You need what?!


The new school year here in France somehow wouldn’t be the same without a long list of back-to-school supplies.

When I was at school, shortly after the invention of the printing press, the only thing my parents had to fork out at the start of the year was a roll of adhesive film to cover my textbooks. Since I went to a comprehensive school, I sometimes had to make do with present-wrapping paper. Or, one memorable time shortly after their divorce, leftover wallpaper.

It somehow brings Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch to mind: “We was so poor we had to chop down trees ourselves using just our siblings, chew the wood down to pulp between what were left of our teeth, then press it into paper with our bare hands to make our own exercise books. And still teacher would cane us ‘cause the cover were green, not red.”

I could understand having to buy so much stuff if my kids attended a single-classroom school in a tiny village run on a voluntary basis by a failed writer out of a sheer love of teaching. But we live in a major city in the centre of France and they go to an international school. Not only that, but we have to pay for the privilege of a multilingual education because, in contrast to its counterparts in Berlin, Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and elsewhere, the British government refuses to even subsidise schools overseas. Presumably in the vain hope that the teaching anglophone children receive outside the UK is just as crap as it is at home. 

As a result, whereas our children’s German, American, Japanese and Chinese classmates enjoy free education in their respective language, we both get to pay thousands of euros a year for our kids’ schooling and get to pay for their materials too. Despite the fact that we already had to buy five times as many allegedly vital supplies as they actually needed in the previous school year. 

So every summer we remortgage our house anew to buy preposterously huge volumes of stationery similar yet significantly different to the 150 sheets of narrow-lined, double-sided, wide-margin, four-page paper we still have left over from 12 months earlier.

There’s the usual array of pens, coloured pencils, exercise books, ink cartridges, dividers, rubbers, rulers, protractors, folders, corrector pens and page protectors. And then there are the odder demands. Like a 15cm ruler required by one teacher, even though his colleague already insists we purchase one twice as long. Or the black dress and white blouse that my daughter must possess in case her music class just happens to give a concert during the year. Which, of course, I bet it won’t.

I guess I should be thankful: when we lived in the US and our children attended both a French school and an American one, we would be obliged to import A4 paper, files and other supplies unavailable in the New World. At least now that we’re back in France we can get everything in a regular shop rather than weighing down our suitcases with European school supplies at the end of our summer holiday.

But why, pray, should a geography teacher in France require 30 rolls of kitchen roll, one from each pupil in his class? Is he going to mop up the rising waters when global warming melts the last of the polar ice caps? Are they going to make a full-scale model of the school in papier-mâché? Or does he have a stall at a Sunday market somewhere where he supplements his income with a thriving trade in unwrapped tear-off essuie-touts?

The oddest of this year’s must-haves is a calculator for my daughter. “There’s nothing unusual about that,” I hear you say. “She probably needs it for maths.”

You’re right. She does. Only we bought her a calculator last year. A perfectly functional one. To the precise specifications stipulated by the school. It still works perfectly, too. Even the batteries are fine. But just like the binders – which this year must have four rings where last year they needed just two – the absolutely essential calculator my daughter needs for this academic year is slightly different to the one we already invested in.

She now apparently requires a programmable calculator. But not just any programmable calculator. A very particular, very complicated device that costs upwards of EUR 50. Why is it so expensive? Because not only is it programmable, it has a function which allows this programmability to be disabled semi-permanently to prevent children cheating in their exams. It’s not a simple on-off switch either that you can flip the other way the moment the invigilator isn’t looking. That would be far too simple. This is a marvel of state-of-the-art 21st-century security technology. Apparently, a friend of my daughter’s accidentally tripped the lock to see if it would work and had to have it deactivated months later over the Internet.

I remember that programmable calculators first surfaced when I was doing my A levels in the early Eighties. My best friend had one. I believe it was made by Texas Instruments. I had a humble Casio FX-81, though my brother swapped me his swankier FX-100, which had a load of statistical functions he didn’t understand and I needed for my A level Maths. But it was still a far cry from being programmable. 

Back then, there was a simple rule: if you had a programmable calculator, you couldn’t take it into the exam. So on the day, people just brought their normal calculators and everyone was happy. I put it to my daughter that instead of making me pay a fortune for a calculator that she might never be able to reactivate after her next test, she could continue using the one she already possessed, and I would have some money towards the week’s groceries. “But Daddy!” she replied exasperatedly. “I need that other calculator in the exam to do graphs and stuff!”

If you’re a fellow parent, you can guess how the story ended. In case you’re not, allow me to explain: my daughter got her new calculator and all the other weird and wonderful supplies that keep this country’s stationers in business. 

And we’ll probably be eating haricots verts on toast all week.

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