Like most sullen middle school students, my biggest inner whine was that I was wasting my time studying subjects I was never going to use and had no interest in. So it was with great disgust that I discovered I was required to take a foreign language. My choices were French or Spanish, and I chose French because it seemed arty.
My first teacher was from Texas, and spoke English with a drawl so thick it made the class an exercise in futility. I do remember her telling us about some big-deal bicycle race, but since this was forty years before Lance Armstrong came on the scene, we had very little interest. I don't remember a thing about my second French teacher, except that she was not from Texas.
Then I got to high school, and once again French was on my schedule. I slumped in the door. A very tall, very thin, elegant man with mocha-brown skin dressed in an immaculately tailored suit stood at a podium at the front of the room.
He had two little puffs of hair, one on each side of his head, which met in the middle in a widow's peak. Everything about him gave the impression of length, his high forehead, long face and body, long fingers. We could tell his French accent was the real thing, and his English was strangely inflected. There were all sorts of rumors about him; a Creole mother, a previous career as a concert pianist, someone who had heard him speaking perfect English... One impertinent boy asked him if he was married. His reply: "Sometimes kids, sometimes"... accompanied by a radient smile and arched eyebrows."Sometimes."
His mannerisms were supremely dignified, formal and totally effeminate, a strange combination. He looked out at us and smiled his special smile, his beaming, heartbreakingly vulnerable and innocent smile bubble that no one, not even the most nasty, cynical rebellious boy had the nerve to burst. This smile was his weapon, a trusting expression that only puppies or children under the age of two could pull off, that miraculously, he had, and wielded like a laser beam.
Another facet of his stage persona was that it was completely asexual, despite his obviously queenishness. He could, and did, do outrageous things, and yet there was never the slightest taint of impropriety.
He had a huge poster of Bridgette Bardot, then a reigning French sex goddess, leather-clad astride a motorcycle. Occasionally, while quizzing us on verb tenses, he would dust Bridgette's body, all the while smiling at us with the most innocent look imaginable, and if his hands were not attached to him at all.
The smile was part of a very complex persona, full of odd mannerisms, expressions and peculiarities, and every day he combined them to give us a new show, all the while being a very rigorous teacher, and keeping a tight reign on the class without breaking character. He used this persona as the fourth wall, that invisible wall created by unspoken agreement between actor and audience, that says, "I act—you watch."
He had us sit alphabetically, and began to call role, saying each name and peering over his reading glasses, fixing each student with his smile and bobbing his head a bit in recognition.
Each and every name was mangled in an absurd, and often pointedly funny way. If a student had an older sibling Monsieur would manage to reference them in the name. My own name, spelled Bein, pronounced Bine, he proclaimed, "Beentz!" and the smile he flashed while saying it precluded any correction. I spent two whole years in his class without knowing the names of my fellow students, only the weird nicknames he had dubbed them. Some names evolved as the semester went on and he got to know us better.
Directly facing me across the aisle sat identical twin boys, the type who were athletic and got all A's. Monsieur immediately took a shine to them, and when it came time to call their names, he indicated one and said "Bob." The boy looked startled, but it was obvious he was being called on, so he said, 'Here.' Monsieur turned to his brother, "Bob deux" and the equally confused brother said, "Here." Thus he dubbed them the Bobsey Twins. To this day I have no idea what their real names were.
He varied their names each and every time he called on them, which was often, and he usually called on the second brother right after the first, with a variation on the name he had just used, saying, "My Boy," then, " My Other Boy" or, "Bobsey", "Bobsey Deux." The variations were endless, but I only remember a few;
My Bob, Bobsey Boy,
My Un, My Deux, ,
Boy Un, Boy Deux,
Bop-sie Boy, Boob-sie Boy,
Boobs Un, Boobs Deux,
Babs, Babs Deux,
Rob's Bob, Bob's Rob
My favorite, My other favorite
Mon Préféré, Mon autre Préféré,
And all the while, as we silently convulsed with laughter, Monsieur beamed his innocent, "I know nothing about this and don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about." smile and did his quick little head bobs and raised his eyebrows, making him look even more cartoonishly naif.
My neighbor was called Bree-zay, which morphed into Breezy, and Breezy Boy and Windy. My own name was fairly stable at Beentz or Beentzie, but one day, perhaps in honor of my well-endowed chest, I was called 'Beentzie boobs.' I'm amazed he could do any of this with a straight face. I only once saw him come close to losing it, but more of that later.
The seats were arranged in two sections which faced each other, separated by a central aisle. At one end of the aisle was his podium, at the other was a blackboard with a door on either side of it, leading outside to the hall. He would take his pointing stick which was three or four feet long and slowly twirl it in one hand, using his elegant fingers, each in succession, which is ridiculously difficult and ackward to do, but which he did effortlessly.
As he twirled his pointer he paced back and forth from his podium to the blackboard, quizzing and drilling the class about grammar. He would pose a question in French, then pause, and POOMPH, his twirling stick would dramatically land point-first on someone's shoulder. This was not a class where students dozed. He would fix his victim with an expectant smile, his face open and trusting, and at that moment, even the most testy student would want to please him. If the answer was correct, our reward was a bobbing head and pleased expression. But if the answer was wrong, there would be a horrible pause, and his entire face would crumble. Even slacker students like myself would feel terrible for letting him down, and vow to be prepared the next time.
Sometimes, after a particularly bad answer, he would blurt, "Well, you've made a complete salad of it, kid." Except he pronounced kid with a 't' instead of a 'd', calling us kits. Later, when he spoke only French to us, he would simply say, "Quelle salade!" We never quite got the reference, but we figured it was a mix-up.
Continuing his verbal quiz, he wanted to use an example of two girls going to a pool, and the sentence was acted out in pantomime. As he said, "Bridgette," one hand rose to his chest, his long fingers squeezing an imaginary breast, " et Sophia," (an obvious reference to Sophia Loren, a very busty actress) the second hand rose to make the same outrageous gesture at a second breast, "vont a la piscine." And he walked around repeating the sentence, long fingers fluttering in front of his imaginarry breasts, bobbing his head slightly, beaming, while we intoned, "Brigette et Sophia vont à la piscine." and tried not to laugh in shocked disbelief.
One day he was doing his usual verbal grammar drill, pacing back and forth. He called on one student, smiled expectantly, and received the wrong answer. His face fell. After a dramatic pause, he turned to another. His face lifted into a beatific smile, and he said, "Babs knows, kits!" Babs didn't know. His face fell. He went on like this all around the room, fixing each of us in turn with his 'all innocence' face, getting the wrong answer, face collapsing like a brick wall turning to rubble. Not one student knew the answer. Even the Bobs let him down.
There was a terrible silence. He let our a sigh and walked to the podium. He looked out at us and picked up a book, raising it in both hands without opening it. SLAM! It fell to the podium. Again. SLAM. pause. SLAM. He was slowly, methodically dropping it onto the podium. What the..? Then he took his lovely long hand and SLAM, brought it down onto the podium, knuckle-side-down. SLAM. Pause. SLAM. We now felt horrible. Suddenly he blurted out "Well, kits, I'm going to pump gaz!"
Then, so fast we could hardly catch it, "I'm going to pump gaz. Maybe I'll be good at pumping gaz since I'm obviously not good at teaching French!" The picture of this refined prince-of-a man pumping gas was so ridiculous we almost burst trying not to laugh, and blessedly, the bell rang.
Occasionally, when students were talking out of place he would say loudly, "Don't be foolish virgins, kits!" Just the fear of hearing that silenced many. Every once in a while, when the occasion called for an enthusiastic response, he would blurt out the word 'Oui,' in such a loud, visceral manner it sounded like a huge belching WUP! Boys tried to imitate it, but no one could come close.
He told us stories about France, and French provinces, and one memorable time, about the author Rablais. He used his long body to mime various points, and between his words and actions, we understood him so well we often forgot he was speaking French.
He began his lecture on Rablais,
"Quand Rablais était un petit garçon, (his hand makes a gesture at his side, showing us the height of a small boy) il était très religieux (crossing himself frantically and very dramatically) TRÈS religieux (Putting his long hands together in prayer, closing his eyes, sighing, shuddering, crossing himself again. Dramatic pause to let it sink in)
Mais....quand Rablais était un jeune homme (his hand makes a gesture, showing us the height of a larger boy), il était très religieux (again with the praying hands), mais ... il aimait des filles (his hands slowly outline the sinuous curves of a female body, his little eyebrows arched), du vin, (he mimes drinking down a glass of wine with obvious relish) MAIS, TRÈS religieux! (He again crosses himself frantically). The story was so vivid that thirty-five years later I still remember his exact words and gestures.
He had other tricks for making us learn. He used to write on the board in very swishy handwriting, making elaborate tails on some letters, and just when he got to a word or phrase that we were supposed to have looked up, his writing would become illegible. He would say, "It's simple (pronounced 'sample') kits, it's sample. Just like math; X plus 4Y equals 3Z! " And he would beam at us, his smile saying, "Look it up yourselves, you lazy little shits."
One day he was writing furiously on the board, which was between two doors leading into the hall. He came to the end of one word ending in 'y' and continued the flourish on the tail of the 'y' along the board, onto the wall, out the door, back into the room via the other door and dotted an 'i'. We spontaneously burst into applause and he bobbed his head and smiled in rare acknowledgment.
Sometimes, during one of his demanding written tests, as he moved around the room, he would reach down and without looking, or making any change of expression that might acknowledge what he was doing, take the pen from one of the Bobs, tucking it neatly in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. The flustered Bob would raise his hand and ask for his pen back. Mr. Johnson would feign ignorance. "Ce stylo, c'est à toi? Non!" "Yes. Could I please have it back, Monsieur? "Vraiment, c'est à toi? Tu es sûr?" He knew very well that Bob would ace the test, even with this little diversion.
He did something else to tweak the perfect Bobs. They both had large metal clips on the cover of their notebooks, holding loose papers in place inside. As Monsieur paced back and forth in his daily grammar quiz mode, pointing his stick and firing questions at us, his hand would reach down and take the clip off a Bob notebook. Usually he would clip the lapels of his suit together with it, which looked totally ridiculous as he continued to pace and turn, this highly proper man with a clip sticking out of the middle of his chest. Sometimes he would clip it onto his pointing stick and wave it around, making the stick even more ominous. He would never acknowledge any of this, naturally.
The Bobs finally decided to get revenge. One day, as we sat as usual, trying to remember French verb tenses, hoping the pointing stick would mercifully skip us when we didn't know the answer, Monsieur was up to his usual tricks. We watched as he went for the clip. He did so without even a glance in the direction of his hands, and clipped his suit together. Bob was doing something though. He had tied almost-invisible mono-filament thread, used for fishing lines, onto the clip, and he was reeling it out as Monsieur continued to pace back and forth, oblivious to the addition. We watched in mute fascination as Monsieur became more and more tangled up in fishing line with each turn, back and forth, back and forth. We were dying to laugh. We were bursting.
Finally, Monsieur went to turn, but he had reached the end of the line, and only got half-way through his turn when he was stopped by a tug. He looked slowly down. He was completely wrapped in fishing line. He turned his back to us and put his hands to his face. We could see he was vibrating with laughter, struggling mightily not break up. We lost it. Kids were actually falling out of their seats onto the floor laughing, howling. Finally, after considerable time had passed, he turned to us, and with every ounce of self-control he could muster, made an incredible pun in French about how it wasn't nice to keep your teachers tied up. The bell rang. We poured out of the class in hysterics. We had almost seen him crack. He never messed with Bob's clip again.
Even though I was a lousy student, I adored Monsieur and was in awe of him. My friend and I had heard him talk about opera, and how he loved Wagner. When we heard the Metropolitan Opera was coming to town, and was performing Wagner, we saved up and got him two of the best tickets we could. He was very pleased, and when he came back after the performance, he said, in typical fashion, "Oh kits, I just died."
I've had a few inspiring teachers since, but he did something none of the others did; he made me love something I was prepared to hate. Eight years after his class, with no additional preparation, I went to France and could get around and be understood. My grammar is horrible, because I never studied, but I have a feel for the sound and rhythm of the language that most French majors envy. I'm imitating him. He managed, single-handedly to imbue me with a love of a language and country. And what a show he put on. Merci, Monsieur. Merci bien!