The students understood too. They knew that our preparation on paper had its limits. You could sense the weight of history weighing on their fragile shoulders: how would they charge up their cell phones, would they be able to shower on the boat?

6:30 AM, we leave on the bus. Inside, the students’ seating is instinctual. There are those who go straight to the back, those in the middle, those who sit up front, near the teachers. The spatial organization exemplifies their adolescent typology: restless, overexcited, quiet, clever, indifferent, asleep, hysterical, alternative. You know what to expect judging by distance-from-the-steering-wheel. So beautifully easy to predict. Still, such partitions change.

Over the course of the journey, the class nested, blending in with the seats. Another world, another people. MP3s and iPods connect, mix up, a network forms, they link up with each other, connect to their neighbors, the wires accumulate, headphones slot in, a rhizomic mass develops; all are entirely ignorant of the countryside that passes on by.

Risk of secession

Food, despite being banned, builds up: sweets, chocolate, the spoils of war from petrol stations gone by. Students switch places, changing position in the cocoon of wires they have created. A few kilometers on and a parallel organic universe could well arise, worthy of a Cronenberg film (sheet metal, steel, sugar, cables, connections, it’s all there). The coach bus is a living entity. Tables and chairs are a distant memory.

When the back of the bus was under risk of secession — which was often, but fairly calm and cordial — my colleague and I advanced toward the rebel zone to conduct an extradition. The four seats behind the driver (named “la Boule” in caustic homage to the rotund prison guard in Fort Boyard) served as the sin-bin, solitary confinement, the area for reflection. For good behavior, you could move back a few seats. It became a game. Thanks to “la Boule” our measured authority became fun.

Luckily I would quickly understand the limits of our authority. That night, on the ferry, the students slept on the floor in our private living room, lights out, the boat rocking, those who engaged in commando operations crawling about on their sea bed, those who were conducting silent meetings reminded me of the bounds of my control. I was perturbed, but then consoled myself. All of it was a game. Tom and Jerry. Variations and extrapolations of territory in the student-teacher relationship, by sea and road, fumes, speed, mass and obscurity, a game of looks and audio headsets, “good night” to students in pyjamas. We could win on experience. A night with a class on a ferry should be compulsory in teacher training.

The visit to the Chateau de Falaise (Calvados) had barely started when the students, having descended from the bus, unplugged, found themselves disconnected and became curious, cultivated, spontaneous and alive. They are completely charming, and interested in everything. Even in the Bayeux Tapestry. At Hastings, they climbed the castle ruins. In Battle, they ran into the sloping meadows where William and Harold fought in 1066. The class wound through the weeds.

An all-inclusive generation

Yet, at the same time, their everyday dramas continue: teen romances, recurrent rows, major mood swings, fluctuations in friendships and feelings (just like the highs and lows of Michel Serrault in La Cage aux Folles). Some students, who I know can respond to difficult questions on feudalism, end up mimicking some character from an American TV series or a teen from American Pie.

They are intelligent, though, so they can get away with minor bouts of idiocy from time to time. Their conversations are sometimes so appalling that I wonder how I could impose hours of humanism and the Italian Renaissance on their classtime.

Such a question, however, is moot. For this generation, we mustn’t think in terms of opposition. The sublime and the grotesque, the authentic and the superficial coexist with them in a new way. They manage the balance with mastery. Sometimes they screw up. They change nothing of their behavior when they come into contact with adults. I would have been mortified at their age were a teacher to witness my teenage anxieties. I measure the gap between them and us. I see in them things that enlighten my view of teaching and all its possibilities. We have to play along with this duality, of the contrasting faces of adolescence, taking care not to let it take over. They enjoy vast freedom, an intriguing propostion for someone of my generation.

At the disco on the boat almost all of them danced superbly. They are incredibly comfortable, confident. They are happy, having fun, they go in search of hot chocolate at the bar, as if in a nightclub — forbidden on terra firma, the ferry is a kind of enchanted dreamland. The bus drivers, leaning against the bar with their beer, look on bewilderedly. The old chaperone, I oversee all.

Charging ahead

Yes, we are following the trail of William the Conqueror, but there are other things on our minds. A conquest within a conquest: electricity. Finding a socket and an adaptor is at the heart of all our worries. Children and adults alike obsess over it. The battery, the battery! It’s me who discovers a socket at the restaurant. I guard it jealously. Once in England, an adapter becomes subject to negotiations and exchanges. As days pass by, batteries run down, dwindle. The students’ own charge does no such thing. They barely sleep and are always in grand form. My heart flutters. What if…

For my part, I pursue a few fantasies. A whopper at Burger King. Objective accomplished in Brighton. A second dream: I have always wanted to go to the southeast corner of England, to see Henry James’ house. We are a few kilometers from Rye, where he lived. I dare not act on my pipe dream. But by fluke, for the first and only time on the trip, the driver or the GPS takes us down a wrong turn. The detour takes us to Rye. My heart flutters. What if…

The roads are narrow, low bridges block us in, the locals get involved. Truth be told, they actually shoo us away. The coach reverses out. We retake our route. I still haven’t seen the writer’s house, but I understand its ghost stories just a bit better now.

Some students remind me of Ptenisnet, the Egyptian who confuses the legion with a holiday club in Asterix the Legionary. Are the ferry’s reclining seats better or worse than a place in an eco-Airbus? Are we alone on the boat? Our child critics are having a field-day: the lack of air conditioning, the food. I want them to understand that, especially when it’s temporary, there is a certain enjoyment and fun in discomfort, in the rudimentary aspects of our adventure. That sleeping like hogs, on the floor of a room that smells like socks and waking up gazing over the sea upon the sight of English warships, is a sublime thing. Be young, damn it! Stop with your grown-up comforts (in their suitcases: hair straighteners, nail polish remover, a beanie, cuddly toys, consumer junk!).

I expect the hostel to drive the nail home, to highlight the joys of backpacking. No luck, it’s a castle. Looks like Darcy’s place in Pride and Prejudice. Surrounded by a forest, meadows with animals, ponds, lakes, stone bridges, there’s a football field, an orangery, a sumptuous chapel, statues, flower beds, geese. Ah, all the same, one of the students thinks the shower is too small…

What remains

The trip ends. We return to France. I mull over our time together. I wonder if we have fulfilled the contract. The intellectual contract. We visited sites, the students were attentive. What will they remember? The disco on the boat, the kid who fell into a pool of mud in Battle, the driver, fleeting love affairs, football in the park in England, the silly things they did in secret, a few unassuming words that quickly became cult phrases. They have made the most of their independence, the absence of their parents; they have messed around together, danced, run and laughed, played by the sea. So what remains to be said of 1066, William, Hastings and the English crown?

We sit down on the shuttle floor through the Channel Tunnel. We eat sandwiches of unidentifiable cheese. We encircle an English car. Its occupants, a couple with two dogs, wind the windows back up. They dare not move or get out. They dare not even watch the French teens at their picnic, happy, unfailingly alert and sharp minded. A miracle of our epic journey, the triumph of pedagogy, we end up back on our feet: the English are besieged! We have never been so close to William the Conqueror. We made his conquest our adventure. Thank god for that, we were victorious!

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!