Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Mme Forhan

on March 26, 2014

If I have to name one person who made me aware of the beauty of the written word, that would be Mme Forhan, my French teacher, or “professeur”, as they are called in Europe, in 6eme, my first year of middle school.

She had short wavy hair, and bright eyes. The one thing I remember well about her is her smile. The first day I saw her, with a big wide grin on her face, I knew she had no discrimination or bias towards me. Never underestimate the power of a good genuine smile. She herself obviously loved good literature and was a good writer. This made her a good teacher of literature and writing. First day of class, she told us, this is not elementary school any more. We are NOT going to learn the vocabulary of every text we study, or the spelling of these words. This is literature we are concerned about. You look up the words you do not know, you learn how to spell them, all by yourselves. You are expected to know all the words in the text.

So we read our first text together. Then she looked at us, 30 or so eleven-year-olds with subdued miens. She asked us, “What did you think of this text?”  We were at a total loss. What were we supposed to answer? Were we supposed to have thought something? Yet, nine months later, when June came around, we had all become experts at discussing a text, analyzing it, criticizing the author, giving our opinions on how well it was written.

She also made the essay-writing class, “composition”, turn into the most exciting activity there could ever be.  Mme Forhan told us how bored she had been as a child when she had been asked to write about “My Life as a Pencil Box”. So she would assign more interesting topics. Not only so, once a trimester, she would assign us a “free topic”, meaning we could choose our own topic.

We would sit in class, and write for an entire period, after which she would collect our essays. She would correct them and return them the next week. She would keep a few in her hands, those that she thought particularly good, and read them out loud to the class. Mine would always be one of the selected pieces. I believe that one of the reasons why I kept improving was the fact that I knew she would read it and I had better make it worth everyone’s attention. She even pointed out special parts of my writing that were outstanding, for example, as in my description of an old lady “tottering” — not just “walking” — across the street.

For the free topics, I chose the first time to write a poem, and the second time, a scary story. For that first free topic, when Mme Forhan returned the papers, she read more essays than usual, then finally, held two last ones in her hands. “There were only two students who chose to write poems,” she said. The first was by a boy named Philippe Le Noaille, about his pretty garden and the flowers in it. Then, she pulled out mine. “This one,” she stated, “is not just a very well written poem, it actually also contains a philosophy!”

“What is a philosophy?” I wondered. And she read out loud,

seule la lune luit

“Dans la profonde nuit, (In the deep night) / Seule la lune luit (Alone the moon shines) / Les lutins, les farfadets (The goblins, the imps) / Dansent sur l’herbe fanee. (danse on the wilted grass.)/ …

I won’t bore you with the entire poem, which I don’t completely remember by heart anyway. But I am quite proud of the fact that the couplets and quatrains had matching rhymes and feet.  It was pretty much molded on the fables by La Fontaine that we had been weaned on since kindergarten.  So, it started with a warm night setting, then a lone whiny voice rises from the pond. It moved on to the first person: “Je suis l’escargot des champs” (I am the snail of the fields), narrating how a snail complains about a naughty boy that plucked him from his lunch, threw him into the pond for fun, and caused him to end up stranded on this lily pad. All the little fairies and elves stop dancing, and listen. Then the voice starts whining again, when suddenly it is interrupted by a centurion duck (“canard centurion”), who quacks loudly and tells him that, “I’ll save you from your terrible situation, I’ll gobble you up!” And he does so. As the silence returns, the little goblins start dancing again, but this time it is a funeral dance.

Well, Mme Forhan asked me what inspired me to write this poem. And the fact was that Aunt Lily had returned one day from the market with a lettuce and found a snail in it. I happily picked the snail and placed it in a pot with soil on my window sill and attempted raising it for a while. To tell the truth, I didn’t exactly plan the entire poem beforehand. More like, I wrote up the opening stanzas, and then it was pretty much a matter of what rhymed within the couplet or the quatrain. So you may say that the rhymes led the way through the plot.

So at the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but today, if one of my students at age 11 could write me something like that, I think, yes, I would be impressed.

Mme Forhan gave me a 17.5 out of 20. Which was unheard of, and which she had never ever awarded to any student in her career. Let me explain. In the States, A’s and 90’s are happily and easily handed out to students. But in Europe, they are very rare. In France, an A would be equivalent to 12/20. Getting a 13 meant an A+, and a 14 put you in an Honors class. I rarely got a 14. Usually, my compositions earned me 16’s or 16.5’s.  The prof said that giving a 19 or 20 meant you were a professional writer and didn’t need to come to school.

The second time she assigned us free topics, I chose a scary story, modeled on those Liao Zhai ghost and ghoul tales of my childhood. I picked that tale of the jiang shi (Chinese zombie) who ran after the young merchant in the stormy night. Mme Forhan gave me a 17 and 3/4 for this one, but for the first time ever, refused to read it in class, for fear of causing nightmares to the students. Well, that didn’t exactly work, because the minute class was over, all my friends crowded around me asking to read it.

Saadia had been placed in a different class, for this school was large enough to have four classes of 6eme.  Both her French teacher and mine would often hold warm discussions on the causes of our prowess in writing. They could understand perfect scores in dictation (spelling), vocabulary, grammar and even great marks in literature, but they could not fathom how, after missing the Great French Educational System for two and a half years, we could write at three or four grade levels above our own grade level. They would both take our essays to their students of 8th or 9th grade, and read them out in class, telling them that two little foreigners in Grade 6 wrote better than they did.

Every now and then, they would catch us after class and pepper us with questions on what we did back in Jeddah. We truthfully answered that no, we did not attend French school or French classes. No, we did not have a French tutor. Finally, they asked, “Did you read a lot of French books?” Ah, yes, that we did. Certainly. So, what books did we read? Oh, well, and we rattled off what we could remember, on and on… Their eyes grew big. What? All these books? Original, non-abridged, non-simplified? Even the entire works of Moliere? Wow.

Still, they had more questions. Did we write book reports? Oh, no. Did we look up words in the dictionary? Oh, no. Although, I added, Saadia did run out of books to read and started reading the Petit Larousse for fun… And Saadia harvested even better grades than I did with her free subject essays. She got a 17 and 3/4 and an 18!

The Petit Larousse, 1960s edition. This dictionary includes a Proper Nouns section, which is a sort of mini-encyclopedia.

The Petit Larousse, 1960s edition. This dictionary includes a Proper Nouns section, which is a sort of mini-encyclopedia.

One day, Mme Forhan grabbed me after school. I think it was the day she read my poem. She asked me what I planned to do when I grew up. Oh, I said, I want to be either an architect (result of playing too much with Legos) or a historian (result of reading too much Alexandre Dumas). What? She looked appalled. No, no, you must write! I felt bad to disappoint her. Oh, well, yes, I probably will write historical researches. No, she insisted, you MUST, absolutely must become a writer.

So, Mme Forhan, if you ever get to read this, I am finally coming full circle back to where I started. I promised you I would one day write for pleasure, and I am doing so now. Over half a century late, but I am.


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