Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator


on November 15, 2013

To cross the Bosphorus with a car, you need to get on a ferry. We drove onto the ferry, and watched the ships and boats around us. We set foot on Asia!

But our good old Cadillac was tired. It decided it was not going to move on. So we had it towed to the nearest garage. There, Papa made a call to the embassy in Ankara. And got an earful. Where were you all this time? We thought you’d disappeared off the face of the earth!

At least we were back in contact with our own slice of civilization. I’m not quite sure how we made it to Ankara. Probably after the embassy wired money to the garage and the car got fixed, we drove all the way.

We also found out why the highway had been so deserted all the way from Greece. Having been out of touch with political news for a while, Papa had not been aware of the rising tension between Greece and Turkey over the Cyprus issue and the talk of war.  It was just on March 4 that the UN had passed  its Security Council Resolution 186 which authorized the formation of a peacekeeping force to be stationed along the Cypriot Greek-Turkish border. No wonder the border guards had been taken aback to see this car emerging  from enemy country with  a Chinese family and two American hitchhikers!

map of cyprus


Once in Ankara, we moved into the basement apartment of a tall building. Papa enrolled Saadia and me in the French embassy school. This was my first experience with international schools.

Internationally mobile workers in those days consisted mainly of diplomatic families and UN workers. Today, we have been joined by families of employees of multinational corporations. But in the 1960’s there were very few international schools. Most of us had to attend the public or private schools of whatever country we happened to land in. In Paris, there had been a fledgling American school but it accepted only American nationals. Here in Ankara, the French Embassy School accepted any nationality.

The school, as do many with limited enrollment and resources, combined every two grades in one classroom. I entered Second Grade and Saadia Third Grade. Somehow my impression is that schoolwork was harder at this school than it was in Paris. My grades were not bad but I wasn’t first in my class any more; it was a little French girl named Frederique Bouquigny. Apparently, Saadia also struggled a bit in her class, because for the first time ever, I witnessed one day Papa being upset at Saadia over her Math grade.

The best part of school was that there was no more staring, gawking, or mocking me on account of my facial characteristics or name. There was a large number of French students, but the majority were non-French. My friends included a Vietnamese girl named Suon Dong, a Polish girl named Grazinka Bogdanka, a Turkish girl named Aydan Akmandor, and another Turkish girl named Idil Guzman. There were American students in the other grades, and just about all the colors in the rainbow for hair, skin and eyes. To me, this spelled heaven!

However, one day, there came to the school a new student named Elizabeth. She might have been French or Turkish, I am not sure. She had very normal features, hair and eye colors, but she had one trait that made her stand out like a sore thumb: she was overweight, obese, plump, fat!

At break time, I saw a large group of students riotously laughing and talking in a large group in a corner of the yard. I tried to join in, and pushed my way to the front of the crowd to find out what the attraction was. It was Elizabeth. Some of the boys had cornered her near the chain-link fence and were chanting out loud, “E-lizabeth est bete! E-lizabeth est bete!” The “beth” in Elizabeth is pronounced “bett” in French, which rhymes with the word “bete”, meaning both animal (noun) or stupid (adjective). The poor girl hung her head and had tears brimming on the edge of her eyes.

A terrifying familiar feeling came over me. I longed to rush over and hold her in my arms and reassure her. But another fear held me back. Would the crowd then turn its fangs upon me? Would I become again the victim of bullying? I froze in place, unable to move.

After school, I found that Elizabeth shared my taxi. Instead of school buses, there was a fleet of taxis that took us home, each with a different area to town as its route. I tried to make at least eye contact with her, just so I could show her that she had at least one friend in the school. But she sat in the far left seat and kept her face turned toward the window. I was just too shy to break into her sorrowful solitude.

I reached home, kicking myself inwardly. You coward, chicken, “poltronne“!  Not only did I not stop the tormentors, I did not help her during her hour of need, and did not even try to make friends with her afterwards. I swore to myself I would do so the next day.

But the next day was too late. Elizabeth never came back to the school.

Dear Elizabeth, if you ever read this, I want you to know you did have a friend in the French Embassy School of Ankara, albeit a cowardly one.  I have told your story to countless children and taught them to never ever bully others nor use any physical attribute to alienate others. That episode might have scarred you, but it has inspired many others.


Ankara 1964


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