Middle School French Teacher, Jennifer Model can trace her family to 18th-century Paris, making connections with the past, and the future.
It began as a sketch pinned up on the living room wall of her parents’ summer house in Normandy: a first attempt at tracing her family tree. “My interest initially came from sheer curiosity,” says Jennifer Model, Middle School French teacher. “I wanted to know where I came from, so I started to find out, and I kept going.”
That first, rough plan sparked a lifelong interest in genealogy. “I’m passionate about languages because to connect you need to be able to communicate,” she says. “But I realised that language wasn’t the only way to connect, and that making connections isn’t just about the future. It’s also about the past.”
Today, Jennifer can trace her family as far as her great, great, great, great grandfather on her mother’s side – a miller who was born in 1799 in Paris. “I’ve spent more hours on it than I can remember. I started by contacting the registry offices in the towns where my parents were born and ordering their birth certificates. From this you learn their parents’ names, where they were born and their occupations. And you go back from there, bit by bit.”
There are gaps though: a fire in Paris that destroyed some documents; other registers simply no longer exist. And it’s fascinating, says Jennifer, to see social and historical trends forming, such as the shift from country to city, and from physical labour to office work.
“It’s interesting to see the occupations, and the fact that people didn’t move around much. On my mother’s side, north-west of Paris, there was a basket maker, a field worker. The women were housewives. My father’s side were from the Haute Savoie and were involved in agriculture.
“Then both sets of grandparents moved to Paris. One of my grandfathers was a shop supervisor and the other a labourer making cement. One grandmother was a housewife, the other an office cleaning lady. Then my mother was a secretary and my father a property manager.”
Jennifer brings her interest in context into her work as a French teacher. “I try to use language to make connections with authentic situations. In my classes, we study films and novels, and we work on projects. I organised a trip to Normandy, for example, which connected with history (the students were studying the Second World War so we visited the American cemetery and the D-Day beaches), with science (we crossed to Mont St Michel via the specially designed, ecologically-friendly bridge) and with art (we went to Giverny, where Monet painted the Water Lilies).”
“ I’m at the bottom of the tree so the branches never stop!”
Jennifer has passed on her passion for languages to her two children (Mathias, Grade 8 and Charlotte, Grade 11), and she hopes, eventually, they will fill in the gaps in the family tree – including the family of their father, Stephan. “Some people draw their ancestors at the roots of the family tree but I put myself at the bottom so the branches just go upwards and upwards. It never stops, really!”
WORDS MEGAN WELFORD PHOTOGRAPHY NATO WELTON