When we arrived in Nouakchott in April 2001, we spoke virtually no French. I had taken years of it in high school and college, and had managed to forget nearly all of it. 6 hours of studying completely wasted! I could communicate with taxi drivers and read simple instructions, but that was about it. Nonetheless, after we looked around at the various educational options, we chose the French school for our children.

The decision was unrequited, at least at first. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones choosing the French school. (Its official name is the Lycée Theodore Monod, so I properly should call it LTM, just to keep it clear).  Many many families wanted to put their kids in that school, oh probably because it was almost affordable and the best educational option in the country. Mauritania isn’t exactly swimming in good choices for kids’ schooling. There are the local schools, where the teachers may or may not show up to instruct 70+ kids per room, said instruction done partly through rote memorization, partly through shouting, and partly with a large stick. Then there’s the American school, at the American Embassy. They wanted my children, because they are so short on native English speakers that their classes spend a lot of time doing remedial work. They go through Grade 8, and cost a mere $12,000 per year per child. Gulp. Not a typo, a real number. And my kids would basically be helping the teacher?

Then there’s LTM. It’s an official French International School, and as such is subsidized by the French government. Located on the grounds of the French Embassy, it runs from pre-K (moyenne section, for you Frenchies out there) through the Bac, and 6 years ago was about $1200 a year per kid. (It has gone up every year since) It offers a really good education for your child. There’s just one thing: in order to get in, you have to deal with French bureaucracy multiplied by African influence. You are really beneath their notice; it’s good to recognize that from the outset. Your attitude should be humble and willing to do anything demanded, no manner how ridiculous.

The first thing they demanded from my 4 year-olds was that they speak French. How to determine this? Easy—they just swept them away, one by one, into a strange room with a woman they’d never seen before, who fired rapid questions at them in French. I wasn’t allowed to come into the room with them. Abel, shy at 4, stuck his thumb in his mouth and looked sadly at her. Two minutes later, she swept out and told me, “He won’t talk.” Needless to say, the twins were not admitted that first year. Elliot was put on the waiting list but in the first spot for Kindergarten (grande section); although he was nearly 6 and ready for Grade 1 in English, the fact that he did not speak French made him ineligible, in their eyes, to begin to learn to read in French. Sigh. Never mind. We “redshirted” him (I just learned that term yesterday; it means holding your child back a year) and it’s certainly worked out—he’s by no means the tallest in his class, and he’s bi-lingual, which has to count for something.

Getting the twins into LTM was something else. We put them in a jardin d’enfants, a preschool, run by a French woman. Their teacher was Algerian and they were the only westerners in their class. (It’s easy to pick them out in school pictures) I remember their first day. At the time, Abel was the shyer of the two, Ilsa more out-going. But when we entered the sandy courtyard, filled with dusty toys, Ilsa hung back and clung to me, while Abel began to do a funny dance and sing “Veggie Tales” in his husky little voice, and went off to play on the low slide without a backward glance.

The next year, armed with their report cards full of A’s and their ability to rattle off colours bleu, jaune, rouge, rose, vert and numbers un, deux, trois, quartre, cinq, we tried again for LTM. Neither succeeded. We were told that the school was letting the bulk of the applicants into CP, or Grade 1. So they continued at le jardin for another year. In the meantime, LTM got a new proviseur, or principal. So, when the twins tried for CP the next year, the school was letting the bulk of applicants into Kindergarten, and there were 60 kids trying for 5 CP spots. Needless to say, my two American kids didn’t make the cut.

So we went to France for a year! There was more involved, of course, but we ended up spending the next year in a charming town in the French Alps, which solved everybody’s school problems. I remember the first day of school, seeing Ilsa, standing alone and lost, in the courtyard full of French children running and shouting, a shaft of sunlight picking out her blonde head, and then seeing her again at lunch, happy, already with a new friend. We bought éclairs at a local patisserie for a treat that first day, fancifully shaped like mice and hedgehogs, beautifully wrapped up for instant consumption on the cobbled alleyway just outside. All 3 had excellent teachers, and our family loved that little school. After that it was easy; when we returned to Mauritania, they simply transferred to LTM, who had to accept them because they were transferring in from a French school.

Once you’re in the system, you’re in the system.

Several people have asked me what we’re doing with the kids this year for school, and I’m sure you will now understand why we’re keeping them in the French system. There is absolutely no way I’d risk going through all that again, next year, in another new country at another new French International school. I’m no glutton for punishment. (Although I could definitely handle another year in the French Alps…)

The French gov’t has a correspondence option, available for French people or those, like us, who’ve had their kids in French schools for more than 2 years. It’s intended for those living abroad where there are no French schools (if you can imagine such a wilderness with no civilization!), or for kids with extended periods of illness who have to do school at home. The idea of homeschooling is foreign to the French mind, and is met with incredulity.

This system is called CNED and it is what we’ll be doing this year. When I told Elliot I’d be basically homeschooling him in French, his face was a study in disbelief and horror. “You?” he squeaked. I could see his point, since he’s fluent and can pass for a French kid, whereas I still stumble along and forget my verb tenses and spell like a 6 year old. (When we were in France, in public people would hear the kids and think we were a French family, until Donn or I opened our mouths and spoiled the illusion)

I would like to put them into an American school for a year. The American and the French systems are really different, and since they plan on going to university here, it’d be nice for them to have some idea of what to expect, some common ground with their future classmates. But there’s no way I’m risking taking them out of the French system. CNED keeps us in, keeps us current. Next year, they’ll simply transfer to a school in Morocco.

We’re still waiting to get it set up; that’s another topic, a painful one. I’d hoped to have it all done by now but unfortunately it’s still in process. But I’ll let you know how it goes, when the teacher knows less than the pupils and the mom knows less than the kids. Should be a fun year!