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TO gain more definite insight into the life of the French children than was obtainable by casual acquaintance with them gathered in my flitting travels, I took advantage of the first convenient opportunity to visit a country school. Children get their character and future bent primarily from their home environment, but their lives are also largely influenced by the schools they attend, and whether these are good or bad is a matter of vital importance. The French schools have, of late, been entirely separated from the Catholic Church, both in their teaching and in their teachers. So far as I could judge, the change had been very beneficial, for in France, as elsewhere, denominationalism, of whatever sort, in elementary education, seems to sap the vitality of the work done as a whole.
The school I visited was in a fair-sized village in the northern department of Oise. I went into the boys’ school first. They had a building to themselves, and were in two rooms of different grades, twenty or thirty in each apartment. The rooms were high, well lighted, and in good repair, and the walls were hung with maps and a variety of other helps, interspersed with a number of pictures. On shelves and in cabinets were books, objects of interest in natural history, a collection of minerals, and sets of models to illustrate metric weights and measures and geometric shapes. In front of the master’s desk was a small organ. The scholars’ desks were the rudest part of the educational equipment. They were long and unpainted, with benches to match, each intended for about half a dozen occupants. The worst of it was that the benches were backless, and the desks behind not near enough to furnish any relief.
The children ranged in age from seven to thirteen. Most of them wore frocks that came down nearly to their shoe tops, and that looked very like dresses. The frocks were usually black, but in some cases were a checked blue. They protected the clothes and were serviceable and sensible; and they were so much the fashion in the boy world of the region that children of well-to-do parents were as anxious to wear them as those of the humbler classes. Another custom in apparel was that of wearing knickerbockers and short stockings which failed to make connections, by several inches, just below the knee. If only the bare tract had come square on the knees instead of below, one would have to concede that it saved wear and tear of clothing at a most vulnerable point, but as it was, I could not see that it had any advantage whatever.
The scholars seemed to apply themselves diligently to their tasks, and the- master said they liked to study at home. By the time a boy gets to be nine or ten, he thinks it important that he should have a portfolio in which to carry his belongings to and from school. The portfolio is black, and it has a long strap to go over the owner’s shoulder; and when he first comes into possession of one of these insignia of scholarship, he feels he is a genuine student, as he never has been before. Portfolios of the same pattern are carried very commonly by professional men in the large towns, and they therefore possess a certain manliness in their attributes that makes them far more essential to the boy mind than does the mere matter of use. Indeed, this portfolio is considered by the youths of a good deal more consequence than a hat. Many of the children went to school without the latter article; and, as there appeared to be no place reserved for hats in the school building, one might infer that the government regarded head protection for students with disfavor. Such hats as there were had to be hung on chance wall nails, or tucked into niches about the desks.
The master and his family lived in the school building, and a door opened from the main schoolroom into the family kitchen. A visitor was unusual; and when I came in, the master’s wife and daughter looked through the door from the kitchen to see who the stranger was. I thought the combination of domesticity and education in such close and familiar relations was rather primitive, and I doubted its expediency; yet it was plain that both the master and his assistant in the next room were capable men, that their methods were modern, and that the children were getting a very fair education.
The girl’s school made the same favorable impression. The rooms were pleasant, and good work was being done, in spite of the fact that the lady principal affirmed to me in an aside that her pupils were “little devils.” They were more uneasy than the boys — more inclined to be self-conscious, and to twist and turn in the unaccustomed presence of an outsider; but these were not serious faults. Many of the girls wore dark outer frocks much like those worn by the boys. I noticed that the majority of them had rings in their ears. The fashion of ear-rings, however, is beginning to pass away in France, as in other civilized countries. Until recently the habit was well-nigh universal, but now the girls in the more intelligent families do not have their ears pierced. The seats occupied by the smaller scholars were as lacking in comfort as those of the boys; but the larger girls were favored with benches that had slender back supports.
School began at eight o’clock in the morning, and ended at four in the afternoon. A two-hours’ intermission was allowed at noon, and a short recess in each session. Then there was, of course, a weekly holiday; though this came on Thursday instead of on Saturday, as in England and America. The playground used by the boys was a barren, treeless inclosure of dusty earth. That of the girls was hardly less dusty and earthy, but it was in part shadowed by a double row of stumpy trees. Fronting on this playground there were, besides the girls’ building, a lesser structure, in which the very little boys and girls were taught, and a cottage occupied by the women teachers.
A very interesting provision is made in the French educational system for encouraging the children in the habit of saving. The teachers are empowered to receive any sums from one sou upwards which the scholars choose to place on deposit, and these are collected monthly by agents of the savings-banks. Every depositor receives a bank-book, only the child with savings under one franc gets a small bank-book, while the child with above that amount has a large one. During the last seventeen years the boys and girls have opened more than half a million accounts in the savings-banks. Many children, or their parents for them, deposit in an endowment fund intended to give them a capital of from one to two thousand dollars when they become of age.
Most French children leave school for once and all by the time they are thirteen, and it is not always easy, after they are old enough to be of assistance at home, to get parents, especially peasant parents, to send them continuously even to that age. But they at least learn to read; though that may mean the gathering of little more book knowledge than is possessed by their elders, who were never taught anything. That the peasants have very hazy ideas about geography, I early discovered. If I stopped to talk with a laborer in the fields, and mentioned that I was from America, he would want to know whether I was from North or South America.
“North,” I reply; and then he inquires if I am from Canada.
“No; from the United States.”
“Ah! “ and he looks as if he had heard of that country, but had a very indistinct notion of what and where it was. But if I speak of having sailed from New York, he brightens perceptibly. He knows that city much better than he does the United States. The matter of placing me being as satisfactorily settled as could be expected, he asks if I am rich; and when I tell him I am not, he looks sceptical, for all Americans are rich in the belief of French peasants.
A boy, unless his parents have means, has almost no chance of education beyond what he gets at the elementary schools. In a very few scattered towns, the government maintains advanced special schools; but it only in part pays the scholars’ expenses, and none save the cleverest prize-takers are sent to them. Catholic schools in which the priests and nuns teach after their time-honored ecclesiastical manner are still common, but the Church no longer furnishes teachers and dictates methods to the public schools.
In other ways, however, Church supervision of the child is as unrelaxed as ever, and at present it divides this supervision with the State about evenly. Notice must be sent within twenty-four hours of a baby’s birth to the office of the village mayor, so that the official physician may call and assure himself as to various facts which the law requires shall be recorded. Then the father, accompanied by two witnesses, goes to the mayor’s office, and, between them all, a birth certificate is filled out, and the child thus gets a legal, documented position in the commonwealth, to which he or she will be obliged to have recourse in all the great and frequently in the minor affairs of life. Without it the child could not enter a school, and in later years could not be enrolled in the army, or get married, and might even have trouble in being buried. The baptismal names declared by the child’s relatives must always be placed in the same order in all future deeds and papers, and the least mistake is liable to upset French officialism entirely, and only vast expenditure of time and talk will serve to straighten matters.
If the State, through the statistical physician, is usually the first to take cognizance of the new baby, the Church is not much behind. A priest is sure soon to appear to administer unction, and insure the little one a place in heaven in case it should not have long to live.
The baby’s first outing is apt to be a month or two later, when, some Sunday afternoon, it is carried to the church for the sacrament of baptism. All the family and the friends are present, and the baby is sumptuously dressed. Its sponsors renounce Satan’s works and pomps in the child’s name, while the baby wails with the distress of its unusual clothes and surroundings, and protests mightily against the sprinkling of holy water on its bare head and the laying of salt on its tiny tongue. A christening among the peasantry is always accompanied by a great feast, and the file of guests walking in couples, arm in arm, to and from church behind the godparents, makes quite an imposing procession. The bells ring merrily, and sugared almonds and pennies are thrown right and left to gladden the hearts of the village urchins. The nurse receives presents from every one, the godfather gives the godmother a present, another to the mother, and, without fail, bestows on his godchild a silver mug, fork, and spoon.
After the children get to be eight or ten years old, boys and girls are no longer the free associates they have been hitherto, and with the first communion, when the girls are eleven and the boys twelve, there is still less of companionship than before. The separation is in part natural, for their interests are different in the amusements that appeal to them, and they have not the same rights or duties. The girls seem by nature to be more religiously inclined than the boys, though this is largely a result of the influence of mothers and teachers, and because it is expected of them. The boys pattern more after their fathers, whose lives seem to argue that religion is not of any great concern to the masculine portion of the race.
Among peasants and laborers, child life is comparatively unhampered, but among the upper classes, the unwritten repressive social laws applying to young people are many, and they are punctiliously observed. It is a part of the parental creed that the way to make a daughter most maidenly and attractive is to allow her few associates and to keep her constantly under surveillance. Thus it happens that she is rarely given the opportunity to engage in any robust physical exertion, and her toilet is her chief concern, from the age of five up. The system of chaperonage makes her subject to perpetual companionship with servants; and the servants, however willing, good-natured, and even devoted, are often ignorant, superstitious, and deceitful. Frequently the protection rendered by the chaperoning servant seems theoretical rather than real; as, for instance, when the respectability of a young lady in her twenties, on her way to visit at the house of a friend, is guarded by a little maid not more than half her mistress’s size and age.
Most girls of the well-to-do class finish their education at a convent school. It is said that they get there adequate exercise and recreation, and that their health is generally good. Certainly they are preserved from nervous excitement, if nothing more. Perhaps the worst feature of the convent is its hostility to all progress. Both the good and the evil of modern times are under a ban, and contact with the world is held to be about the same as contamination. In some convents, when the relatives come to see the girls, they are only allowed to talk to them through a grating; but in most institutions the rules give them liberty to see each other in the same room, though a guardian nun must always be present. All letters sent or received are read by the superior, and the separation between mothers and daughters is nearly complete, save in the two months of vacation. It is no wonder, then, if marriage is hailed with delight by most French girls as a relief from this unending espionage and repression. It brings them, at least, freedom.
The condition of the boys at the priests’ schools is much the same as that of the girls at the convents. Their liberty would hardly be more curtailed if they were criminals. It is a melancholy sight to see these schoolboys taking what is called recreation. They walk in pairs, with their masters accompanying, and even in the seminaries, as young men preparing for the priesthood, they are in custody almost as much as ever. They work long hours, and are noticeably pallid and slender. They get little of the rough and tumble exercise which falls to the lot of our English and American youth, and they are less robust and, I think, less happy. At the age of sixteen or eighteen, the young Frenchman may have more general information and more polish, but he is a forced and precocious hothouse growth, and the consequence of his training is inevitable — when the reins are loosened and the boy is his own master, there is a reaction, and this is not so apt to take the form of healthy sport and pleasure as it is to run to dissipation.
As a whole, the French treatment of youth seemed to me in many ways mistaken and unfortunate, yet there is at least one bright ray of hope auguring better things for the future, and that is, the great advance in effectiveness made within very recent years by the public schools. This leaven working in the national life cannot but make for a more natural and wiser social status.