Do you remember the first book you ever owned and from whom you received it? Well, I do. I was six or seven, and it was an illustrated translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I received from my great aunt Clémence. Tante Clémence worked in an industrial laundromat, and I bet she was not a reader; no one in my family read. How and why she got the idea of giving me a book for Christmas, I do not know, but here it was and it made me feel pretty important.
I recently found that book while helping my mother move. When I first received it, I remember the feel of flipping through pages and looking at its illustrations (that little barefoot boy looked so adventurous) but, most importantly, I know it separated me from the rest of my family, none of whom read much. My mother listened to mystery plays on the radio at night, while sewing clothes for me and my sister using fabric from donated clothes. She was a fine seamstress, but I really, really disliked the long fitting sessions during which I needed to stay totally still so that she could adjust sleeves or length! I cannot describe how relived I was when clothes became affordable enough to buy in stores!
So, the professor of French with the French accent – me -- was not raised sipping café crème, reading French philosophers, on terraces in elegant Parisian neighborhoods. Rather, in my family no one had gone to school past middle school or some professional program. My mother, for example, was in her first year in primary school when WWII broke out. Living in the famous Alsace Lorraine region, which the Nazis were reclaiming for Germany, she had to attend three years of school in German, which was a foreign language for her, and her life was often interrupted for hiding in bomb shelters with her three siblings, evacuating to the woods for days or even weeks at a time, and lacking food and everything else that happens during a war in your backyard. In the extremely complicated period after the war she attended a couple of years of makeshift school (this time taught in French) and enrolled in a one-year professional program to become a seamstress. That led nowhere, really, because her mother needed her at home to reorganize the house, the garden and help with her four younger siblings.
I was born in 1955 (ten years after the end of WWII) and am the eldest in my family. When I was five, my father -- a war orphan who was hired as a gardener for a rich family and became a house painter -- died. Because he died on the job, my mother received a bit of insurance with which she bought a small dry cleaning place in the nearby city of Metz. She knew nothing about business! I, for my part, did rather well in the local primary school, so well actually that by some "magic" I was invited to attend, for three years and at no cost, the Sacré Coeur, a private Catholic girls' school down the road. It took me a while to understand that I was the Sacré Coeur's charity case. There, I studied among daughters of surgeons, dentists, bankers and other well-to-do families. Details of these years are vague, but I remember often having no idea of what these girls were talking about. I was so intimidated by such conversations that for a time I pretended that my father was a painter (conveniently omitting the "house" part of his profession to fit in better). Did attending the Sacré Coeur change the course of my life? I do not know. However, there I met kids who read, attended cultural events, traveled, and organized birthday parties and many other activities that I did not know existed. I was an average student at the Sacré Coeur, but when I re-entered public school in fifth grade, my level in every subject was much higher than the rest of my peers. So it was decided that I would attend middle school, rather than enter a pre-professional school.
It was in middle school that my advisers became convinced, because of my bad performance, tendency to be distracted by non-academic matters, and probably because of my social background, that I had no chance of passing the Baccalaureat (the final exams at the end of senior year in France) and that I should attend a professional school, a decision that was overturned by my English and history professors. I would probably have been perfectly happy being an accountant, the profession my advisors chose for me, but I am nevertheless thankful that two professors saw beyond my ninth grade unruliness. I ended up among the top third of my class who passed the dreaded Bac on the first attempt, but I still had to repeat my first year of college because it took me one year to understand what it meant to study.
So, my trajectory from primary school to Hamilton has been a bumpy one to say the least, one made of chance, circumstances (some tragic), mistakes, changing directions (including moving to the U.S.), periods of relative success and periods of self doubt. Like many people in my situation, I did not have anyone to turn to for advice. When things did not work out, no one could provide me with anything except moral support (and a fair amount of threat from my mother and professors.) Now, all my cousins have gone to college, and we all read and discuss books, travel and make a decent living. My mother and her siblings grew out of poverty (thanks to universal health care and other social services that Europe is known for). They found jobs, read books and travel. After she quit the laundromat, when I was 16 and she was 38, my mother worked for a dentist who became a great source of inspiration. He talked to her about music, literature, travel, politics and other topics about which she really knew nothing before she met him and about which she slowly informed herself.
It is clear that the war ruined my mother's school years and that family circumstances made it impossible for her to study even after the war. I am convinced that she could and should have been the first in her family to attend college. Nevertheless, she represents another first: the first generation of women who claimed independence and allowed their children to try what they were unable to do. That's pretty cool.