It is so weird for me that school life in the two small villages where I work (4200 and 1600 citizens respectively) revolves around a life style that went extinct 40ish years ago in the US, and that is built around everyone being exactly the same and living the same way.
Most of my observations revolve around lunch time rituals. For example: the two hour lunch break at primary schools. I don't want to talk about the cultural history of this, but just the fact that it's bizarre that the school day is based on the fact that one parent available to come pick up the kids, take them home for a gourmet meal, and then bring them back. It's uncommon for kids to stay at school for lunch, most of them go home, usually with Mom, but sometimes Dad or Grandparent.
And why is there a parent available during lunch? Either because they don't work, or because they get that long of a break too. I can't think of a single kid I grew up with who had a parent who didn't work. I mean, I do come from an extremely progressive university town (GO BLUE!) but I really think it's out of the ordinary for a parent to stay at home. I don't think you can afford it! Then again, France is about 20-35 years behind the US (at least) when it comes to women's rights and when women entered the workforce in large numbers. Women in France didn't get the right to vote until after World War II.
And what about the kids who stay at school for lunch? They don't bring bag lunches, and I don't even know if they are allowed to. What are their meal choices? Always meat, one dish and no alternative. What do the kids who keep hallal or kosher do? Oh that's right, those people don't live here. Or so they think.... the Muslim population in this area is large and growing and I feel like (or maybe I just hope) the day when equal meal rights will be demanded is growing closer.
And what about Saturday morning school? This forces all observant Jews out of the public school system (I'd mention Seven Day Adventists but I don't think they exist in France).
This week at one of my schools (with Napoleon Complex Directeur - seriously, I think part of his problem is that he's only about 5 feet tall) they are having a book sale. Remember getting those Scholastic and whoever else book catalogs every month and how it was the best thing ever but your parents never bought you as many books as you wanted? Okay, maybe those last two parts are only true for me. Well here they have a travelling library that sets up in each town once a year (I think only once at least, because this is the only time I've seen it) and parents can come after school between 4:30 and 5 to look at the books and pick some to buy. Again, this is predicated on having a parent who is around before 5 PM to get to the school, look at the books, and write the check. What about the kids whose parents both work? Are they just bookless and illiterate? Actually, my departement, Aisne, has the highest illiteracy rate for under 18s in France at a whopping 9%, and maybe this is why. Maybe we're the only ones who have silly systems like this.
(skip to page 13 of the link above for a run down of under 18 illiteracy by academie, region, and departement. Picardie/Aisne has the highest rates all around, and only two departements beat ours: Seine St Denis and Ome)
Back from the illiteracy tangent....
I guess I just find it kind of shocking to be in an environment that is predicated upon everyone living the same way and being the same, since I come from such a wildly different environment. No wonder immigrants have a hard time integrating into French culture: it just isn't set up for people to be different. At least not in the small towns. I'd be interested to hear other input.