Friday's child

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Reva Klein on what it's like to be...going on your first French exchange.

The French exchange for Year 8s is coming up and everyone is excited. Everyone, that is, except Becky. While her friends are chomping at the bit at the prospect of a week in Paris sans parents - never mind a week off school - she's holding back.

She can't be worried about being unable to speak French. Her grasp of the language is no worse than anyone else's in the class. (Besides, everyone has told her all the French kids and their parents speak brilliant English.) And she can't be afraid of going to a different country: she's been all over Europe on family holidays. And nor can she be unhappy about leaving her family for a week. She's gone off on organised camping trips and with friends before and had great times.

The truth she won't admit to her teachers or friends - to anybody, in fact, but her mum - is that this otherwise calm and confident and socially fluent girl is terror-stricken at the thought of spending a week in the home of people she's never clapped eyes on before.

While the others are thinking about what they are going to do and where they are going to visit, Becky is thinking about the realities. The pragmatic, sensible 13-year-old is looking beyond the surface glamour of the event to the early morning queue for the bathroom with strangers; the possibility that she and her exchange partner won't like each other; the prospect of her partner's friends not liking her; the horror of being presented with something gross at dinnertime; the impossibility of getting to sleep in a different house with strange noises; the worry of having nothing to say to anyone - in French or English.

In short, what Becky's suffering from is a bad case of realism, augmented by a good dollop of imagination. Because she's intelligent, she knows the situation is potentially fraught with tension, awkwardness and emotional discomfort. And because she's sensitive, she's afraid of being knocked for six with nobody to turn to but her confident, fun-loving friends, who won't understand.

What does a teacher do with a Becky? You try, if you can, to get to the bottom of what's worrying her, perhaps with a phone conversation with her mum. And you can try to allay her fears by pointing out that everyone is in the same boat, and while some moments of difficulty are inevitable, they are far outweighed by the good times. You remind her that her teachers are only a phone call away if she can't wait until morning to talk to them. And you get her to talk to others who have been on exchanges before and have come out smiling.

But in the end, if she remains worried at the idea of the exchange, the most humane option would be to drop it. Pressurising adolescents into a situation they're negative about, particularly when it involves a week-long stint far from home, is unwise. While she could well get into the swing of things once she's there, what happens if she doesn't? Is a French exchange of questionable educational value worth a week of misery for her?

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