In the quiet back room of the library, Uni High’s French 3 and French 4 teacher, Madame Lopez, shares her unique high school experience in Algeria. Wearing a navy blue jacket that reads “Mont St Michel,” the name of a French castle, she begins sharing her high school experiences.
Unlike many of the teachers at Uni, Madame Lopez did not grow up in America – instead, she lived in Algeria, attending the local French high school. “French was my version of your English,” she said. However, since the official language of Algeria was Arabic, she grew up balancing both the Arabic and French languages in her educational and personal life.
She remembers her school’s student population as being very wide and diverse. They had students from families from all walks of life, as it was an international community. The student body was also “easily over a thousand,” more than three times as large as Uni’s student population.
A normal school day began by gathering near one of the trees in the school yard with her friends until classes began at 8 am. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, classes would break at noon for lunch and start again at 2 pm. Tuesdays and Thursdays were “half days”, which gave the students the afternoon off to meet with teachers or do any extracurriculars. On normal school days, school would end at 5 pm.
Extracurriculars weren’t as common for her as they are now to most Uni students – there were no official school-affiliated extracurriculars or sports, so she would head home immediately after school ended. Arriving home at five thirty, she would have a small snack and begin her homework right away, only taking a break for supper. The nights were filled with studying, much like the nights of Uni students.
At the end of ninth grade, the Algerian education system required her to decide what her college major would be. This was, and still is, a big decision for a French student to make – the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade years would be geared towards the major that they had chosen. Madame Lopez chose humanities, deciding to focus on languages. She had already picked up German and Spanish by the time she chose her major, and started to take Italian as well in tenth grade. “I was able to converse in several languages – not fluently, but I was able to communicate. If we had somebody coming in who didn’t get enough French before they came, I could sometimes help them along, tutor them, sort of teach them a little bit, and speak to them in their language or a common language.”
She recalls taking the French exit exam, called the Baccalaureate (taken by all students in the French education system). Although somewhat similar to our SAT/ACT tests, the Baccalaureate (or “Bac,” for short) was the only determining factor in college decisions, as opposed to America, where a multitude of factors contribute to the admissions process. “The advantage to the American school system is that you don’t have that exit exam that determines what college you can go to,” explained Madame Lopez. “Your grades determine it and your abilities and your activities. But in the European system, if you don’t get a good grade on your exit exam, then you’re limited in what possibilities you have.”
She, like many other French students, started taking the Bac in 11th grade. The only subject they were tested on that year was French, while the other subjects would be saved for their senior year. All students had to be ready to be tested in written and oral format on an anthology of poems, a play, a novel, and thirty various excerpts of texts. Each student had to have an explication ready on any one of those texts, and the preparation for it was long and incredibly intense. “It took a good month after that to just sort of pick up a book up for pleasure and just read it knowing that I’m not gonna be tested on any of it,” recalled Madame Lopez.
However, the Bac also led to some fond high school memories. A hundred days before the test, there would be a big celebration for the seniors to relieve some of the stress from the mounting pressures of the exam. Students would dress up in whatever costumes they wanted. “It’s kind of like Halloween,” explained Madame Lopez.
As soon as the test was over, the results would be posted for all to see. Everyone’s grades would be recorded on a blackboard and placed on the inside of the big gate. “You get to see your grades and you get to see everybody else’s grades,” Madame Lopez described. “You can’t touch it or do anything with it, or move it out of the way so nobody else can see it…that wouldn’t cut it today, they don’t put people’s information out there.” Fortunately, her name was under the “passed” portion of the board.
She remembers the grading system as one of the biggest differences between American and French school systems. “In the French school system, the teacher, as they’re handing out the work to the students, have no qualms about berating you,” she said.
“I don’t want to be the mean teacher that everybody remembers,” she laughed, reflecting on her experiences with teaching. “I had a math teacher who would often throw the eraser across the room if somebody was talking.” The Algerian school system was a lot stricter than what American students (especially Uni students) typically receive. If you misbehaved, they would hit you with a ruler or put you in the corner, drawing attention to you. “I still think the American system is a little more gentle,” she remarked.
After high school, Madame Lopez attended college in America, got married, and raised her family afterwards. She had had her heart set on teaching from very early on, and started student teaching at Uni somewhere around 1993, teaching Russian and French. The following year, there was a position open to teach French part time, and she took it. She has stayed at Uni ever since.