Agreg 2020: End of story (for now)

The agrégation adventure of 2020 is over, and has been over since July 13th. But a lot of things happened in between my last post about it and that date, that I just didn’t have the spirits to write about since so much was up in the air.

I found out March 16th that I was admissible (=had passed the written part of the exam) for the private system interne exam (I’m not eligible for the public system interne exam). This feels like years ago since it was at the beginning of confinement and followed by so many conflicting decisions from the ministry of education—first, the orals were pushed to an unknown date; then they announced they would happen in September (I cried, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go to them in any sort of reasonable shape post-partum); then they ended up canceling them all together and selecting us just based on our written marks. And amazingly, I passed: I was number 6 out of the 18 private system candidates selected for the 18 open spots. (However, strikingly, my score wouldn’t have gotten me admitted in the public system—a fluke of it being a competitive exam and not an actual certification.) I found out late June.

In the meantime, I found out mid-May that I had gotten through the written exams for the external public exam, so I spent what was left of May and most of June cramming and practicing for those orals. I chased J and Littlest out of the house a couple of days in order to be able to do the 5-hour practice preparations. I re-read parts of the books, practiced with other candidates online, reviewed methodology and art movements for the épreuve hors programme… it dominated my life for a few weeks, along with learning that passing the external public exam would force me to immediate change schools for the public system. In the end I was fine with that but it was a little bit of a surprise (I had thought I could immediately ask for a détachement in the private system but that’s not possible the first year).

I went to Paris for the orals in early July. Everything had opened back up in Paris by that point but I didn’t take the metro. The public spaces mask order hadn’t happened yet but a lot of people were wearing masks and as for the exam center itself, everything was very strict, as well as at my hotel. So I felt safe. I did have to ask the guy across from me on the train to put his mask back on though.

After those three intense days, I spent a short week at home before leaving on vacation with J, Littlest, and friends. I found out while we were there that I did not pass the external exam this year: I missed it by 1.75 points out of 300. Which is not by any means the closest anyone has ever missed the cut-off mark, but it is a little frustrating. For now I don’t know if I will do it again next year. The written exams happen in March so I could in theory have time, but I’d hate to go through it again the same way as last year, preparing sort of last-minute, and missing the mark by the skin of my teeth. I’m tempted to start reading the new books in the programme, and since up for a distance course in September 2021 in order to prepare for it well for 2022. What with my new 15-hour time-table thanks to being agrégée from the internal exam, I would have time to do that. But baby #2 is coming soon and I want to take time for him. So we’ll see.

Pregnancy During Coronavirus

There are a lot of articles out about pregnancy during the coronavirus crisis, and I’ve gotten one or two sympathetic comments from friends about how it must be hard, and seen a few comments on Facebook about how relieved people are their pregnancy was not during this time.

… I don’t feel that way, and I’m guessing most pregnant women don’t feel that way, which is probably not really a surprise. It’s probably different being that this is my second pregnancy, so we did get to do everything normally the first time. Anyway here’s what it has been like for us.

Late December: Positive pregnancy test after strong suspicions that I was pregnant due to familiar symptoms. At this point everything was normal and there was no sign of the coronavirus.

December to March: Absolute exhaustion and just a constant sick-like feeling. Spent most weekends in bed. Again, nothing coronavirus-specific. First ultrasound in mid-February, so a friend came to watch Littlest and we both went.

March: Miraculously, my parents managed to come and spend a week with us the first week of March and left a week before France announced school closures and lockdown. Still we didn’t really know what we were in for.

Mid-March: Maternity wards started sometimes forbidding any accompanying person from the hospital. Most backtracked to allowing the partner or other parent to be there for labor and two hours after the birth, but then not allowing them to remain for the hospital stay. A typical hospital stay in France lasts 72 hours after the birth if all goes well, and there’s no C-section. Hospitals started letting mothers out as soon as they reasonably could.

I did freak out in a minor way about the thought of J not being there with me during labor, mostly because this time I do not want an epidural, and I was skeptical about the amount of support available from over-worked hospital staff in order to help me achieve that goal. I eventually calmed down about it, but also, hospitals seemed to be loosening that rule as soon as they could.

Late April: Second ultrasound. J had to stay home with Littlest as no accompanying people were allowed at the midwife’s office (so far I have been doing everything at midwife’s offices and not at the hospital). So I found out that it was a baby boy by myself. Then once the midwife had checked everything out (well almost, since baby was particularly uncooperative and I actually had to go back yesterday), we video called J and Littlest to tell them the news and show them the ultrasound screen. Emotionally this was all fine. Again, it’s our second time. And going to the ultrasound alone seemed so much less terrible than doing the birth alone.

So here we are today. I am still so grateful we got pregnant when we did, because I was so ready for this baby and didn’t want long months of trying and being disappointed. It has been strange that no one has seen be become more and more visibly pregnant. I sent a picture to my colleagues the other day. I didn’t even have time to tell everyone at work that I was expecting before vacation and then lockdown hit! I’ve told the few colleagues I had video conferences with for the union, but that’s only 15 out of over 100 people.

I’m not focusing for now on the unknowns around the delivery, birth, and return home. My plan was (is?) for my mom to come. I wanted her to be here before there was much risk of the baby arriving, because I’m worried he’ll come faster than Littlest in the middle of the night, which means no time to waste. We’ll have to find a back-up plan. I’m worried about having to rely on my in-laws if my mom can’t come for the first few weeks, but I do think some focused communication efforts could make that work. I’m a little sad that Littlest probably won’t be able to come to the hospital to meet his little brother and will have to wait till we come home—but that does seem minor, since that is something some families have always done.

So there have been small losses, but nothing so far that compares to the excitement of expecting someone new in the family. I do worry about the post-partum phase, because that was hard last time. But hopefully it won’t last long and I will know more what kind of help I need and how to ask directly for it. (It’s just, you know, no one compares to your mom, at least mine who was very good at anticipating needs).

Hello from Deconfinement

We deconfined in France last Monday and it has been actually really nice, even though I still spend most of my time at home and have seen like six more people than usual. Here’s how things are going for each of us:

J: He went back to work last Monday since companies are finally opening for the inspections he does. He was home for lunch on Monday, Thursday, and Friday which was nice. He gets masks for work that he has trouble wearing because of his glasses.

Littlest: Littlest went back to school yesterday, after spending two nights at his grandparents’ as well which he loved. His school wrote to us about two weeks ago asking if we wanted to send him back because it’s nationally on a voluntary basis. I said yes for lots of reasons:

  1. I love his school and was really hoping he would be able to go back before the end of this school year, his first.
  2. He no longer wanted to do much of anything with us during lockdown. Of all the fantastic activities his teacher e-mailed us, we managed to do half of one or two per week. And then he started not even wanting to go out in the yard, or follow us down to the basement. It was like all stimulation was emptying from his life.
  3. Work with him around was very limited. Even when J was home, I could only really work during nap time. And with J going back to work, any skipped nap would be stressful.

I was nervous about sending him back given the frankly age-inappropriate, strict health protocol for schools: no sharing toys, staying 1 meter away from everyone, no touching classmates or the teachers or caregivers…

But I compared it to how I felt back in August, when the entire French pre-school culture was brand new to me and I felt nervous about all of it. Littlest adapted great then and this seems to be the same. There are a tiny number of them in his group. He was only accepted back because I’m a teacher—spots are very limited. He’s alternating between the PS teacher (his) and the MS teacher (probably his teacher next year) and they are both lovely. It has been almost joyful seeing him back at the school, smiling and talking to people who aren’t me, even if they are generally 1 meter apart and their slide in the recess yard is marked off limits (and parents stand waiting at the gate, distanced by markers on the ground). Things are really different at the school—he has his own table with his own pile of toys and books and puzzles. But they seem to be still making things wonderful. (I just hope they aren’t feeling overworked.)

Me: FREEDOM! No, I’m kidding. In between running Littlest back and forth from school—including lunchtime these past two days—I’ve been able to dedicate myself more to teaching online. AND I found out I’m admissible for the agrégation externe—the upper-level competitive exam for the public school system. Since the interne orals have been pushed to September or October when I will have mini-me number 2 in my arms, I’m going to give the public exam my all (these orals are still supposed to happen this summer). So this study time is precious. I’ve been more in touch with my school since I’m a substitute union representative and the 6th and 7th graders are starting back next week, so we’re monitoring the conditions of their return. But all national decisions for lycée students have been pushed to the end of May, so I am skeptical that we will actually go back for classes.

I will technically be in the third trimester of pregnancy at the beginning of June, which puts me on the official list of vulnerable people. However I still feel like, if our students come back in some way, I’d like to be there. Obviously health protocol and possibly my doctor’s advice could weigh in if that decision has to be made.

Also, we found out that Littlest will be having a little brother. The nursery is pretty much finished and Littlest likes visiting it. He talks about becoming a big brother and other baby things and it is very cute.

On a side note, one positive of this time during lockdown is that I noticed Littlest’s English changing. He’s started attempting and making sentences, and choosing to say things in English when he also knows the word in French, or even saying it in English after saying it in French.

He retains complex explanations that I figured were going in one ear and out the other when I gave them. He has a little Playmobil 123 cow that has an udder, so I explained to him once that the milk we drink comes out of it, though the milk for the baby will come out of me. He didn’t say anything back at the time but gave his dad the equivalent explanation in French a few days later!

His French has gotten better too which is also interesting though less life-affirming for me. The other morning we were all sitting in the living room when he turned to his dad and out of the blue told him he hadn’t yet cut his beard. (It was true.)

I remember thinking before J went back to work last Sunday night that this strange but also special time, just the three of us, was over. I wondered how that would feel. So far it feels good but I do thing some remarkable things happened during it.

Easter in Confinement

Hello from confinement! Littlest is getting to the age where he actually notices what’s going on, so given there would be no invitations to see family for Easter, I decided to actually do things our way at home.

It was a little half-baked of course given we can’t spend time wandering around multiple stores for the things we want. So last night I put real grass in a tiny basket we had from last year, along with chocolate and M&M eggs, and Julien set it in his room while he was sleeping, along with a chocolate rabbit. We watched a video of a guy reading a book about Easter yesterday, and colored an Easter bunny picture (well, Littlest drew red circles around it), and I tried to explain that he would probably find a goodie in his room this morning.

So that made for a sweet discovery with him this morning that he seemed to love. After eating some chocolate and getting dressed we went outside to hunt for chocolate eggs. When we came back in we dyed eggs the American way–though of course they were brown eggs, which I was lucky to even find last weekend when stores were running out of eggs. J was very skeptical about the whole thing but actually got pretty into it. Of course they aren’t actually very pretty but I think next year, with time to plan ahead, if I can find white eggs and a white crayon, we can make them prettier.

(Also, I left them on the counter overnight so we can’t actually eat them….)

As for the rest of our lives, I am waiting for news on the agrégations Tuesday to see whether they are pushing the orals to September (which would be highly problematic for me). Baby #2 is doing a lot of jumping around which is nice. Teaching online is still weird and I can only get things done during nap time, though thanks to J being home I can answer some e-mails sometimes in the morning. We all need haircuts. Littlest is off pants. I’ve been in leggings for weeks (though I blame that on the pregnancy). We’re doing fine but a lot of things are up in the air.

Hello from Confinement

Well there have actually been things going on here that are of note, but I’ve held off writing about them for one reason or another. Now we are confined and I’m trying to juggle online teaching with taking care of my pre-schooler (NOT simple let’s be honest). He has been very sweet and his dad was home today, and probably will be other days, so maybe things will be just fine inside the house as long as I don’t put too much pressure on myself—or there’s not too much external pressure—to be super-active for my students. I am a little worried because J’s company has not put him on partial unemployment; they insist on keeping everyone working as much as possible in spite of their jobs’ hardly being essential. Fortunately for us right now there is no work to do since he exercised his droit de retrait at his current assignment for safety reasons. So he is waiting for news.

There are two pieces of good news of varying degree that I can share:

  1. My efforts at the agrégation interne have paid off for now, and I am admissible for the orals which will be who-knows-when, now. (I also took the agreg externe written exams a week or so ago when my parents were visiting to watch Littlest since it was during the winter vacation—and those results are scheduled for May 6th though who knows now?) Crossing my fingers the orals will be before August when I will be less mobile because…
  2. We are expecting baby number two in early September (or late August if he/she comes on the same timeline as Littlest did—unlikely though). I think I have made it out of the first trimester trenches. After the excitement and joy of finding out I was pregnant, things hit hard and it has been rough these past few months. Littlest has been hanging out a lot more with his dad which has strengthened their bond. It has been very weird, not nausea like with Littlest but a sort of achy flu-like feeling that makes me curl up in bed. I don’t want to complain though, we are very happy and lucky and I have been feeling better now that I’ve passed 16 weeks. We have almost finished renovating our third bedroom and Littlest is starting to grasp better that a baby is coming since I told him it will be the baby’s room.

There are a lot of unknowns but for now I feel very fortunate that we had no major travel, no major life events planned for these coming weeks, and that baby is not due till the end of the summer (though obviously babies are still being born right now). We are going to try to call Julien’s grandmother fairly often since she lives alone, and I would like it to make it through this without getting sick. But I don’t know what the chances of that are. The agreg has been a lot of work and I would hate for it to go down the drain but maybe I will be admissible also for the externe and then one or the other of the orals will take place when I’m in reasonable shape to go.

Maybe I will look back on this in five months and feel foolish—obviously what matters is everybody’s health. Sincerely hoping for the best for anyone reading this.

Agreg 2020?

My Version exam (please don’t look too close)

Last year I posted about signing up for the agrégation for the first time. I started reading the books for the externe exam last April and fell in love with Middlemarch. I managed to read up on Home Rule in Ireland, and finished The Confidence Man by Herman Melville (a total trip), and most of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery before the summer was up. Going into September I felt like I had reasonable hopes about it, since that left me two books two read and one civilisation topic to brush up on (the Obama presidency).

My original plan was just to do the externe exam because really I wanted all the advantages of being in the fonction publique, and I can only take the interne exam (fewer topics, shorter exam, just for people already teaching) in the private system. But in September I looked up how the interne exam works and realized I’d be foolish not to try for it too, just in case.

However then the reality of the school year hit and I was working on the agreg an average of 30 minutes every two weeks. I ended up setting myself a goal for the agreg over four years: this year and next year preparing as I could while working full-time, then getting a congé de formation (time off paid 80% while registered for an actual formation to prepare for it), then, if that didn’t take, asking for 80% time to have one day a week off the following year.

The written exam for the interne exam was at the end of January. By then I was also dealing with crushing fatigue and some morning sickness (more on that to come…). You can get two days off total before a concours so I went all in and took them before these written exams, feeling pretty much hopeless about making it to the orals and hoping just to get a good practice session out of it. Of course since one of the two days was a Wednesday, it was really only a half-day since I had Littlest with me in the afternoon which pretty much means no working.

The first day of the written exams was a TOTAL sketch, as the French would say. I almost missed getting there on time because I was so stressed I walked top speed the wrong direction out of the parking lot and ended up a 30-minute walk from the exam building, 25 minutes before the exam was to start. In an incredible stroke of luck a colleague driving by saw me stick out my thumb and saved me by getting me down to the exam center with time to spare. I still can’t quite believe both how dim-witted I was and how lucky I was that he drove by right that second.

Then I arrived, settled in, and opened the topic for the first day: the Obama presidency. I almost laughed out loud. All that stress and the topic I know best fell into my lap. The second day (thème, version, traductologie) went much better than I had hoped as well.

Results from the written exams come out March 18th. In the meantime I’m going all in, hopes up, given the luck I’ve had so far. If it doesn’t work out, I still have my four-year plan, but with a little bit of help from the powers that be, and as much prep as I can make time for, it MIGHT just happen for me sooner than I expected.

Cross your fingers for me please!

Littlest’s Transatlantic Journey Number 3

Special boy awake on the plane

So we bit the bullet and crossed the Atlantic with a walking, running, speaking toddler. We were also traveling with his French grandparents who had only flown, I think, twice before, and definitely never gone through customs.

The day we flew to Texas was WACK. To cut a long story short, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 12:30 for a 2:00 flight. I know, I almost sh** a brick. Even though we were driving up to Roissy, an SNCF strike affected traffic both into Roissy and also around the airport terminal. We should have been at the exterior private parking lot at 11. We got there at 11:45. And then we waited 30 minutes till one of their shuttles arrived to take us in to the airport. (Incidentally, this was not their fault—there were traffic jams in and out of of the terminal, and a fellow traveler told us that that parking service had been repeatedly reliable for them on other occasions.)

So we ran into to the Terminal at 12:30 and I spent the whole next hour and a half rushing up to any agent I could find asking to cut the lines. I dropped off Littlest’s car seat 10 minutes before baggage check closed (in hindsight, I should have just carried it on rather than risked it not making the flight). We got to the gate about fifteen minutes before boarding got under way, though a pointless line was already formed because people love waiting in line to board.

I thought all was good until we got to JFK and had to deal with the hugely long and slow customs line for foreigners who had never been to the States before (for my in-laws). For the second time that day, and after an 8-hour flight already, we barely made it on board. After collecting our luggage we had to physically leave the terminal, cross into the next one, and re-check our luggage with agents who were only dealing with domestic passengers. Then the security line agent started to give me trouble about my boarding pass saying “MR” (turns out, my last name is just long enough for the S to not be printed). We weren’t the last ones on that second flight, but we weren’t far either.

Poor Littlest had to be carried and run and sometimes briefly dragged through all this nonsense. I tried to give him lots of cuddles and kisses to make up for it. He enjoyed watching movies (still without sound since he doesn’t care for head phones) and walking around the plane looking at people. The first flight definitely got to be too much for him and he asked to go home. As for the second flight, he slept through it.

The way home on the other hand was “tranquil” except that Littlest got diarrhea JUST after we checked into the El Paso airport and I started to worry that the six diapers we had wouldn’t get us home (he was using the toilet a lot at that point, so diapers didn’t USUALLY have to hold much). Fortunately we found a pack in the Atlanta airport during our layover—which we ended up not using, because he was fine by then. Of course.

All in all I mean flying overseas with a three-year-old was fine. I see no reason to shy away from it if you have the time to recover from the jet lag. He was waking up nights for about three days both ways, which was a PITA but we couldn’t really blame him. Like after our last trip, I feel like we’ll wait ages before doing this again just because the trip itself is so tiring.