Memphis to Quebec!

When six ambitious high school francophiles convinced their French teachers to take them out of the country, the Memphis community came together to make it happen.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Two young Memphis students on a plane to Quebec.

We’re sitting in Row 9. Seats C and D. I let her have the window seat because that’s a big deal if you’ve never flown before. As my student and I lift off the Memphis International Airport’s runway headed north to Quebec, her eyes and her phone are glued to the window — recording the experience to show her family, making sure this isn’t a dream.

Once we were in the air, Jherykah turns to me and admits, “I always thought that all airplanes said FedEx on them.” I watch her as she turns back to the window. This AP student with college ambitions lives in such a bubble that the only airplanes she knows are the FedEx planes flying over her South Memphis home. The differences in our world experiences are apparent in that moment, but so are our similarities. Jherykah’s misconception about airplanes reminds me of my misconceptions about Memphis before I moved here. It wasn’t until I left suburban Maryland for the Mid-South that my world expanded, like Jherykah’s is about to.

When I left the East Coast three years ago to teach in Memphis, my world view shifted drastically. I went from a know-it-all Yankee to a pork rind-eater who chats with strangers at the grocery store. Among other things, I have taught my loved ones back home that spaghetti can be a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner and that “fixing to” has nothing to do with repairing. Since I started teaching French at Whitehaven High School, I have similarly helped my students understand a very different way of life through our daily conversations about French culture:

“Why do French people kiss so much?”

“They speak French in Africa?”

“So not all phone numbers start with 901?”

A group of students huddle together on a cold day in Quebec

We use Google Street View to explore francophone cities from our classroom. Instead of pizza parties, we snack on croissants and brie. In a city where poverty and violence often create hard-to-burst social bubbles, my students are enthusiastic about learning what else is out there.

Funding has always been a barrier for my students when it comes to experiencing other cultures firsthand, but when six ambitious high school francophiles convinced the other French teacher and me to take them out of the country, we went down every possible avenue to fundraise. With a goal of $2,500 per student, we raked leaves, sold snacks after school, peddled hand warmers at football games, wrote letters to our families, asked our churches for support, and spoke to local businesses.

By the time we raised the money, the trip was being supported by hundreds of people from our communities. Teachers donated gloves and suitcases, hotel costs came from loving relatives, and airfare was covered by generous Memphis philanthropists. We were reminded of our supporters throughout all of our adventures in Canada: when Jada ordered food perfectly in French, when Brandon sledded down a snowy slope, and when Tommie stood above a 275 foot waterfall. We never forgot for a moment that without all of their assistance, none of our new experiences would be possible.

A grid of six students during their trip to Quebec

The trip was filled with experiences unique to Canada. We spent three days in Montreal, where we learned the history of the metropolis and shopped in an underground mall. We then traveled to Quebec City, where French is the native language of 95% of people. There was a magical feeling in the air the night that we went to “Cabane à Sucre,” a sugar shack in the woods where maple syrup is tapped. As we arrived, what would soon amount to six inches of snow began to fall. The kids threw snowballs before warming up with a traditional Canadian meal of sausage, eggs, pea soup, and meat pie — all with a few drops of maple syrup on top. We all danced and played spoons to traditional Canadian folk songs. By the last day, we had stockpiled so many stories and inside jokes and repeated them all the way back to Memphis.

When the intrepid six returned home with a new world outlook and dreams of future travel, the families, friends, and church communities who had supported them from the beginning were of course the first to hear about it. While the travelers themselves had gained so much by crossing international borders, their loved ones shared in their joy as they recounted their adventures. Our special trip has had such a tremendous impact on each of us and, like my experiences in Memphis to date, it has the power to touch others each time we tell our story.