Alex Jarvis skiing in the French Alps on her gap year

On the options evening for GCSEs, I wandered around with my dad to the French block that I was just familiarising myself with. I’d arrived at the school at the end of year 8, and was still pretty much new, especially in the eyes of a lot of the people there. School wasn’t my thing, and never had been. My experience of it ranged from tolerable to horrific in varying degrees from Year 3 until around my GCSEs, and I’d never felt sincerely listened to by any of the people that were supposed to be there to help. 

French really was my thing; it had always been something I’d loved, mostly because I could study it independently of any teacher or classmate. I could be good at a subject without having to engage much with the class, or without actively showing that I was good at it. That was a skill in itself, and one that I became exceptionally good at. Thus, it kicked off my experience of being branded as a ‘pleasure to have in class’ (read: silent, and would put up with anything).

Like a lot of other people, I did a language at GCSE because our school pushed it, and ended up in a class with 30+ other students – severely disinterested students, I might add. Those who didn’t like French, had no intention of carrying it on, and who would end up getting through their speaking exam by reading their answer, upside down, off the paper in front of the teacher. This wasn’t exactly inspirational, and there were a few times when I considered whether it was even worth continuing French if the rest of the class wasn’t interested.

Considering my whole life now revolves around languages, the thought of not taking French seems strange. It didn’t seem that momentous of a decision, though; there was no bolt of lightning, and school didn’t suddenly become my favourite place. Looking back, however, I see how easily I could’ve missed the chance to do what I’m doing now.

"Looking back I see how easily I could've missed the chance to do what I'm doing now"

Losing disinterested students along the way, I carried on with French to A Level.  This meant that I met Mrs Firth, the small, relatively unassuming French teacher, who would quickly become my favourite. She had a wicked sense of humour and the occasional Cockney accent to match. Where I had once anticipated that my love of French would have to survive the class, as it had so many times, it didn’t happen. Even being faced with the task of creating a powerpoint on healthy eating, alongside a group of people that really would rather be anywhere else, didn’t dampen my spirits in those two years.

Where in other places I was still the strange new girl – or simply the strange one (an active interest in French was, I admit, an anomaly) - Mrs Firth’s classes meant that I began to look forward to certain days. She gave me books to read: at first short stories, and eventually Candide and Thérèse Raquin, preparing me  for the Cambridge reading lists. Whereas I was usually dismissed as the ‘unproblematic one’ in class and left to my own devices, Mrs Firth checked on me and gave me support.

Scenes from a gap year in FranceAlex Jarvis

It only got better from there. The A level class was considerably smaller, and so we’d sit and eat brie in our Friday afternoon class to make the exam practice more bearable. I was throwing myself into reading French books, my playlist was chock full of Stromae (worth a listen), and I even eagerly indulged in the extra-curricular work. A particular project over Christmas was to take a photo of a French flag made up of strange objects; cue me, naturally, rearranging our kitchen cupboards into three strips of red, white and blue for the purpose.

"Mrs Firth is ultimately the reason why I chose to do a French degree"

Where in the past I’d thought vaguely about my plans for the future, French suddenly became a concrete option. Mrs Firth is ultimately the reason why I chose to do French as a degree. She helped me to bring my love of French and floundering knowledge of its literature and culture together into something cohesive, even if she’s utterly unaware of what a formative influence she had on me. I doubt that my passion alone would have seen me through the Cambridge application and interview process. Her sitting with me after-school for extra speaking practice, marking extra essays, filling in the vast numbers of forms - things that I would otherwise have had to deal with more or less by myself.


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I, most likely, wouldn’t be at Fitz without her – I wouldn’t have taken the gap year they offered me, and would probably be in 2nd year somewhere completely different. I certainly wouldn’t have had two of the best years at school after taking French for A level; I wouldn’t have a few close friends from French class; and I most definitely wouldn’t be able to recite the imperfect endings in rhyme form.

School was never my thing, and I’m still not quite sure how I got through it. I definitely can’t believe it’s already two years behind me. A mixture of finding the right people and leaving the wrong places has meant that I’m where I am, and loving it. But a lot of what I consider so formative came from those classes, and the brie on a Friday afternoon. I’m so glad that I came across Mrs Firth at the right time, and am so grateful for all the help she gave me, and so many others.

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