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Cassidy: Standing With Paris

Many of my Facebook friends are former students in my French classes, so it’s unsurprising that after the attacks in Paris my Facebook page was flooded with images of the French flag, the Eiffel tower, and other “I stand with Paris” icons. So I’ve been considering what it means to “stand with Paris." When the U.S. began the first Gulf War in January of 1991, school groups all over the U.S. canceled plans to travel to France. That year the Brattleboro Union High School Swiss Exchange was scheduled to visit Geneva, with a side trip to Paris.

Immediately after the war started, seven students’ parents withdrew them from the Exchange, and some pressured the BUHS board to cancel the trip altogether. Members of the board debated for more than an hour before deciding to allow the exchange to move forward. Again today, our French friends need that same kind of steadfast support.

One goal of terrorism is to disrupt an economy by making people hesitate to continue their normal activities. A French friend says of the terrorists, “If we change our lives, we finish their work for them.” In other words, if millions of travelers stay home, crippling the tourist economy in Paris, the terrorists win. And we lose. We lose the opportunity to see and experience other ways of life.

After the attacks, a former student and Exchange participant got in touch with me for the first time. “I've never taken the opportunity to tell you thank you!” she wrote. “You broadened my world. You brought me in touch with my ancestry. Even small things like the butter I buy at the co-op (because it tastes like Switzerland, and Paris), to feeling confident going to Montreal. I'm speaking French to my grandsons now,” she concluded.

Of course, targeting people going out to eat, watch sports, and listen to music, does represent an increased danger, as people all over France are now learning. But it’s important to remember that the actual chances of being injured in a terrorist attack are miniscule, especially as compared to the risk of everyday activities. In 38 years of traveling with groups of students in France and Switzerland, my two most terrifying moments came when students didn’t understand the potential dangers of speeding trains.

So for now, perhaps to “stand with Paris” means refusing to be intimidated, and paying close attention as our French friends struggle with their new reality. Because, after all, listening is what friends do.

Maggie Brown Cassidy recently retired from teaching French at Brattleboro Union High School. She was also a teacher trainer and founder of the BUHS Swiss Exchange, which provided homestays and immersion experiences for hundreds of students in Vermont and Geneva. She continues to teach adults and has written many features for the Brattleboro Reformer.
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