Editor’s note: College of Saint Benedict graduate Kyla Porter ’19 spent six months teaching in Gap, France as part of the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Porter, an English major and French minor at CSB, taught in Gap from October 2019 to March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic ended her stay in France. In this story, Porter talks about her time in France and how being in Gap was exactly the place she needed to be.
My heart sank when I typed the name into Google. This had to be a mistake. Gap? As in the store with the sweatshirts?
Nope. Sure enough, Gap, the place, did exist in France. Not anywhere near the Mediterranean as I had hoped, but smack dab in the middle of nowhere with no major cities or landmarks in sight.
According to Google, Gap was a commune and the largest town of the Haute-Alpes département (a division of administrative government) which really wasn’t saying much. I immediately started imagining the worst: myself isolated in rural French farm country, any hopes of making friends my age or having a budding social life shattered. Gone were the dreams of sitting seaside at a charming café, sipping an espresso or un verre de rosé (a glass of rosé) and journaling of my wonderfully thrilling adventures, or browsing a rainbow of produce in a bustling French market listening to people shout “Bonjour!” back and forth through their windows.
Of course, these dreams were not the purpose of my moving to France, but rather a byproduct that couldn’t be helped once my imagination started running. The reason I was leaving Minnesota, the only home I had ever known for 22 years besides a brief stint studying abroad, was to teach English to primary school children through a program called Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). My goal was to facilitate cultural exchange with my students: for me to instill a curiosity within them for the English language and English-speaking countries, and for them to share their culture and traditions with me.
Like my expectations for idealistic French social life, I also had expectations for what my experience would be working in a French classroom. I expected I would teach the children helpful English vocabulary and share about curiosities like tater-tot hotdish and the license plate phrase “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” quirks that made my home unique. In turn, they would share about their traditional holiday meals and French slang. Cultural exchange was very cut-and-dry in my mind. I share mine, you share yours.
In a lot of ways, my classroom experience mirrored those expectations, but honestly? I found true meaning and mutual understanding within the unexpected sharing during my time as a teaching assistant, rather than in those cut-and-dry exchanges of fun facts and basic vocabulary.
One of these times that comes to mind is an afternoon spent helping snowsuit and helmet encased kids lace up their ice skates during recreation period at the nearby patinoire (ice rink), and getting to share in the joy of teaching them how to stop themselves while skating before hitting the rink boards. Most of them ended up eating it after attempting a hockey stop, but I got to help them up from the ground and we had a good laugh about it afterwards.
Another time I received an unexpected cultural gift was when one of my French teacher co-workers made me la reine (the queen) while eating the Galette des Rois during class in January, 2020. The galette is a delectable cake made with puff pastry crust and an almond paste filling, baked throughout January in France to celebrate Epiphany — the Christian feast of the Magi. The celebration involves everyone looking for a tiny charm (la fève) in their piece of cake to become the king or queen. While I did not actually discover the charm in my slice of cake, I was given the honor of wearing the paper crown placed on the head of the lucky “king” or “queen.”
The truth is, the moments that hold the most significance from my memories of my experience teaching abroad are the ones that did not have a guaranteed return or exchange. These unexpected shared experiences were the ones where I learned the most about cultural exchange, because they were shared freely — no IOU attached.
My students and the teachers that welcomed me into their tight-knit community in France gave me a new understanding of the Benedictine values instilled in me from my Saint Ben’s education, particularly the values of hospitality, community living and listening with the ear of your heart. To this day, I still keep a precious folder of the drawings the children gave me as a going-away present when I had to unexpectedly leave France due to the imminent COVID-19 lockdown in March, 2020. My favorite drawing is the one of me depicted as “Super Kyla” defeating the coronavirus in an impressive super suit. If only I had that superpower, kid.
I wouldn’t change any of these moments for a second, and certainly not for the fantasy life I had envisioned for myself in France. Ultimately, the place I was afraid to move to ended up being exactly where I needed to be, because of the incredible people it brought into my life. I found myself at home near the mountains, in three small village schools surrounding the city of Gap that had once been a pinprick on GoogleMaps.
CSB and SJU students interested in the Teaching Assistant Program in France should contact Ana Conboy, assistant professor in the languages and cultures department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.