Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Of Mountain Villages and Talking Clocks

on March 29, 2014

Mme Forhan did not just assign essays. In the third trimester, she divided the class into two groups, those who would continue with essays and exercises, and those who would collaborate on a novel. I was drafted into the novel group. I was absolutely in seventh heaven!  My best friend, Pascale Salles, who had started the year as a rather mediocre writing student but then suddenly seemed to have flipped on a switch and morphed into a poetry-spouting wordsmith, also joined me in the novel group.

We first worked on the setting and the characters. Every week we would work in class on a particular point, then go home and produce the segment assigned and bring it back to class. The teacher would then select one of the papers to be incorporated into the final draft. We worked very hard to find a mountainous spot for our setting (which is probably why I later selected a mountainous setting too for my flop of a novel on orange paper), and settled eventually on a little village in the Pyrenees that I had picked out of a map. It had a very pretty name, with a touch of olden aura, but darn it if I can remember it. So, after a prolonged search on Google map, I did find it! It was Vielle-Aure! and it looks really picturesque though at the time we had no idea what it did look like, and only described it based on our imagination and the assumption that all mountainous villages looked the same! Ah, the miracle of technology! I can only deduce that it is much easier today than 50 years ago, to write about a place one has never seen.

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

Vielle-Aure, as pictured on Google images

A house in Vielle-Aure

A house in Vielle-Aure

Then we started deciding on the characters. And since most of the class had read the “Club des Cinq” and the “Clan des Sept” books by Enid Blyton (that’s the French translation of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series), we all naturally wanted to create our own version of a group of children solving mysteries. Writing a novel is painstakingly arduous, but writing one as a collaboration among a dozen pre-teens is painfully time-consuming. We never got further than the characters before the end of the  year.

Mme Forhan was not the only teacher to be impressed with me. In the beginning of the year, most teachers did not pay me much attention, or rather, tried not to look down on me. You see, this was France in the 1960s, not America in the 21st century. Here, today, Asians are stereotyped as over-achievers, but not there and then.  There was no open deriding of my foreign-ness as in kindergarten, but I felt it simmering under the surface.

One bright morning, soon after the start of the school year, Saadia and I left home and walked out into the street as usual to go to school and immediately were struck by the feeling that something very strange was happening. The sun was warmer than usual, and the streets emptier. In the metro, the usual crowd was replaced by a thin sprinkling of passengers. We felt as if we were in movie where we had been transported to some other parallel dimension, and walked faster.  When we arrived in school, the yard was empty, and as we looked up at the huge clock on the wall, we realized why: it was a quarter to nine, not a quarter to eight! We looked at each other, not comprehending. She walked to her classroom and I to mine. She knocked and went in. But I, frozen and paralyzed by my pathological shyness which had by then grown to full proportions, held my knuckles trembling over the door for maybe five full minutes before I was able to bring it demurely down. However soft it was, the teacher heard it, and called me in. I walked, trembling, sweating, and heart thumping, to her desk. This was our English class, and the professeur was a rather older lady named Mme Loche, with the strict, no-nonsense attitude of the elderly. She asked why I was late. I really had no idea, so I said, “the clock wasn’t working.” Which was my self-explanation for the extremely odd phenomenon that had just occurred. Mme Loche sniffed unbelievingly, “Nonsense! Can’t you call the Talking Clock? You had better come up with a better excuse!” and followed that with a strong remonstrance. I had then no idea of what the Talking Clock (horloge parlante) was. And in case you are wondering too, it is simply a number you can call by phone, and you get a recorded voice telling you the time by the minute.

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l'horloge parlante

Modern Internet version of the Talking Clock, l’horloge parlante

So I shuffled, head down, to my seat, cheeks aflame and heart sobbing. I hated her very guts for making look like a liar and a lazy bum (paresseuse) when I had just lived through a harrowing experience.  Looking back, I assume it might have been the day the country set the clock an hour back for daylight saving, and Aunt Lily had probably missed it. Whatever the case, the lesson went on, and Mme Loche was in a very bad mood, because no one seemed to be getting the lesson at all. She kept trying to ask everyone questions and no one could come up with the correct answer. She was, I believe, trying to pioneer the idea that the French should start studying English using international phonetics, before switching to actual English spelling, so that their pronunciation would not be influenced by the similarities with French words. Phonetics was a blast for me. I don’t mean to brag or sound arrogant, but after all, I did come through the French, Arabic and English alphabets, as well as the Chinese ZhuYinFuHao phonetic system. So the international phonetic system was a piece of cake. But even if lightning was to strike me at the time, I would not have raised my hand to answer HER questions. Stumped and having no one left to vent her frustration on, she called on me, asking whether I knew what the answer was, and if I could do something other than being late. Very slowly and reluctantly, I stood up, and muttered the correct answer. Her eyes widened in surprise. She asked me more questions, again and again. I continued to mumble all the correct answers, in an equally resentful manner. She was saved by the proverbial bell, from expressing praise for the pupil she had just chastised stridently and unfairly.

International phonetic alphabet

International phonetic alphabet

 

Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

Zhu yin fu hao, the phonetic alphabet invented after 1911 and in use in Taiwan for reading and pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

As the year wore on, Mme Loche grew to prefer me over all other students and praise me openly in class. If I missed a third person singular “s” and lost 1/4 point in a test, she would joke with me and ask why I purposefully avoided a full mark. But the sting of that early rebuke never quite faded, and I was never able to relax and interact with her in a friendly manner.


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