Now that I have been in France for a month, I have fallen into a daily routine. I get up around 6:30 a.m. and eat breakfast with my host family. The meal usually consists of a toasted baguette, crepes or petits pains au lait (little milk rolls) with Nutella. My host dad, Uwe, drives my host brother, Nathan, and I to school.
Outside the school, my classmates and I all greet each other with the "bise" (double cheek air kiss) and chat until the school gates open.
Because I have a block schedule, I have some combination of class and study hall until lunch. Every student has at least one hour built into their schedule to eat, and almost everyone eats the food served at the cantine (cafeteria). Though in my opinion the food is restaurant quality, my classmates insist it's not "real French cooking." A complete meal consists of an appetizer (rice, melon, cheese, salad, sausage slices, etc.), a main dish (chicken, pasta, couscous, green beans, potatoes, lasagna, etc.), a mini-baguette, yogurt and fruit.
After lunch, I have a few more classes. At 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., there is what is called "rcration," which is basically a smoking break (about 75 percent of the student body smokes, regardless of age).
The school works on an open campus system, so students can leave when they have study hall or when they're done for the day. Once I finish school, I explore Auch, peruse the public library, relax at a caf with some friends, or head to my host mom Sandrine's pharmacy and play "babyfoot" (foosball) or video games with Nathan. He and I are taken home between 6 and 7:30 p.m., and dinner preparations begin around 8 p.m.
I usually help (or at least watch) Sandrine make dinner; we'll have anything from mussels to fondue to beef stew, with fruit, yogurt or ice cream for dessert. After dinner it's about 9:30 or 10 p.m., so I take care of any last-minute tasks and hit the sack!
My school, physically, consists of four or five utilitarian buildings filled with basic classrooms, all of which are surrounded by a tall metal gate. My schedule includes literature, history-geography, music, philosophy, physical education, Italian, English and English literature. I find all my classes interesting, especially history-geography; the class doesn't follow a chronological progression, but rather jumps from lessons on the history of Jerusalem to World War II witnesses to map manipulation.
The teachers are incredibly knowledgeable and instruct largely through lecture, their pupils scribbling down every word in their wake. They are also very apt at maintaining order, and the students seem to know this; they are all ears and taking notes without a cell phone or giggly conversation in sight. Then again, they are very focused on preparing for the bac, their college entrance exam. If they fail, they repeat their entire year. Now that's what I call incentive!
Socially, I would describe the student body as easygoing. There are few cliques, but rather, a larger network of friendships. Students are defined more by their "classe" than by their grade level. At the age of 16, they decide whether they want to join the literary, scientific, or social studies "classe," or whether they want to join the workforce. Because they chose to continue their studies, they take them very seriously, and tend to behave with the maturity of university students.
I've noticed that the tendency of American students to define ourselves by our interests, activities, and the organizations we're involved in isn't nearly as prevalent here. Most students participate in nothing or only one activity, and those who are heavily involved in something (e.g., music) generally want to pursue it as a profession.
As a result, this studious bunch is impressively organized and focused, but tends not to see skills like leadership, public speaking, teamwork, or specialized skills gained through art, sports, or work experience as part of the high school experience. It's a different view, and I'm still working out its nuances. A bientot!
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.