Not long ago I arrived at the Lycée Saint Charles slightly after 8:30, late for my first class, drenched from an untimely rainstorm, and wondering how to relate yet another traffic jam to my ever-patient, but increasingly exasperated colleagues. The first signs of trouble were walking the opposite way down the sidewalk as I approached the last turn.
Students. Smug students. And a few yards later, glistening under delicate Marseille raindrops, dumpsters were strewn against the high stone wall of the school like toy trucks abandoned for a more interesting game. The police car I saw across the street as I looked up—a clear strike three—drew a hoarse, "Oh no" out of me as I rounded the turn. And there they were. The mob of students, milling about with complete nonchalance in front of the school's gate, which could barely be made out under the welter of twisted fencing, municipal trash cans, and broken mirrors. I can get you the ringleader's info if you need to know how to build a barricade for your particular place of work or study.
Luckily that day the police had managed to forge a path through the barricade so that those students willing to endure the ridicule of their peers could squeeze in and get to class. Most, though, were "at the bottoms of their beds", as one teacher put it. My bed, 30 kilometers away and now stone cold, was no longer an option, of course. Which was just as well, since I ended up with several classes of two or three students, and we had a fine time together.
The strikes have continued, with limited effect, since then. The most recent was this week's when something altogether innovative was tried: after the police foiled their plans to block people out of the high school, some students regrouped around 10 a.m. on Monday and barricaded everyone inside. The vice-principal seemed, rightfully, fit to be tied by all of this, and asked me if such a thing ever happened in the U.S. "No", I said, "We'd never even think to strike...we wouldn't know what to ask for."
I am reminded of the closest I ever came to striking in high school. It was during a mandatory assembly for National Honors Society senior year, when we were all told that we'd be held through the first period, and therefore miss the campaign speeches for class president being televised throughout the school. About twenty of us decided to just stand up and leave on the count of three. After three seconds, twenty of us were up, and, after about four seconds, half of us were back down—myself included—melted by the steely voice of Mrs. McNicolas, threatening all kinds of torment. In retrospect, I should have seen that she was full of hot air, and that I was a woos—and that it's probably best that I wasn't elected, too. Most of all, I can see that I had nothing on the kids at St. Charles. They don't even sit down for the police.
The protest, I suppose I should say, is against a series of new measures being handed down from Paris that will drastically change the face of French secondary education—eliminating certain degrees (for which some students are now on track, and could potentially be forced to abandon), cutting back hours of class time, adding new responsibilities for teachers, etc. The strikes have succeeded in getting the bill pushed back a year, but given how much school has been missed, I wouldn't be surprised if many students will just plain fail this year, anyway, and be forced to repeat it. Things are looking no prettier at the university here in Aix—now the administration has decided to withhold students' grades!
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