One of the joys of travel is seeing firsthand evidence of positive aspects of humanity. Such was the case during the journey to Venice.
Waiting at Gate F31 of Charles DeGaulle International Airport for the early morning flight to Venice Marco Polo International Airport a group of students arrived accompanied by several teachers. All male, they appeared to be 11 or 12 years old, from various ethnic backgrounds, in sizes from petite to above average.
From the outset their behavior, both as a group and as thirty individuals, was noticeably different from comparable students in either China or the United States. They were cheerful, high-spirited yet conspicuously courteous with one another as well as with other passengers in the waiting area. In place of annoying horseplay, friendly conversation of the most genial sort was their style.
They lacked any overt “attitude”, in the sense of irritating media-derived mannerisms. What most impressed me were the nearly non-stop smiles, expressing happiness as one rarely observes in Beijing. There was no tussling, jostling, snubbing or exclusion. As a group they were a mix of individual independence and sophisticated cohesion.
How did students of their age turn out so well? I sensed intelligence, curiosity and lively minds, yet no evidence of oppressed spirits from study pressures. Their mix of individuality and cooperativeness reminded me of my own childhood school experience. Not one of them seemed to show off in any way, nor did any wear branded clothing – they were sensibly dressed without being fashionable.
After boarding the aircraft they promptly settled down without their teachers having to intervene. As in the waiting area, they largely took care of their own needs, without heavy-handed supervision. When the jet lifted off they reacting with a low-key sound, but otherwise were as well-mannered as any school age students I’ve seen. As with students I’ve seen visiting Nairobi’s National Museum of Kenya, they radiated energy, warmth and bright minds, yet lacked the sour, irritable, anxious mannerisms that I’ve often observed elsewhere.
What kind of families produce such exemplary children? What are the core values of their school? How do teachers prepare students to behave in such mature ways for children of their age? Do they reflect contemporary French cultural values, or were they an atypical anomaly?
If they to any degree reflect contemporary French cultural values, France is blessed with a well-grounded future generation. They were easily the best group of students that I’ve seen in decades. After landing in Venice, I walked past them in the luggage arrival hall hoping that I’d meet them again during my stay.
As it turned out, our paths crossed again late the next afternoon which resulted in several of the finest group photos I’ve ever taken. I was heading out to the eastern terminus of the Zattere, across from Giudecca, with the EOS 1D X camera and Zeiss Apo-Sonnar T* 135mm f/2 ZE telephoto lens, eager to photograph late afternoon sunset colors. I spotted the French students, recognizing them, their teachers and hearing French spoken.
On an impulse I asked a male teacher if he spoke English, to which he replied “only a little”. A female teacher or professeur, Mme. Hélène Jonnard, very kindly talked with me, confirming that the 12 year old students were visiting Venice on a school trip. They attend a private Catholic collège-lycée named La Salle Passy Buzenval located in Rueil-Malmaison in the western suburbs of Paris. Mme. Jonnard and her fellow professeurs very kindly agreed to assemble the students for a group photograph – I suggested on white stairs, for a pleasing color contrast – which resulted in the images in my Zenfolio Gallery. After taking the formal photos, I shouted “Be Happy! Be Crazy!” which resulted in a final vivacious group portrait.
The most lively, smiling student posed for a quick portrait, showing the smile which had caught my attention. If his parents ever see the portrait, it captured their son on a happy afternoon in Venice. Off they went on their way after an exchange of “au revoir” and “merci beaucoup”. As Mme. Jonnard said, it was a remarkable occurrence to meet twice. One of fate’s gifts to fortune.
For me, visiting Venice is an anti-toxin which purges the residual frustration and disillusion of working in a tough environment. It’s reassuring to see such self-disciplined, active, lively yet well-behaved students. I was so impressed that I wished that I was an English teacher for such exemplary students. The French students enhanced my Venetian visit by exemplifying the égalité and fraternité for which France is well-known and reaffirming that training solid values results in outstanding individuals. May all of them continue to thrive as students and as French citizens!