Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Amour de langues

Today has been a day to revel in words.  I've come across two of my favourites today:  "rigamarole" and "fiasco".  I like they way they feel in my mouth.  Spoken, they sound like what they are.

I've always been more literate than numerate, reading from a young age and picking up language quickly.  In the first year at my high school several languages were part of the compulsory curriculum - French, German, Japanese, Latin, Indonesian - but in the second year only French and German were offered.  No Italian or Spanish.  I loved dabbling and delighted in the fact that I could speak Latin!  For all the use that was.  I can still tell you that Caecillius est pater and Matella est Mater and Cerebrus est canus.  I could then proceed to tell you where in the house they were at any given time.  That's all we had time for.  It was off to Indonesian (Salamat pagi!) and then Japanese with which I never really came to grips, although the beauty of the ideograms appealed, before we settled into the inevitable French and German.

I studied French all the way through to Senior Certificate in spite of the agony of the classes we took.  It was well known that a double period French class was worse than a double Religious Knowledge class.  My French teacher was also my home room teacher, so I got to see a lot of her.  Her name was Miss Callow.  Her given name was Ruth, which we never heard spoken, but would see it written on our report cards at the end of term.  What a name laden with meaning:  "ruth" meaning pity or compassion, sorrow or grief and "callow" meaning lacking experience of life or immature.  Her parents could not have known when they chose her name that she would be immersed in language and teach French, but I think it incredibly fitting for a language teacher to have a name made up of words with ordinary meanings, yet words not often used in daily life.

As I think of Miss Callow now, I see her short grey hair, set.  Her trim figure is clad in a rust-coloured, polyester pants suit (she would have called it a "slacks suits") with a cream turtle neck jumper underneath.  The outfit is finished with tan crepe soled shoes and a gold chain around her neck to hold her spectacles.

We had no idea how old Miss Callow was, but she seemed quite old in comparison to we exuberant teenagers and sometimes her monotonous teaching style was too much to bear and we'd look for distractions.  One  hot, slow afternoon when the class was particularly rancorous and restless, I gazed up at the whirring ceiling fan and noticed what looked to be blood.  Blood!  On the blades of the fan in the French classroom!  What had been going on in here?  I interrupted the steady flow of French and pointed out to Miss Callow the blood.  Without missing a beat, she looked over her half moon glasses and said in the same monotone, but in English, "Yes.  That's what happened to a particularly recalcitrant girl." And she continued on.  Knowing the meaning of "recalcitrant", I narrowed my eyes.  Sceptical.  Miss Callow held my gaze. I did not wish to suffer such a fate and dropped the subject.

At the beginning of another class one of the students enquired whether the written assignment we had submitted the week before had been marked.  The assignment had been to write a letter - in French - to a pen friend.  The enquiry was framed thus: "Miss Callow, have you marked our French letters yet?"

Was there an intake of breath?  Did her colour heighten?  Did her pulse speed?  Even just a little?

Miss Callow removed her half moon glasses and said: "Girls.  When asking about your written assignments, it would be better to enquire whether or not the letters you have written in French - lettres écrites en françaishave been marked.  I suggest you refrain from using the term "French letters".

She strode back to her desk, replaced her glasses and picked up the text book. Her numbing intonation started.

I thought this was hilarious.  Being a precocious reader I had a theoretical understanding of the term.  I think many in the class just put Miss Callow's response down to her usual pedantry.

I suspect that under her powdery exterior, Miss Callow might have had a tinder dry sense of humour.  Of course, we would never ever truly see it or get a real sense of her as a woman.  I didn't even really think of her (or many of the other teachers) in terms of womanhood.  She was the French teacher, or more correctly, the teacher of French.  I now wonder what her hopes and dreams were.  Had she ever been in love? What was her favourite food? Did she wear perfume on the weekends? Which handsome movie star did she fancy?

So far, I have had no use for my French, having not travelled anywhere which speaks the language, but it all came flooding back when I started studying Spanish.  Whenever I could not find the Spanish word, the French word would make itself available.  What an amazing thing! I'm pretty confident that I could still order a croissant and a cafe au lait and then ask directions to get to the station, beach, bakery or butchery.  All handy things to be able to do.

Miss Callow died last year. Au revoir.  Reste dans la paix.

No comments:

Post a Comment