We often enter a new language in the company of a guide: a parent or relative, a teacher, a friend. Lucky are those who have had a patient guide, someone who has walked a step or two ahead but always kept a forgiving eye on the struggling novice. It was not so with me and the French language, or so I thought for many years.
The seeds of my long, somewhat erratic relationship to French were planted early on, by one, Mademoiselle Betty, who was our second grade teacher in Beirut.
Mademoiselle would walk into the classroom with a slow, deliberate stride which resounded through the hallways of our school. The sound of her feet would arrive before she did. As soon as we heard the determined thud of her heels, we would all scamper to our seats, open our pink-colored textbook, and wait. With an abrupt jolt, she would open the door and walk in as though she owned not only the classroom itself and its inhabitants but the entire compound of our school, the Nshan Palanjian Djémaran (Djémaran, for short.) She did. She was the French teacher–French, as in national origin, and French, as in teacher of the French language to hapless first and second graders.
To us–the offspring of middle class Armenian parents, in the years following Lebanon’s independence from the French Mandate–the combination was as impossible to resist as it was seductive–the allure of the colonial twilight still casting its beams of enlightenment on the population, particularly Armenians who in the depths of their folded identity thought of themselves as superior to the Arabs, the natives of the host country. In a million and one little ways, our parents intimated that we Armenians were really Western, thrown on these shores by historical circumstances; we should have been somewhere else, somewhere better.
The Armenians of Lebanon had an ally in the Lebanese bourgeoisie, which always spoke French, and if that was not possible threw in as many French words as they could– “cherie” having the most currency– into an Arabic moistened by comfort and access to private and parochial schools where French was taught with a particular zeal and energy.
As with her counterparts in other such schools, Mademoiselle had, therefore, the entire French culture (no, civilization) behind her, and every time she walked into the classroom, it seems as though she was ready for combat in case the pliancy of our demeanor cracked and our real sentiments burst through. We were well-behaved for the most part because we had been inoculated with the idea that French was more important than Arabic, and while Jémaran prided itself on teaching the very best Armenian around within a progressive curriculum, French was a close second choice of attention and devotion.
If leaders are made rather than born, then I was the improbable, improvised leader of this group of pacified second graders whose demeanor belied the fear which we all carried. Mademoiselle would give us a writing assignment, usually something inane like copying a passage from our French language textbook with the faded pink cover. Once she had us all writing, she would walk through the narrow isles, making a comment here, a reprimand there, and always commanding us to be quiet, not to talk to each other.
And so it was that one day, in class, while I was pretending to be copying some page from the book a whack came my way and hit me on the head. It was Mademoiselle. She had told me a few minutes earlier to be quiet as she had passed through my isle, holding the textbook close to her. I recall she was wearing a white blouse, tight around the breasts, the buttons a bit unruly and revelatory. (She had reason to scold me; I was sneakily talking to the boy seated next to me.) I persisted with my low-grade chatter.
The tool of her assault was the pink book which hit my head hard. A lightening of pain ran all the way from the top of my skull to my toes. I bristled;my tiny body jolting sideways and my right hand releasing the pencil which went off like a little cannon, hitting the floor under her feet. She looked at it for a minute and then in one deliberate move, she stepped on it, pressing the ball of her foot on it hard and long. There was something deeply cruel in her action, more cruel than the pain she has inflicted on me.
The class was tomb quiet. I picked up the pulverized pencil and put it in my pencil box. The boy next to me gave me a pencil and I continued my work, quiet as a cat. But my revenge was boiling inside me, and on a Saturday afternoon a week or two later, I executed it with ferocious energy. I gathered a few of the boys in our class (the girls did not participate in such malice; I was a tomboy, anyway) at the home of one of our classmates. His house was near the apartment building where the Mademoiselle lived with a clearing and some rocks separating the two buildings. The plan was as simple as it was crude and vicious. We were going to hurl insults in Armenian at her from behind a big rock that stood in the middle of the clearing. It did not occur to us that her apartment may have been on a floor from where she could actually see us if she went to her back balcony. We practiced our lines, which a deep of shame stops me now from repeating. Suffice it to say that they were vulgar, comparing our French teacher to animals and such. I was the self-appointed leader and chronometer of the group. “Let’s start,” I said, and the chorus began, repeating the lines, each repetition taking us to a more ecstatic level of sheer joy. Did we not notice the Mademoiselle coming to her balcony and looking down at us? I don’t remember. We were so taken by our action that it did not matter really.
The following Monday, I was called to the principal’s office and given a reprimand. I was doled out a punishment which I have also forgotten. What has remained in my memory after all these years is the sweet taste of revenge, the rabble-rousing quality of it all, the sense of solidarity– low and mean as it was.
And something else as well. Mademoiselle was my teacher for one year only. After second grade, I moved to Jordan, saying goodbye to French and opening my heart and soul to English, the language of the British Mandate. But French always remained buried somewhere deep, something beautiful but broken. Over the years, I did improve somewhat my French on my own, and even acquired (perfected the disguise, rather) of the French accent so well that I could pass off as a very good speaker of French. In a Paris airport, several years ago, the woman at the counter was ready to turn me in to the local gendarmerie for what she perceived as blatant lying. I was able to sustain a conversation for two sentences and then had to throw my hands up and tell her that I was not what she thought I was.
“It is not possible,” she said in English,”that you are not fluent in French. You are lying!” I tried hard to explain but I could not convince her that I was miserably, hopelessly inadequate when it came to fluency in French, that the perfect pronunciation was a mask acquired over many years of an erratic, troubled relationship to French, that somewhere behind it all lay the ghost of Mademoiselle, her foot turning the pencil into pulp, her eyes steaming with some emotion my seven-year old mind could not understand. Perhaps that long exchange in the airport was a way of atoning for my transgressions behind that rock beneath the Mademoiselle’s apartment building. And as we stood there talking, a sense of gratitude came over me, gratitude mixed with that undying pubescent rebelliousness and a mild resolve, one among many we all make when we are in a tight spot, knowing full well we’ll probably not deliver.
The resolution did not pan out; the woman at the counter did not turn me over to the French police; my imperfect French remained buried somewhere, like an old, old love whose staying power is matched only by the ever-present possibility of its loss. But from somewhere unknown, like the stranger who knocks on your door for no reason, French is back in my thinking, and with it the passing of years and the persistence of something incomplete, unresolved, and the shadow of Mademoiselle, standing peasant tall; her hair pulled back in a bun, her green eyes spewing devotion and zeal. She stands at the balcony and looks down. All my pals have left, and I am standing in the middle of the clearing, looking up.
The pink book flies in the space that separates us, and I catch it, hold it in my hands and open the first page: Verbs.