If Ambre Cadiot could sum up America in one word, the word would be BIG.
“Everything is very, very big,” said the French sixth-grader, with her teacher interpreting, during a recent visit to the North Rockford Middle. “This school is much bigger. The shopping malls are bigger.” So are the cars, houses, even the mailboxes, said the talkative girl with a warm smile.
Ambre also marveled at the automated pay machines at store check-outs, the refrigerators that spit out ice cubes and the school with an indoor swimming pool, in which she had taken a dip that morning. But when asked what she liked most about her brief stay in Rockford, she promptly replied, “Family time,” and gestured to seventh-grader Ella McKanna, with whose family she stayed.
“We had a lot of snowball fights,” Ella said with a grin.
The two girls’ quick bond is a major reason why teachers brought 11 students from a Parisian suburb to spend two weeks in Rockford – and why the same number of Rockford students will travel there in June. Almost all will stay with the families of French students they hosted in Rockford, under the Back-to-Back program of the French American Student Exchange.
But for all their amazement at big American things – including a whopper of a snow day – the French middle schoolers left sobering realities back home. The Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, less than 20 miles from their suburban homes, still weigh heavy on these young people’s minds.
“I am sad and scared,” was all eighth-grader Mocktar Balley Salami wanted to say about it.
Bonds Form Quickly
The emotional fallout from that attack, along with one earlier last year on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, gave the French students something tragic in common with American students who have grown up post-9/11. But it paled compared to the fun and learning they shared with their Rockford student hosts. As Ambre poetically put it, “People are very smiling” in West Michigan.
Staying with host students from both North and East middle schools, the French students spent a day shadowing them at their schoolsalong with outings including Ferris State University, Woodland Mall and Kids Food Basket.
It was the third such exchange since 2011-12, when the program was started by parent Michelle Williams. She knew of Back-to-Back through her cousin Kathy Williams, who coordinates the program for Northview Public Schools, and she had visited her mother’s native France. “It’s like an instant bond of an experience with both sides,” said Michelle Williams, whose two children have taken part.
In a world shrunk by technology and global businesses, exchanges like this are essential, said Clare Adamus, a Spanish teacher and leader of Back-to-Back in Rockford.
“It’s crucial we prepare our students to interact with international kids, because that’s the future,” Adamus said.
Valerie Lejeune, a teacher at the French students’ middle school in Courcouronnes, said the trip helped them improve their English, experience a different culture and “forget borders.”
“They really are like family members when they come here,” Lejeune said. “I want to let them know, no matter how far people live, they’re just human beings.”
Inside Pool, Corner Bar
Ambre Cadiot and her amis found a very different setup at North Middle from their 400-student school. Lunch there lasts 1 ½ hours, featuring a three-course meal on real plates and plenty of time for recess. Restrooms are in separate buildings outside school. Students don’t have lockers and instead carry backpacks from class to class, which is prohibited at North Middle.
“People have a lot of money to have a school like this one, with a gymnasium inside and the pool inside,” Ambre said.
She and Ella learned each other’s language by adding new words each day to a homemade book. Said Ella, “Before I couldn’t understand anything she said, but now I can figure out most sentences.”
Mocktar Balley Salami, who speaks English well, said he likes American culture, history and food, including the hamburgers and hot dogs at The Corner Bar – “a very good restaurant,” he added approvingly.
He spoke warmly of his hosts, eighth-grader John Bina’s family. The two played lacrosse and went to a Griffins game. After a morning of classes with John, Mocktar said, “The school has very good teachers. The students are very cool with me.”
Maélie Garric took classes with her student host, Alice Hutchins. She was struck by students’ informal posture and speech compared to her school.
“The way they teach here is not much different, but the way the children behave in class is very different,” Maélie said, with her teacher interpreting. “They can sit the way they want. In our schools, we’re much stricter.”
In Common: School Security
Her school also adopted stricter security measures since the Nov. 13 attacks, such as safety drills and fewer field trips. Students must carry identification and schedule logs at all times, Maélie said. Some had family members in Paris on that day, and one of the terrorists had once attended their school.
Ambre said she found the attacks “shocking,” and was later disturbed that some elementary students were playing at being terrorists. “I find it bizarre, because they’re talking about death,” she said. “I don’t like that.”
Ella, Ambre’s host student, said she joined in America’s prayers for Paris. Valerie Lejeune, the French teacher, said it helped.
“We really appreciated to see how people in the whole world were on Facebook and social media,” she said. “They were all Paris, they were all France. That was great.”