Bon Voyage

Third-graders at Bryn Mawr don't just learn French. With props, role-playing, simulation and much anticipation, they pay a visit to Paris.

October 18, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Les petites filles sit quietly in their homeroom at the Bryn Mawr School, listening to the schedule of departing flights broadcast en francais. There is an afternoon flight to London, a flight to Rome, and someone paging a man separated from his party. Not until the girls hear the words "Air France" and the numerals "2003" do they rise from their desks and line up at the door with passports and tickets - and a few carry-ons made of cardboard and paper - in hand.

Les filles, in pale green jumpers and white shirts, ponytails and sneakers, will depart momentarily for Paris. They will cross not the library of their school but a carpeted concourse in an airport. They will enter not their French classroom on the other side but a plane that zooms over the Atlantic faster than any Concorde ever dared. They are third-graders: Old enough to know better, yet young enough to pretend you can be in Europe in half an hour.

"Bonjour, les mesdemoiselles!"

Outside the classroom, their French teachers, Mesdames Julie Eastwick and Betsy Tomlinson, are waiting. They've dressed this day as flight attendants. They wear navy pant suits, white blouses, and scarves of red-white-and-blue silk. On their lapels they have pinned pilot wings, the kind airplanes once dispensed to children. It is a small detail, but just one of many that make the flight experience authentique.

The young travelers are directed, en francais, to their seats in one of four rows of desks facing the blackboard and arranged as they are in an airplane, on opposite sides of a center aisle. In front of them, in the cockpit, sit two pilotes, in dark-colored suits and striped ties. Dr. Don Brotman, a dentist who volunteered last year and had so much fun he has come back, will turn in a few minutes and answer their questions. At the moment, his back is to them and he is busily fidgeting with knobs on a control panel attached to le tableau.

The girls have been preparing for this day for weeks. They have designed their boarding passes and colored them with crayons; they have filled in their passports with French words describing the couleur of their hair and eyes; they have cut from magazines photographs of clothes and toiletries, then glued them to the homemade suitcases now "stowed" on the wall behind them. Many have awaited this autumn ritual even longer, having heard their mothers talk of virtual trips to Paris in years past.

Madame Tomlinson has flown her entire three decades of teaching French at Bryn Mawr, and Madame Eastwick has joined her as a colleague in the classroom - and on the flight crew - for 28 of those 30 years. They know the madame who taught before them also flew, although the trips were not as elaborate a production as they are now.

Over the years, they've added so many realistic touches - a genuine life vest, a seat belt and buckle, an air mask, a script for the pilots - they have drawn the attention of other teachers. Eastwick and Tomlinson have given presentations about their flight to educators across the nation. Twice, they have been asked to talk about the program in Paris.

They did not always serve piroulines alongside apple juice for the in-flight snack (sometimes it was graham crackers, sometimes chocolate chip cookies), and they did not always show the weather forecast on the television in the corner. Like the miniature Eiffel Tower hidden outside the window now - once a poster, later cardboard, now a 4-feet-tall replica discovered in the garden department of Target - some things have changed over time.

One thing that has not changed is the purpose behind the trip. Although the girls will disembark soon, they will stay in Paris for several weeks and build their vocabularies. One day in class they will pretend to go through passport control and have their passports stamped. Another day they will order breakfast and drink chocolat chaud and eat croissants with jam and beurre. They will visit a market; go touring and see the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees, the Louvre; go to a restaurant and order escargots and foie gras; go shopping and pretend to spend the Euros their parents have sent to school. They will return to Baltimore around the holidays with plenty of time to rest before the next term, when they begin reading and writing in French.

At the moment, they must hurry and finish the in-flight snack because the pilots have spotted Ireland out the window - and because it won't be long before the "pick-up" line of waiting parents begins to form outside l'ecole.

By now, les filles have heard the pilots talking to the control tower; they have listened to Madame Tomlinson read the instructions while Madame Eastwick demonstrated the safety features; they have seen their flight attendants wave out the imaginary windows, calling, "Au revoir, Baltimore! Au revoir, Bryn Mawr!"

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