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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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