Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Cicadas, Ants and Chickens

on October 28, 2013


Grade One  in France in 1960 was very different from today’s Grade One in the US. Arrival in the morning was to the yard, except on rainy days, when it was in the gym. We’d line up just before 8:00am class by class, two by two –just like Madeline– and then were led by our homeroom teacher to class. There would be one break in the morning, when we’d repeat the line up and two by two marching to the yard and back. Lunch break could be either spent in school or at home.

porte-plume et encre

We always had a daily hour of penmanship. Each desk had on the top right-hand corner a hole with a glass well hanging in it. The girl on duty would bring the huge ink bottle and refill all our ink wells. We then used our porte-plume (nib holder) and plume (nib) to write our daily penmanship exercise, using our buvard (blotting paper) under the left hand to dry the letters and words as they were traced.

It may sound extreme by today’s standards, to spend a whole period on handwriting. But the difference in children’s handwriting is absolutely striking. My father gave us each a leather bound cahier de souvenirs (autograph book), that I kept till today. On the first page is my maternelle directress (principal)’s one-page message. Then the next entries are my first and second grade classmates from the French Embassy school in Turkey. Below are copies of their messages. I have yet to see a single American first or second grader write with such beautiful calligraphy (except from among my students, of course).

handwriting of a classmate in the beginning of Grade 2, French Embassy School, Ankara, Turkey

handwriting of a classmate in the beginning of Grade 2, French Embassy School, Ankara, Turkey


Another class activity that sticks to my mind is the poetry recitation. We were assigned a poem to memorize and would have to recite it in front of the whole class. I was pretty good at it and always got a 10 out of 10. But one day, the teacher looked at me almost angrily after I proudly poured out my poem, “Next time, if you do it that fast, I will have to take points off!”  As a teacher today, I wonder whether she didn’t like me. If you do not tell the students what your expectations are, you have no right to penalize them. I do not remember her ever telling us about inflection of voice, pausing for effect, projecting our voice or anything else about delivery. Still, memorizing great literature was a method of education honored in more cultures than just the French one. Chinese parents and teachers used to make little children memorize much longer texts, such as the Three-Character-Classic.

I can still recite from memory a number of fables by Jean de la Fontaine. I sometimes, just for the fun of seeing people’s expression, would start declaiming, “La cigale, ayant chante tout l’ete, se trouva fort depourvue, quand la bise fut venue…” etc  They start oh-ing and ah-ing about wow, how do you still remember this… but as the poem drags on and on, they start looking bored, since they don’t understand a word of it, and finally start chatting among themselves, as I keep on till the end. All 109 words. With full expression.

Another favorite class was the “Morals” class on Saturday morning. School days were Monday through Wednesdays; then Thursday was off; then Friday full day and Saturday half-day.

The teacher would pull out of her drawer a big book and pick a story. Then she’d read out the story to us. I don’t remember doing any discussion afterwards, but the teacher did explain the moral a bit if it wasn’t clear. One story sticks in my mind forever because it horrified me.

A village woman went around spreading gossip (forgot the details of the gossip) about another woman until one day she found out she had been wrong all along and the story wasn’t true. Mortified, she went to the village priest and asked what she should do in order to redeem herself. The priest said, “go find a chicken and slaughter it . Then take it with you to the seaside, and pluck off all the feathers while walking along the shore. Once you have done this, come back to me.”  Overjoyed, the gossip-monger ran off to do just that. The next day, she came back, “Father, I have plucked the entire chicken. Not a feather left on it. What now?” The priest said, “Now, you go back to the seashore and pick up every single feather, put them in a bag and come back again.”  The poor woman was dumbfounded, “But, Father, how can I possibly bring back every single feather? There is a lot of wind by the shore! They have by now flown to all over the countryside and the sea! That’s just impossible!”  The wise priest answered, “Indeed, and so have your words. Every single word you uttered to various people have by now been spread to the whole village and beyond. There is no way you can take them all back. The damage has been done. There is no way to repair the damage.”

I went home thinking hard on what words I might have said that could have turned out to be untrue. What damage any word I said could have caused… I was maybe five years old, but the lesson stayed on till today.

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