Thursday, October 6, 2011

French Teacher

In a bookstore in New Orleans this evening, a woman will read from a recently published book of her poetry. Emails from the bookstore keep me posted on such events. Ever since the December after Katrina, when I ordered my Christmas gifts from the store, I have received these regular prompts to imagine literary evenings in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.

I do not hesitate on a busy day to delete emails sent from the bookstore. After all, what’s the likelihood of my being in my hometown anytime soon?

In this morning’s email, though, I discovered a name that started me remembering. Forty years ago, as a sophomore in college, I had taken a course in twentieth-century French literature. It was a 400-level course taught entirely in the target language, and I had just begun my study of French the year before. After summer courses on the 200-level and a readings course from a delightful dandy of a teacher who taught perched on the edge of his desk, I resolved to take a serious plunge.

Madame was my serious plunge.

In my years of schooling I had grown accustomed to teachers who clearly took pains to win their students over. There were rewards for doing well – praise, smiles, the suggestion that we were on our way to interacting as colleagues. In contrast, I sat in my first week of classes on twentieth-century French authors and encountered a teacher who was not going to woo me or anyone else in the room.

Every class I listened to a French that was classically calm, sophisticated in its distinctions, never sentimental or fussy or confused. About Madame there was the severe elegance of the French academic. Or so I surmised, barely twenty years old myself and five years away from my first view of Paris.

The truth, hard to credit, is that she had been a woman in her mid-30s at the time, a young woman who had grown up in Colorado and Texas. She spoke, nonetheless, with authority about Gide and Giraudoux and Sartre and Proust.

Somehow or other, I have to think, she was even then in the process of becoming the woman who could write thirty years later:

…at most periods our lives just flow through undifferentiated and unremarkable territory… But there are exceptional moments when we become aware of the terrain, or realize it has changed under us, and at crucial times we find ourselves on an apex, looking Janus-like at ourselves and our possibilities—the past sloping one way, the future another.

I continue to learn my lessons.

So, I suspect, does Madame.

Passage quoted from Finding Higher Ground: A Life of Travels (2003) by Catharine Savage Brosman

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