Paris, France – Albane has just finished observing a minute’s silence, along with about 200 fellow students aged six to 10 at this private Catholic school in a middle-class suburb of Paris. She is sitting in her school’s dining hall, a bowl of semolina on the table in front of her.
“I was afraid that these people would kill my parents but they [my parents] told me that there would always be someone to take care of me,” explains nine-year-old Albane.
At noon on Monday people across France and other European countries stayed quiet for one minute to pay their respects to the victims of the attacks that claimed at least 129 lives and wounded hundreds more people in the French capital on Friday evening.
As the clock ticked to 12:00, the students stood up in unison. One girl joined her hands below her chin, in the sign of prayer, and closed her eyes. A boy stood, his ping-pong racket still in his hand. Two younger pupils giggled quietly, puzzled by what was happening around them.
Then, as the clock turned to 12:01, spontaneous applause broke out before the children returned to their food and continued talking with friends, as though nothing unusual had happened.
But these are not usual times. It is the first day of school since the attacks. In the high-school section of the school building, posters on every door declare: “Pray for Paris.”
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In the English language class, Michelle, the animated teacher, stands at the front of the classroom and asks the 17-year-old students sitting before her if any of them would like to talk about the attack. But a heavy silence settles upon the room.
Teachers report a similar reaction from students in other classes as well – an almost embarrassed hush.
Michelle persists, asking questions of her students, and soon hands begin to rise.
“I don’t know if we should react with war. We are fighting people who are not afraid to die,” says Christelle, a student sitting at the back of the room.
“Bombing ISIL could start a vicious circle,” adds Yohan, another student.
Some of the students express their admiration for the #PorteOuverte movement, which saw Parisians open their doors to strangers who had been caught up in the attacks, giving them shelter and comfort at a time of panic and chaos.
They debate about whether it is useful or even patriotic to change their Facebook profile pictures to superimpose the blue, white and red of the French flag over their usual picture in a sign of support and solidarity.
They talk enthusiastically about how people rushed to hospitals across the city to donate blood.
And they reflect on the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly magazine a little under 11 months ago, in which 12 people were killed.
“But we cannot compare [the two attacks],” says Lewis, in the front row. “The cartoonists were targeted, [but] this time, they just wanted to kill random people, that’s all.”
What seems to alarm these students most, however, is the tendency of some people within French society and elsewhere to conflate Muslims and terrorism.
Guillaume says he has seen a video on Facebook of someone attempting to burn the Quran.
“I am scared,” he says. “We just need to think if what the terrorists … represent is a religion at all.”
Some voice their concerns about Marine Le Pen, the French leader of the far-right National Front.
Others discuss the personal ways in which they have responded to the attacks.
Mathilde raises her hand. “On Saturday night, we had organised a party,” she says. “We decided to do a minute of silence when everybody was there. We couldn’t do anything.”
All of the teachers at this school – and every other school in the country – received an official announcement from the minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. It urged them to engage all of their students in an hour of discussions about what had happened just a few days earlier.
But Stephanie, a biology teacher in her 30s, said she would adapt her approach to the specific needs of her students. At 8:30am, she explains, she was teaching a class of 14-year-old junior high-schoolers. They wanted to talk, she says.
“Why are they doing this?” “Is it true that we are at war?” “Can it happen at school?” “Bombings in Syria kill people also, do they not?” they asked.
Stephanie tried to answer as best as she could, reassuring them where possible. But her cousin and his girlfriend are still in critical condition in the hospital, after being shot several times in Le Bataclan.
The high-school students wanted to do something to bring people together, so they created a Facebook group through which they organised an event, held in front of the school building during their break.
On their social media accounts they debated what song to sing at the gathering.
Some suggested La Marseillaise. “[But] that’s a song for war,” another member of the group responded. Others argued for Imagine, by John Lennon. In the end, they sang both.
Olivier, a teacher in his 40s, concluded the 15-minute-long event, attended by at least 250 students and teachers, with the words, “We must not succumb to terror.”
Back at the school dinner hall, Albane finishes her lunch, then reflects: “But they [the attackers] are completely stupid, because they kill people, but after they kill themselves.”