I mentioned last time that I was disappointed to arrive as a new student at a school with grades K-8 and miss out on junior high. I didn’t mention that there were redeeming aspects to this new school, one being that I would be able to study French.
Foreign language instruction typically begins in high school, but this school was piloting an enrichment program, and I slid right in on the deal. They enlisted a native speaker to teach the language au naturel: no textbooks or written materials of any kind for the first two years. This would theoretically result in a good ear for the way French should be pronounced. And that is how I ended up in Madame Medley’s classroom.
She was originally from Marseilles and was what many would consider the classic French woman: stylish, attractive, sophisticated, enigmatic, cool, and polite — but frank. Her silk stockings may have rustled softly as she strode past one’s desk, but make no mistake: Mme. Medley was definitely in control of the class.
She made use of cartoon characters on film strips projected onto a screen and reel to reel audio tapes to teach us. Week by week and month by month, we’d progress from one film strip to the next as we mastered the vocabulary introduced on each one. The main character, “Lynne”, and an adult with whom she interacted became familiar friends.
“Comment ça va?”
“Très bien, Monsieur.”
Lynne and Monsieur walked us through numbers, colors, foods, articles of clothing, furnishings of a home, and myriad other categories, gradually incorporating verb tenses, articles, conjunctions, syntax and other components of the language into the lessons. On occasion, Mme. Medley would show us a film about France to educate us about the culture. And we were in hog heaven the day she played a 45 of the Beatles’ new release “Michelle”, with Paul McCartney singing en français!
At this point I should mention that in order to get to the French classroom, we would exit our homeroom on the second floor, march down two flights of stairs, pass the lunchroom, the gym, and the boiler room to arrive at a very long, narrow room that could in no way have ever been intended to function as a classroom, with its small windows near the ceiling and scant natural light. But this very feature made it easily darkened and ideal for viewing film strips and movies.
Then one morning, the exceptionally dark classroom played a key role in an awkward development.
We had been doing the standard drill for much of the class period: repetition of new phrases aloud as Mme. Medley advanced the film strip in step with the tape recording. As the hour came to a close and the lights came back on, giggles erupted in her otherwise very contained classroom. In moments, all eyes were on one of my classmates.
Throughout much of the lesson this student had been mindlessly fiddling with her ball point pen, in the same way that a girl might twirl a lock of her hair while reading a book or watching TV. So what’s the problem, you ask? She had inadvertently clicked the ball point pen open, and the dozens and dozens of lazy circles she traced around her mouth left a thick dark blue ring — an inky mustache and beard. No one had noticed before it was too late because we’d been… sitting in the dark.
Mon Dieu, c’est très drôle.
Instant in her intervention on behalf of the mortified lass, Mme. Medley, with a mere facial expression, a few gestures, and only a sentence or two, made it known to all that expressions of amusement at this girl’s expense were to cease immediately. The student was excused ahead of the class to scrub off the unwanted doodle in the Girls’ Room. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t come completely off right then — and nobody expected that it would — but, being a generally good-natured person, she took things in stride and chose not to let the gaffe spoil her day.
Sometimes I wonder whether there are grandchildren who surround her dining table nowadays who have heard tell of the day the lights went out in French class and Grandma debuted as the star of the…
“Bic Van Dyke Show.”