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The school courtyard where the kids play for recess. Imagine over 100 kids playing in this enclosed area (that reminds me of a parking lot). The maternelle children play in a separate area.

One day in winter, I dropped my daughter off at school after “la sieste” (=naptime) to avoid another stay-up-late night with her. Usually, an assistant will take her to the “dortoir” (=dormitory, where she naps with the other petites) but this time, I was permitted to accompany her. After weaving our way through the throng of kids in the courtyard, I peeked into le dortoir where I saw children wandering about half naked (top or bottom), some dawdling to the toilets in the hallway (half-naked, from bottom down), others being dressed by the assistants in the room. Because the assistants are dressed in pinstriped outfits and holding the kids like they were drunks (as many were still groggy, waking up), I felt like a witness to a toddler prison. I saw one child given a warning yank on his arm by an assistant who found him uncooperative, and unaware of my presence.  However, the other assistants were very cognizant of me watching, with a loud “Bonjour Madame!” to caution the angry assistant.  I left Clarisse in this peculiar situation as she stood there and waited for someone to tell her her next move, like a pawn on a disorganised chess game.

“Le dortoir” or dormitory where the petits sleep. Children learn to change their clothes here and use the washrooms independently.

Not comfortable with what I observed, I interrogated Clarisse over several months to piece together what happens at school. Before naptime (which begins about 13h30), children must remove outerwear, legwear and footwear to sleep in their cots, provided with blankets and pillows. Kids are awoken from naptime before 15h00 and must use the toilet and learn to dress themselves with progressively less help over the school year. My daughter informed me that no one is asked to wash their hands after using the toilet, and with 2 toilets for 20 kids, it must be a zoo to get them ready in a timely manner. Incidentally, there are signs in the toilet to warn the children NOT to waste toilet paper and NOT to splash water all over the floor and make it slippery. But there are no signs regarding hand-washing and using soap.

The WC for maternelle, ground floor. I’m standing in the doorway so you get a sense of what people see (too much) when they walk past.

I’ve been supervising my daughter’s toilet routine at the school every morning. She likes to use their pint-sized toilets and sinks—no problem. So when winter came, I kept the door half-open to keep the cold wind from bothering my girl in the open-concept washroom (la porte is always left wide open). And honestly, she could use a little privacy in there instead of having every person see her on the toilet when they enter the maternelle (=kindergarten) building. I think I am the only parent who stays in the washroom with my child.  Other parents stand outside the toilet and give instructions to their kid, or aren’t there at all (and from what I observed, those without supervision zipped in and out of there like it was a race). Well, I guess the benefit here is that we have the soap ALL TO OURSELVES! No one will need to refill that soap dispenser for another 2 years if this keeps up…

The level of liquid soap was at the top of the window when school started. At this rate, soap will run out in the school year 2014-15.

I can’t wait until the next La Gastro epidemic.


It is several months later since I wrote the above observations and dare I say that my girl is to this day, continually on this rotating pattern of being sick for 2 weeks and healthy for 3. It is no different from last year when she was sick for most of the year, having gained and spread her illnesses from preschool. The kicker here is that she only attended preschool 2 mornings a week and if she was coughing a lot or had a bad cold, I was requested to keep her home to prevent the illness from circulating at the preschool. And hand washing with soap was an expectation. Understood. At the maternelle, snotty children with nasty coughs are still welcomed into the building; my daughter has only missed 3 days of school. (But maybe having 2-week vacations and her teacher striking every so often helps…) I have witnessed a lot of sickly, germ-spreading kiddos that would have been asked to remain at home if they were in a Toronto school. I have even seen a young boy vomit in the WC three times, and then see his mom clean him up while he was still crying, and then send him into the classroom (I squealed on that case. There is no way I want my kid sharing space with someone who just “vomir”-ed 5 minutes ago in the WC. The weird part is that although my French communication skills are nil, I actually knew the French word for “vomit” when I told the teacher. Go figure.) In comparison, the French school here is very lax with sick kids coming to school. I think your kid really needs to be debilitatively ill to be absent from school. Kids spreading germs is just a fact of life in France. Going to school for eight hours is a fact of life. Eating fresh baguettes daily, drinking wine and having a cheese course at dinner time is a fact of life. I’m all for it. But I wish handwashing with soap was a fact of life too… (in France, AND in Canada!)

There are as many as patisserie shops as there are grocery stores in Paris. Maybe more. In France, this is a fact of life.