Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The School Yard

on October 31, 2013

Intersection of the Avenue de la Grande Armee and the Rue Pergolese. My father walked me through here daily on my way to school. There was a pharmacy on the corner, which I insisted on reading as “parmacie”. Papa laughed at me, but gave in when I broke down in tears.


The Girls School and the Boys School were totally separated. I never gave a second thought to the Boys School, somehow vaguely imagining that it was just the same as ours. The one time I got to see it from inside, I was terrified.

We were slated to watch a movie entitled Till Eulenspiegel. I still remember the name because I spent so much effort trying to spell it correctly! The movie was to be shown in the Boys School. We lined up, two by two, and were led through the communicating door into the neighboring Boys Yard. Oh, my, goodness. What a ruckus! Boys were dashing and running all over the place, and some were astride the backs of others, playing horsemen at war, with spears and shields! Now, the yard had a cement floor with tiny stones embedded in it, meaning, if you fell, you scraped your knees. Other boys played a jumping game whereby one had his hands on his knees and his back bent, while the others would run toward him, and jump over him by putting two hands on his back, opening the legs wide, and hopping over, much like we do with a vault horse.

Girls never played such games. What we did was singing and dancing, and hopscotch and jump rope. There were a number of children’s rhymes that I learned pretty quickly. Each one required a different number of players. For example, the one entitled The Little King of England required six players. So the two or three who wanted to start a game would put their arms over each other’s shoulders and walk side by side all over the yard, chanting, “who wants to play The Li’l King of England…” (sol, sol sol mi la sol) and whoever wanted to would put her arm over one of them and join the group marching and chanting until they got the six players.

The game itself was part singing, part dancing and part acting. For the first stanza, the girls lined up in two lines of three, facing each other, arms linked criss-cross style. We then stepped back and forth to the tune: “Behind the white lilacs, there was a fountain, digue dong, captain dong, etc..” Then the story went on about the little King of England — notice that in French children’s rhymes, the King of England is always little. At some point, the king now holds a sword. The queen then would stand with her two fists on her hips, with behind her, the remaining four students squatting down, two on each side, with their hands held by the wrist in an overlock pattern. The king would stand facing the queen. The song would go on, “With the first thrust of the sword, the sword went through…” so the girl acting as king would pretend to thrust her sword through the hole formed by the left arm.

“With the second thrust of the sword, the queen fell sitting…” Accordingly, the queen would carefully sit herself on the platform made of eight wrists and forearms. Then, “with the third thrust of the sword, the queen fell dead…” and the queen would carefully lie back onto the platform, her legs hanging down. The four porters would then stand up and carry away the queen, who now crossed her hands over her chest.

The song goes on, “It wasn’t a queen, it was a match (as in matchstick); it wasn’t a king, it was a camembert (French cheese)…”

I often wonder about French children’s rhymes and folk songs. They have usually a lovely tune, and an unending number of stanzas. The story starts well enough but often moves into the realm of the absurd or downright weird. This one, despite the cheese killing the matchstick,  is inoffensive enough. But what about the story of the little ship: “There was a little ship, that had ne-ne-never sailed, ahoy, ahoy!” Then this ship embarks on a long journey. “After five to six weeks, the supplies ra-ra-ran out. Ahoy, ahoy!  They drew straws to decide who-who-who should be eaten, ahoy, ahoy!” And just when you felt this was really gross, the song ends, “If this tale amuses you, we are going to tel-tel-tell it again!” Really.

The only relatives of French children’s danced/acted rhymes I have seen in other countries are “The Farmer in the Dell” — Le Fermier Dans Son Pre —  and kindergarten song-and-movement plays such as “The Wheels on the Bus”, all of which are really cute and lovely.



Ce n’était pas un roi
C’était un camembert…
Et nous l’enterrerons
Dans le jardin d’son père…
Et nous lui planterons
Trois sacs de pomme de terre…
Et nous l’arroserons
Avec de l’eau d’Javel…
Et nous lui planterons
Le drapeau de la France

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