Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Savoring Paris

One of the best things about living in England is having the rest of Europe at your doorstep. A long weekend in Paris is easier than popping down to NYC from Maine. The high-speed Eurostar train travels between London and Paris in only 2 1/2 hours. Security and passport control are so fast they recommend arriving only a half an hour ahead of time. After zipping through the Chunnel (the Channel Tunnel,) you just step off the train and are free to go.

We took the commuter rail to our friends’ house in the western suburbs of Paris. Craig Bradley, the former Dean of Students at Bowdoin College, is now working for the Aga Khan. Craig is helping to set up a series of secondary schools in developing countries.

It is Craig’s dream job, especially given his love of France, but we were sad to see his family leave Brunswick, Maine last year. Elizabeth Webb and their daughters were in my playgroup, and even our dogs were close friends. I can’t go to Popham Beach without thinking of our sunset picnics and ocean canoeing adventures, but happily they come back to Maine for the summers.

Their daughters are attending an international school designed for expats and repats. It is public school with a mini private program for different nationalities to maintain the second language. After the transitional year, the girls now take all other classes in French and are getting close to fluent. If they stay long enough, they can get French citizenship and will graduate with an International Baccalaureate.

The price is that the French approach to education is as regimented and conformist as the landscaping. My daughter's friend said she felt like one of those French trees. Individuality among school children or plants is discouraged. Trees are planted symmetrically and cut into even boxes in parks and along streets. Even the forest trails are numbered and drawn in straight lines with little regard to the topography.

Saint Germain-en-Laye, the birthplace of Louis XIV, is a charming town with little shops and an open-air market 4 days a week. Every transaction is conducted in French, which was great practice. That’s Elizabeth in the fromagerie talking cheese. This was something like my seventh visit to France, and I love their appreciation of fine food. On Sundays after noon you are forbidden to mow the lawn in case that might disturb dining.

For lunch we went to Larcher, a delicious creperie that the children adored. Then our family went to Paris on our own. There was an interesting cubism exhibit at the Musée Picasso and a fabulous Giacometti exhibit at the Centre Pompidou. The view of Paris from the outside escalators is worth the price of admission alone. Sadly, it was overcast for most of our visit, but at least it wasn’t raining. Plus at this time of year, there were few crowds.

My son is studying the French revolution and was writing a paper on Marie Antoinette’s abortive escape from execution. We drove 20 minutes to Versailles and history came alive. At this time of year the fountains are off and the statues covered but admission to the gardens is free. We headed to Le Petit Trianon, a “little” palace Marie Antoinette inhabited to avoid the grandeur of the Versailles court. The gardens there were in the English landscaping style, planned just as carefully to appear natural.

We didn't go hungry. In the mornings the girls picked up fresh baked croissants and pain au chocolat from the local boulangerie. On Saturday night we had a delicious meal at Au Pere Lapin. It was French but without the cream and butter and with an Asian influence. From the street we had a great view of the Eiffel Tower all lit up for night. Dinner is served late, at 8:00 pm or later, and lasts for hours. Rush hour in France is 6:00-7:00 pm, and many Parisians take a long lunch break.

On our last day, my son wanted to see the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette and her family were held before execution. Prisoners were often tortured before going to the guillotine. After that they would go to Napoleon’s Tomb and War Museum. Elizabeth and I decided the ten-year-old girls would prefer to see Monet’s lily paintings at the newly re-opened L’Orangerie.

My husband proposed splitting into two groups: the death party (ou la partie de la mort?) and the lily party. The guys headed off with ghoulish eagerness. Elizabeth’s oldest daughter joined them as even death was better company than listening to little girls sing fake commercials. Talk about torture! It was my daughter’s second visit to Paris, but she was more interested in her long-lost twin. Hard to blame her.

A test of Monet’s skill was that the girls stopped singing long enough to admire the art. As much as these paintings are almost a cliché, it is an incredible experience to stand in the airy oval rooms surrounded on 4 sides by enormous lily canvases. You feel part of the landscape, like standing at a mountain’s summit.

My favorite part of being in Paris is just wandering the streets, the gardens and along the Seine. We walked half the length of the city to a free outdoor sculpture garden on the riverbank near Le Jardin des Plantes. In France you are allowed to touch the sculpture, as one should.

It was hard to say goodbye to our friends but easier to leave Paris in a downpour. We emerged on the other side of the Chunnel in shock: the sun was shining and the skies bright blue. It felt weird to be speaking English again. The time in Paris with old friends brings to mind one of Fredrick’s Fables where a poetic mouse stores memories of summer to get through the long winter. I shall savor the taste of Paris.

The market pumpkins reminded me that it is Halloweeen. We got some candy but will we get trick-or-treaters tonight? Back in Maine there will be a children's parade down Maine Street. It's not a day you can forget. I suspect Thanksgiving will feel odd too.

My kids as Pippi Longstocking and the BFG in our backyard in Maine

P.S. For those of you who are wondering how I could be in 2 places at once, the Times Record editor decided to sign my political endorsement letters Brunswick rather than Oxford. On Friday 11/2 is my letter for Bob Morrison for school board at-large and on 10/11 was my letter for Dugan Slovenski for district 2. Henry and I voted absentee.

The French have amazing turn-outs. Elizabeth asked a neighbor why, and she replied, "we fought so hard for the right to vote." So did we. Don't forget to vote Tuesday!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Shaping a Novel (S.A.D.)

It helps to have two book projects going on simultaneously especially while living abroad. I researched NOT CRICKET while I waited for S.A.D. to come back from my second reader. It was a long wait. There have been a series of wildcat postal strikes in Britain, the worst in 20 years. It made me sad.

The title of my novel, S.A.D., stands for both School Administrative District and Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have always loved puns. The story came to me when I was caught up in a political campaign for building a new school in Brunswick, Maine. Why not plunder my hard-won knowledge of small town politics for fiction?

There is so much beyond a political activist’s influence in the real world, what a relief to be in control of a novel. Although sometimes I don’t feel like I’m really in control. I create the characters, put them in a setting and watch to see what happens. It’s more like directing than playing God.

An appropriate analogy since S.A.D. puts evangelicals on a school board who want to add Intelligent Design to the science curriculum. A lobsterman and a liberal professor fight back, and my protagonist is caught in the middle of the drama. The superintendent pays the deadly cost.

Like any production, there is a large cast of characters working behind the scenes. Education lawyer George Isaacson corrected my interpretation of the law and found my scenario scarily plausible. I also spoke to teachers, administrators and a former superintendent. A couple of professors, a priest, a fire chief, a lobsterman, a pilot, a detective , and a marine patrolman helped with other plot points. The evangelical ministers didn’t return my calls so I just went to services. Plenty of book/internet research too.

After my husband, the first reader for S.A.D. was Kathy Thorson. Like my protagonist, Kathy is new to the school board and has red hair. The similarities stop there as I created Haley Swan before Kathy even thought of running. Sorry to ruin the fun, but my characters are all fictional. Most of the work is imagination. My novels may be based on research but are spiced up with plenty of romance and drama.

My second reader was author Charlotte Agell (check out her new website.) She encouraged me to enliven the narrative by playing out some of the drama in the classroom and through my teen characters. That has been fun! It broadens the appeal to a Jodi Picoult family drama audience. Charlotte, Kathy and George all live on my street back home. How’s that for a small town?

My third reader will be Abigail Holland in NYC, a former Harper’s editor now home with her kids.  After she comments, I’ll figure out if S.A.D. is ready to go to my last reader for a proof read.

Then S.A.D. will go to my agent, Jean Naggar, in NYC for her feedback. Other agents at her medium-size firm might advise. Any major changes would be tested on yet another reader. Once the manuscript is ready, my agent draws up a list of editors who have shown interest (think of a dance card at a ball.) An agent works on commission after the sale of the book to a publisher. Readers just get a line on the acknowledgement page and my eternal gratitude. I also read for other writer/readers.

At the publishing houses a manuscript may get several reads with marketing and publicity involved. A committee makes the decision to publish, and more work gets rejected than accepted. An accepted manuscript will be worked on by editors, copy editors, type setters, book jacket designers, marketers and publicists. Even after the editorial revisions are complete, it will be another nine months or so until you see it at the bookstore.

My agent’s assistant, Marika Josephson, made an insightful comment:

I always thought the Bible was so fascinating because so many hands went into the production of it. And you could see it all in each line if your ears were tuned to it. I never realized that a book you pick up off the shelves even these days is exactly the same. The whole entire package has been touched and sculpted by dozens and dozens of hands. I certainly can't look at books the same way again after having worked in publishing!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Horses in the Mist

In the mornings, the mist is often thick over Port Meadow. The herds of horses and cattle come into soft focus as I walk the dog. The sun is low on the horizon, making the most ordinary objects glow. Only in Oxford can swans flying over a river be called ordinary.

The misty landscape is a reflection of my mind as I try to find NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE). First there are the characters, shifting in and out of focus and teasing me at the periphery of my vision. Sometimes I think I see them clearly, but other times they fade away.

In my latest version of S.A.D., I decided my protagonist needed a personality makeover and changed her name from Agnes Wolfe to Haley Swan. Time in England is affecting even my American book although Swan is a Maine name. I try to be true to my settings.

The plot is pure fiction. It keeps changing like a folktale passed down through generations. The essential message stays the same, but the story shifts in details and in structure almost organically.

The plot is key to commercial fiction as it drives the narrative. It’s tricky to create a story that keeps the reader turning pages but also resonates on a deeper level. I like to keep the narrative open for as long as possible so as to explore the many paths. A story that doesn’t surprise me won’t surprise you.

As important as thinking is reading. Some books I read for research and others for writing inspiration. I have just finished a most lovely novel, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, translated from the Norwegian by Ann Borne. It is not long, and the prose is simple, but it says so much with so little. It breaths between the words.

A coming-of-age story, Out Stealing Horses explores the relationship between a fourteen-year-old son and his enigmatic father. The beautiful, raw setting roots the characters and frames the narrative. It is a small community in the northeastern woods of Norway. The narrator is an older man, looking back on a disturbing and formative summer shortly after WWII. When I finished, it was like saying goodbye to a close friend. I miss his voice.

Another story that relies heavily on setting is Ann Patchett’s new release, Run. It takes place close to home in Boston and Cambridge where I attended university. Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and her last novel, Bel Canto, was too good to match. In her latest novel she looks closely at a family and the effects of race and class. Her characters are so real you feel you know them. Run was helpful for me to read because it is set in winter like my first two novels.

Popham Beach, Maine in December

So many authors set their Maine stories in the summer, possibly because they only vacation there. For year-round residents, Maine is defined by its long winter and unpredictable storms. It is what makes living up north unique and special. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a Maine summer, but you feel like you’ve earned it after surviving the winter and appreciate it the more.

As it rains and the leaves turn brown instead of flaming red and gold, Maine feels far away. Still, I have to admit that I may be quite happy to see daffodils in February for a change. When I leave Oxford, I will dream about horses in the mist.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Public School Dayboy

My son’s school dates back to 1100 and enrolls 800 boys aged 11 to 18. Less than a quarter of the children board, and those are mostly from Asia, so they are set up for foreign students. There are few, if any, Americans. My English husband was thrilled to see the front lawn was a cricket pitch. The campus quads are arranged around extensive athletic grounds, but the emphasis is firmly on academics. The setting is a market town even older than the school.

A traditional English public (meaning private in American) school, it is known for being academically rigorous. It is a feeder school to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the ivy-league of England. Unlike the ivies, these top universities are heavily subsidized by the state despite the fact that only half of the students come from state (meaning public in American) schools. University entrances are based on examination results and only a few schools claim most of the Oxbridge places, a system that reinforces privilege and class. A recent report revealed that only 100 schools account for a third of Oxbridge undergraduates, most were private.

To apply to his new school, my son sat two days worth of exams that were like LSAT’s crossed with Math SAT’s and an English AP. He had to analyze a poem about a nostalgic father watching his son play cricket that confounded him, but my son must have aced the essay on emerging technology. We depend on him to program our i-pods. The exam had to be “invigilated” by the headmistress of his school.

Back in Maine, we moved our son to private school when his elementary school abandoned ability grouping and had not yet started up a Gifted and Talented program. During his final year, I came in and taught an advanced math group, but I’m no mathematician and his supplemental education left little time to work myself. His small private school in Maine emphasizes academics and the arts with a laid back, welcoming atmosphere.

Before starting school in England, my son had to shed his t-shirts and cargo pants. He couldn’t have called them pants in England anyway – that’s the word for underpants, also called knickers for a girl. We found the campus uniform shop next door to the tuck (snack) shop. My son was outfitted in navy blazer, grey trousers, black lace-up shoes, blue shirt and striped tie, also rugby kit.

Each house has a distinct tie, and his is maroon and grey, reminding me of Gryffindor in Harry Potter. The house system creates community and allows students to compete for more than themselves. Individuality is not encouraged, and the uniform reinforces this message. We wanted our half English son to get a true British experience like his father had at Pangbourne before it went co-ed.

I was worried how the other kids would receive a lone American given how unpopular the war in Iraq is here. No worries. Our 13-year-old son was an instant hit after reassuring the older boys that American cheerleaders do indeed fall for the British accent. In case you’re wondering, I was never a cheerleader.

The school day is 8:30-5:00 Mondays-Fridays and 8:30-1:00 on Saturdays, but the weekdays include an hour of afternoon sports or activities. They all do community service, and my son chose cross-country and chess. He is less than impressed with the long day but is enjoying his new classes like physics and chemistry enormously. The campus is on the opposite side of Oxford from us so he takes the school coach.

If only there was a bus to his sister’s state school, but we are getting very fit biking. We decided to withdraw my daughter’s petition to move to a closer elementary school since she is happy, learning well and has good friends. It is a very small school with only one class per year. Yet another transition would be stressful, and there is nothing wrong with the school itself, just the system that reinforces inequities and results in difficult commutes.

We couldn’t have picked two more different school experiences for my children in England. Between them, we are witnessing the full gamut of British education.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Wall of Inequity

There once was a wall near my daughter’s school in Oxford. It cut off the council housing (low-income housing project) from its more affluent neighbors. Erected in 1934 by a private developer, two walls transected even the road. Following public protest, the walls were demolished in 1959, twenty-five years later. The inequities persist today.

My daughter was placed in the one school that still had openings. As we bike or walk the mile and a half to her school, we pass kids her age from this district going in the opposite direction like rats fleeing a sinking ship. There are no school buses. No city buses travel our route. We have submitted a petition requesting a transfer to our small village school, a short walk away. We have been waiting weeks for a hearing.

An Oxford academic explained that to revitalize the state schools with dwindling enrollments, all schools were open to anyone given space. Preference is given to geographic catchments. Joining late is a disadvantage.

There was no space at all in the large secondary school for her brother. The other option was a long drive away, and we heard of bullying problems there. My children are British citizens so they were not treated differently for being one-year visitors. We were able to send our son to public (ie private) school, but other families don’t have that option.

I find the lack of equity shocking in a system of national education. My daughter’s primary school includes most of the council housing population. There is widespread swearing among the students, and teachers routinely shout for order. Many children are in foster care and have difficult home situations. A large number of students are special needs.

The average mother/caretaker at school pick up time is smoking and/or wearing high heels and tight clothing with unevenly dyed hair. I consider myself a young mother, but most of the parents look ten years younger than me and have larger families. Quite a few fathers in work-clothes pick up too, even more than in Brunswick, Maine. The parents at our local school appear to be of a totally different class, age and educational level.

I’ve always considered the economically diverse student body in Maine public schools a benefit. Accepting this high degree of segregation in Oxford is not right. It makes the inequities that parents are rightly protesting in Brunswick pale by comparison. Why don’t parents complain here?

Despite the inequities, there are advantages to my daughter’s school that address our situation. Many foreign students live in the catchment area, and it is the school of choice for the few Japanese families. It has students from over 20 nations and is ethnically diverse. The school had a welcoming reception for foreign parents and does much to promote cultural sharing. They even studied the Jewish high holidays, although my daughter was the only Jew in the class.

Due to a national curriculum, all children in state school learn the same material. The school’s test results are similar to our neighborhood’s ones and average for the county. This is quite impressive given the high number of ESL students.

It helps that my daughter is not the only foreign student; there is even another American in her class. There’s a child from Georgia (the country, not the state) as well as several other countries. The girls have been very welcoming to her, and she already has had play dates with two friends whose parents are schoolteachers. All the primary schools are small with only one class per year although the class is large with 30 kids.

Math has been a challenge for my daughter mainly because the notation, term names and the system of learning are different. She was marked down for using commas and not setting her long division work into grids. I had to teach her long multiplication, long division and fraction simplification.

Math is taught sequentially in the US starting with addition then subtraction and not progressing until the basics are mastered. Understanding the concept and showing your work is as important as getting the right answer. This used to plague my son in elementary school who does math in his head and has sloppy writing. The Brits are even more upset by poor penmanship. Even math work is done in special handwriting pens.

My daughter has always done well in math and found it discouraging to have a teacher chastising her for not knowing facts that she “should have learned years ago.” The English system introduces all concepts at an early age through memorization so kindergarteners start work on multiplication but won’t understand that it is built from addition. They learn everything at once at an early age.

It appears that Americans do catch up. My son’s “maths” class is repeating material he learned last year in the advanced math class, but the pace here is twice as fast so he will be learning new stuff by mid-year.

Despite all the challenges of adjustment, my children have settled into school and are enjoying the curriculum and their new friends, if missing old friends from home. My daughter is thrilled to have a teacher who encourages creative writing, and the two girls we had over were delightful. All the children at her school have been polite and helpful when they see me. We know little of our son’s new world.

The biggest drawback of not having children in our local schools is not becoming part of the community. It makes me appreciate the wonderful experience of having my children attend a small elementary school near our house in Maine. I too made many friends and became involved in educational advocacy through that stimulation.

Small neighborhood schools can build community and encourage parental participation, but the ideal is often lost in the reality through poor management. Public/state schools should be all about equity and good education. Americans are not alone in struggling with these issues.

Photograph from Oxfordshire County Council Archive.