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Education of a Radical: Memorial For Madame

November 25, 2006, 9:33 pm

My Zenith email account has been buzzing all day because Madame, one of the veteran teachers from my secondary school died of lung cancer last night. She was in her eighties, so she had a good run, which included a stint in the French Resistance during World War II. She was, of course, a French teacher, and I went to a school my parents paid good money for, which meant we began languages in the second grade. Developmentally this is supposed to be a good thing, but I don’t think that’s why we did it — I think it had something to do with refinement (you can see how well that turned out for Dr. Radical.) We took only French through seventh grade, adding a second language in seventh grade (Latin or German). Spanish was not offered, as this was a school originally founded for Young Ladies in the nineteenth century, and by the third quarter of the twentieth century the school had not yet figured out that Spanish was the language of the future. Oh well. I picked it up later, which you can do if you had ten years of French and six years of Latin.

Take that much French and your brain gets so hard-wired you can also replace a lost credit card in Geneva having not spoken at all for twenty years. It’s shocking how quickly it comes back.

Anyway, multiple emails have come across the school listserve with fond memories of this teacher, and they are very vivid, causing me to think about good teaching and why it was important to the Education of a Radical to do languages in school.

The first thing that leaped to mind was that because I went to a private school in the 1960′s and 1970′s it was very segregated. I never met a black person my own age until I was in the seventh grade, when three young African-American women were recruited to the school as part of a program that creamed kids out of urban public and parochial schools. There was almost nothing in my life for a very long time, until I became aware of social movements as a teenager, that suggested that other people were different from me, which stuns me even now, except if you grew up white in the ‘burbs in the sixties and seventies you will understand.

The only thing that provided a cultural contrast of any kind in my early years was learning French. The French teachers were all, well — very French. And as we studied, they spent a lot of time talking about France, growing up in France, and why French children would chew us up and spit us out if given the opportunity. And part of why I know they were great teachers is this: because we were all fascinated with Nazis and World War II, several of them developed a strategy for when conversation was lagging in class that consisted of this: they would tell you anything you wanted to know about “La Guerre Mondiale Deuxieme” and “La Resistance” – but all questions would be asked and answered in French. “Comment fait-on une bombe?” “Combien des Allemagnes avez-vous tue?” OK, for the sake of the dignity of the German department not all questions got fully answered, but many Hair Raising Tales were told about brave deeds done by women only a few years older than we. And we actually learned French, as well as valuable strategies should we ever have to go underground with nothing but a candle and a baguette “pour sauver la patrie.”

The thought this memory prompted was that this was my earliest encounter with oral history, or rather, the idea that History wasn’t just in books (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), but was walking around among us waiting to be discovered, and that the more languages you knew, the more potential there was to figure out exactly what had gone on in the past all by yourself. This was followed up by the stunning discovery, several years later as I was preparing a second year Latin translation from a volume of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, that a) I was actually reading it, not plodding through it word by word; and b) Caesar actually wrote this s**t! Caesar! Hundreds of years ago! And here it was in my bedroom and — well, Caesar might as well be letting ME know what was up in Gaul. In addition to primary Latin texts, I then discovered French novels by Hugo, Zola, Stendhal and such, that let me know there was more to French history than WWII. I learned that feelings and instinct have a place in historical study, and that culture matters — if you don’t understand the imagination of a people, you can’t really understand their political history either.

Of course, after all this French and Latin I went on and became a US Historian. Go figure. When I could have been spending my sabbaticals in Paris.

But because of this French teacher and her colleagues I learned something that is now central to who I am as a historian, and that I tell my students at the beginning of every semester in every class: that history should be familiar and strange at the same time. Understanding that is critical to working out historical problems in my view, and certainly critical to the intimacy and distance that produces some of the most engaging historical writing.

My last thought is this: strangely, even in schools like mine, they pretty much stopped teaching English grammer in the mid-1960′s in favor of letting us intuit how to write clearly as we allowed our creativity to flow freely. Therefore, the only reason that I can teach students how to write today is because I learned Latin and French grammer. Etrange, n’est-pas? And it wouldn’t even have mattered if I hadn’t become a teacher: I just would have written passably well and not been able to explain why, like most people my age.

So I guess the moral of the story is: people contribute to who you are in ways that don’t get reckoned with for a very long time. And maybe one kind of good teaching allows students to discover something entirely different in themselves, or in the world, that isn’t about the “subject” at hand — that is only unlocked by it. And that good teachers have had good teachers.

Au revoir, Madame.

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