Preschool on Monday

I take the liberty of imagining your academic lives, O fellow students.

You have settled into the routine of the semester, with midterms still pleasantly distant on the horizon. You’re sorting through topics for that paper that isn’t due for another blessed month. Your professors no longer have to look at that embarrassing sheet of student ID photos when they take attendance.

I too am letting the thought of midterms slide for a bit, and I haven’t had to turn in any papers yet. I don’t miss the attendance-photo ritual.

But I do miss one aspect of American classes.

They start and finish on time.

During our debut week in Nantes, the IES program director gave the fifty of us students a presentation on the French university system. In the great tradition of teaching by example, he started the presentation fifteen minutes behind schedule. We still make wry jokes about his nonchalance: “In your country, this would be a catastrophe. But in France…”

But in France! I’m getting used to professors showing up to class ten minutes late (once it was half an hour). I’m even more used to hearing them say “And to conclude…” and embarking on a detailed lecture segment which blithely overshoots the time slot for which we innocents abroad naïvely registered back in September. Out-of-class assignments — museum visits, observations, guided tours — are the norm, designed with, I submit, not much effort to accommodate our schedules. At least one of my classmates has already been counseled by her professor to skip a different class that conflicts with the professor’s planned field trip. Yesterday I found out that next Monday afternoon, which I intended to devote to a research project, has been generously planned out for me with no effort on my part: I’m going to go observe a preschool class. “Try to be there ten minutes early,” the professor advised me.

And I am not too happy about all this.

Yes, I know that I hail from an America obsessed with exact schedules. The admonition “Be flexible” strikes fear into a Yankee heart like the roll of drums before a firing squad.

But O my fellow students: Come not to Nantes if you are lovers of wristwatches, of planners, of the predictable and the controllable. Venture not across the water that separates the land of slavish punctuality from that of timetable laissez-faire. You un-flexible ones, I say, venture not.

For even if all your professors are divinely punctual, it will be rare luck that spares you flight delays.