April 13, 2011 | French

A Goldfish Dies in Harlem

Some New York City kindergarteners cope with early loss, in French.

Yesterday I visited the first public French-American charter school in New York City, called—appropriately—the New York French-American Charter School.

116th Street Subway Station Art

116th Street Subway Station Art

Heading East on 118th Street

Heading East on 118th Street

Headed by Katrine Watkins, it is located on 120th Street, between Eighth and Manhattan avenues. The school mission, according to its website, is to “develop global citizens who are well-prepared to assume leadership in a multicultural society.”

The text continues, “Preparing students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) as well as the Regents High School Diploma, the school blends the rigorous standards of learning that are characteristic of the French educational system with American approaches that value individuality and critical thinking.”

The children’s families come from many different parts of the world, including numerous African countries, France, Haiti, and more. The majority of the parents are French-speaking.

The majority of their children are not.

The School Entrance

The School Entrance

Across the Street: Église Adventiste du 7ème Jour

Across the Street: Église Adventiste du 7ème Jour

It is the goal of Ms. Watkins, who previously started two other French-American schools, and her staff to change that. The school opened last fall and currently has students from kindergarten through second grade, for whom 75 to 80 percent of the instruction is in French. Next year they will be adding a third grade, at which level the instruction in English and French will be evenly divided.

The idea is to create an immersion experience in the early grades when the children are still quite young and can acquire language easily. Ms. Watkins said she would start even earlier, at three, if she could. At that age, she explained,  “They don’t even know you’re speaking another language.”

As part of my visit, I sat in on a kindergarten class. There were four adults in a room of about 23 children, which struck me as a rather encouraging adult-to-student ratio. One of the instructors was from Senegal, another from Haiti, and all were friendly.

I had hardly sat down when all the children began clustering around a fish tank on one end of the room.

Something was wrong.

Where Bubbly Lived, and Died

Where Bubbly Lived, and Died

The teachers investigated. Tragically, it seemed a fish had died. I did not run over to look myself, feeling that decorum would be best preserved by my remaining in my seat and allowing the teachers to attend to the fish and the children. 

The teacher from Senegal (whose name I’m afraid I didn’t write down) went to retrieve a little blue fishing net, which she used to fish out the fish. She put it on a paper towel and held it out for the inspection of the children, who were understandably all very interested in the fish equivalent of lying in state.

I thought tears were imminent, but I never saw any; in fact, most of the children seemed surprisingly cheerful. I believe I heard the teacher say, “On doit l’enterrer” (we must bury him), before disappearing for a minute. Later I learned that he had been laid to rest in a porcelain bowl of a variety that has served as burial ground for many a goldfish globally.

When she returned, all the children went to their respective seats around several tables, from which they participated in a thorough and wide-ranging discussion of the possible reasons for the demise of Bubbly. (That was the poor fish’s name.)

“Bubbly” was pronounced by all the children as a three-syllable word, and often with a bit of a French accent. Bub-bull-ee.

Seen on the Wall: French Body Parts

Seen on the Wall: French Body Parts

Vegetables: Good for You in Any Language

Vegetables: Good for You in Any Language

The majority of the children had opinions about the cause of Bubbly’s untimely death, along with a powerful desire to express them. The teacher called on them one at a time to elaborate, encouraging them to offer their explanations in French. If they started in English, she stopped them and prompted, “Je pense que…” (I think that…).

Among the explanations offered:

  • He had a fever.
  • He ate too much.
  • He ate too little.
  • He was electrocuted.
  • There was too much water.
  • He tried to leave the water.
  • He hit his head on the wall of the aquarium.
  • His eyeball got stung.
  • He got a wound on some other part of his body.
  • He tried to eat a piece of plastic from the top of the aquarium.
  • And so on.

But far and away, the favorite explanation was: He swam into the light at the top of the tank, and it made him too hot.

If that is what befell Bubbly, well, apparently the remaining fish hadn’t learned their lesson, because loitering around the light seemed to be their favorite pastime. 

Bubbly's Pal, Living Dangerously

Bubbly’s Pal, Living Dangerously

After the discussion ended, I visited another class, where the kids were older and less shy and kept charming me by walking up to me and saying, in lovely French accents, “Bonjour.”

They were working on French phonics, and I actually found myself at a disadvantage in this discussion, as my ability to distinguish between certain similar French sounds is compromised by my age.

A young child’s ear for language is remarkable. It would be fabulous to keep that as we grow older. But we can’t, and we have to make do with the many ways we can still learn and appreciate language, albeit through less malleable brains.

Comments (1)

Julie • Posted on Sat, April 16, 2011 - 12:42 pm EST

“His eyeball got stung.”

This is always my go to explanation for all fish deaths.

This post’s charm is only exceeded by its hilarity. I am lucky to know so many funny people. Although I am not allowed to read this blog late at night in bed because my giggling irritates my bedmate.

Obligatory useful item: If it’s not on your itinerary already, you should check out the French restaurants down on the LES. I’ll bet you can find owners/employees to talk to there. For a short time in the late ‘80s I had a Frenchwoman living with me who was working at one of them—Restaurant Bernard, long gone—with many other illegals. She taught me how to make a proper roux right before getting deported back to France while trying to re-enter the US during a hop up to Canada. I’ll bet that neighborhood is still crawling with French speakers.

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