Friday, March 1, 2019


Caveat: this "scene" from my boyhood gets to be pretty awful at the end.
            Of all our teachers Mrs. Smith was the most fearsome, and she was our only woman teacher insofar as I recall. She taught French. A handful of the others stand out in my memory. Mr. Fletcher was a short, fat man with fleshy jowls and dark, sunken eyes that belied his outward joviality. He wore tweed suits with waistcoats (tr.: vests) and polka dot ascot ties fluffed out beneath an ample chin. An inveterate snuff-taker, he kept a silver box of the granular tobacco in his waistcoat pocket, whence he would dig it out at frequent intervals to take a pinch between thumb and index finger and give himself a snort in each nostril in turn. Then he would brush away the remnant dust with a flourish of the colored handkerchief that always spilled effusively from the breast pocket of his suit. Once in a while he could offer one of us boys a pinch, which would inevitably result in an uncontrollable fit of sneezing and great merriment all around. As best I can remember, Mr. Fletcher was our Latin teacher.
            The unfortunate Mr. Grocer was the butt of all our jokes. He was a tall, lanky, ungainly man of permanently serious mien and dark, wavy hair that protruded in an improbable tower over his narrow face. Mr. Grocer did his very best to please every one, including the unruly students who mocked him mercilessly behind his back. I always felt a little sorry for him. It was to him that was assigned the responsibility for the cabinet of supplies, which he handed out with judicious parsimony from a table at the library door. You had to bring some proof of need—an empty ink bottle, a heavily used sheet of blotting paper, a broken compass—before he would provide you with the replacement you needed. He was also the master who was given the unenviable task of taking us out on our school walks and herding the strays who fell out of line, whether from genuine fatigue or contrary rebellion.
            Then there was Mr. Ellis. Did he teach Maths (tr.: Math)? I honestly don’t recall. Mr. Ellis was a short, lean man, always neatly clad, with thinning grey hair and a deceptively beguiling smile. I will unfortunately have more to say about him shortly. And one more… a man whose name I have forgotten, but whom I can still visualize quite clearly, a man of aristocratic elegance with fine, dark features and close-cropped, pomaded, salt and pepper hair, a man who claimed—and it was easy to believe him—to be the exiled Prince of Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands that lie between England and France. He seemed so regal as to be entirely out of place amongst our teaching staff.
            We did, perforce, respect our masters, as we called them—with the possible exception of poor Mr. Grocer—but we did not fear them as we feared Mrs. Smith. To us, she seemed so radiantly feminine and beautiful as to seem, in our little male world, unreal. With generous bosoms and a full body, her womanliness was at once unmistakable and formidable. She wore scarlet lipstick and dark eye make-up. She was rumored to have, or to have had, a husband, but he was nowhere in evidence; nor could we imagine where she lived. Not, certainly, in the bachelor masters’ quarters, in what must have been a converted stables, a short walk up the road from the main house. Unimaginable! She existed, for us, only in the classroom… and of course at the head of the French table in the dining room.
More of that in a moment. What everyone knew about Mrs. Smith was that she would tolerate no nonsense. When she gave an assignment, whether to learn the conjugation of an irregular verb or a poem by Lafontaine, you would fail to complete that assignment, and to perfection, at your risk. Her means of enforcement was the dreaded ruler that she kept close to hand, and used to mercilessly rap the knuckles of the recalcitrant or the merely lazy. As a result of those ministrations and the fear that they inspired, French soon became the subject at which I was most successful. Anything I learned with Mrs. Smith stays with me to this day. Thanks to her, I can conjugate every French irregular verb; and I can still recite, by heart, Lafontaine’s “Le Corbeau et le Renard” (The Crow and the Fox) without a hitch: Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché/Tenait en son bec un fromage./Maître Renard, par l’odeur alleché/Lui tint à peu près ce language…” And so on. I can recite it to the end. No boasting. (By comparison, I can remember not a word of the long passages of Julius Caesar I was required by Mr. Fletcher to commit to emory). In a real sense, I owe at least one of the professions I later followed—the academic one—to Mrs. Smith; a good many years later, I would earn a doctorate in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis in French poetry.
But even my Mrs. Smith story took a horribly dark turn. (You may skip this part, if you have a tender stomach…) Mrs. Smith’s French table in the school dining room was a peculiar purgatory reserved, ironically, for her favored students. When assigned to her table you were allowed to speak nothing but French, on pain of earning her withering gaze of disapproval. It happened one day that we were served a kind of stew for lunch. We were all required to take our turns at serving, clearing, and helping with the dishes, and on this occasion I was among those to be served. A dish was placed in front of me and at first taste I knew there was something wrong. Even for school stew, it tasted horrible. It tasted, indisputably, of vomit. How to express this adequately in French? I had no idea. Mrs. Smith had not taught us the words that could be used. “Madame,” I tried valiantly, “ça sent…” She waved away my objection. “Mangez,” was all she said: “mangez!”
As I said, Mrs. Smith would brook no nonsense and no contradiction to her command. I ate. I ate because she commanded it and despite that fact that I had never tasted anything so foul in my entire life. I ate, at her command, down to the last morsel.
What a good boy was I!
It was only after lunch that I learned the truth from those who had done the serving. Another boy had indeed thrown up in his bowl, and some confusion at the serving counter led to that bowl being delivered to my place at the French table. In part because I was unable to find the words in French to describe my predicament, in part because I myself was unaware of the sequence of events that had led to it, and in part thanks to my fear of Mrs. Smith and her intransigence, I had chosen to consume the inedible.

I will say for Mrs. Smith that she had the decency to apologize, and profusely, once she was made aware of the truth. I think she may have even tried to make it up to me by being especially kind in class. In any case, French remained for many years my favorite school subject.

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