Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Thermopylae and Casatchok

on April 3, 2014

M. Pierre was our only male teacher. He was a strict disciplinarian, but I suspect his wife disciplined him too. I’m sure it is a well-known fact to all of you that men who are happily married, and therefore in fear of their wives, enjoy good stories of shrews. I can never forget the battle of Thermopylae, not because of the Hollywood movies, either the 1962 version or the 2007 one, but because of M. Pierre.

“If you have a very narrow path,” he explained, “such as this door”, and he opened the classroom door, “that is the only entry to a place, then whoever wishes to enter has no choice but to walk through it.”  He picked up the blackboard stick, and hid behind the classroom door.  “Now if you are a drunk husband coming home late at night, although technically your wife is weaker, but if she hides behind this door with her rolling pin, chances are she will be able to strike down the husband.” I wondered whether he had experienced that first hand… “So, when the Persians attempted to enter Greece,” he continued, “and this narrow pass of Thermopylae was the only entrance, it did not matter that they were 10,000 strong. Only a few could get through at a time. So all that the Spartans needed to do was hide behind the door and wait, and strike them down a few at a time with their rolling pins, sorry, their spears and swords.”

hitting with rolling pin

He was also assigned to teach us Civic Instruction. I don’t think he liked the topic nor tried to even find some fun way to teach it. Once a week, we all had to endure the torture of a very boring lesson which consisted of taking turns reading the textbook out loud. I retained nothing from it, except the word “commune”, which interested me, because it sounded like a root word for “communist”. We all would nod off in turn, even me, who by then had been recognized as the best student in class.  One day, M. Pierre read on, his voice droning nicely along with my after-lunch stupor, and I again started drifting into dreamland.  Suddenly, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Mai!” and I jumped automatically up, standing straight though dizzily, snapping promptly in answer, “Yes, sir!” For he called us all by our last name. But he seemed to have not seen or heard me, and continued reading, in a softer tone, “Mais!” and then in the voice of a moaning sheep, “Maaaaaaais….” I promptly sat down again, hoping no one in the drowsy classroom had noticed.  The word “mais” in French means “but”. I bet he did it on purpose.

I am too old to remember the name of my geography teacher. But she must have been gifted for I became fascinated by the topic. The syllabus that year covered stuff like latitude and longitude, equinoxes and solstices, monsoons, eclipses, glaciers, and more exciting topics. I suppose that traveling helped in the attraction, for I could relate almost every topic to something I had seen, heard, met, or experienced. My classmates did not seem to share my enthusiasm, and it was then I thought of the wonderful idea of establishing a school on a ship. What better way to teach geography? Experience it first hand! Ah well, I suppose this will not come true in this lifetime. I have found online a ship that is an educational institution indeed, but it is a university, not a middle or high school.

In those days, the French thought like the Saudis, namely, that little girls should learn some sewing skills. And so, once a week, the girls went to Sewing class while the boys would attend Carpentry class. I had at first feared more embroidery, with the vivid memory of my handkerchief flowers sewn onto my skirt. But the prof assumed we all did not even know how to thread a needle. Good! I needed to start from there. I gratefully and eagerly soaked in the instructions on how to make a knot (oh, so that’s why mine always slipped…), how to push the needle with a thimble, how to cut the thread, and other such basic skills. It is possible that back in Jeddah, everyone learned these from their mothers at home, but Mama was a typical Asian mother of the 20th century. We were intended for careers; feminine arts and domestic skills we did not need, and consequently were not taught. The first project she gave us was to make a bedsheet. She said that bedsheets needed to be cut down the middle, because they always become worn out there, and so need strengthening when you first buy them. So we all brought a shoe box that was meant to be a doll’s bed, and made a mattress, then a bedsheet, and a pillowcase. I sweated day after day, poking my finger again and again, trying to master the front stitch, the back stitch and so on. Today I can hem my clothes and sew my buttons back on, and it is her I must thank for it. She also introduced us to the sewing machine. There was only one in the sewing classroom, and we would take turns using it. It was very modern and was electric! All we had to do was press the pedal down with our foot and it would run like a dream. I am proud to state that I actually passed that class honorably.

point avant, point arriere

Every new school I went to, I would dread most the PE class. Thank God they skipped that in Jeddah. At the CES, PE for girls was divided into gymnastics and dance. Now, I say, this is a very good idea. What is wrong with moving to music being considered a sport? I really wish more schools around the world would do that too. PE is not all about grown men fighting over a single ball. My take on this matter: give them each a ball and let’s be done with it. In the first trimester, we learned folk dances again. What can I say, I love folk dances. My favorite from the elementary school was the Maypole dance which ended with a beautiful multicolored braid around the pole. In 6eme, my favorite was the Tarantella. It started easily enough but then moved on to finish with a lively step-point hop in a diamond shape front, left, right and back: right foot step front, left foot toe-point next to it; then left foot steps left left, with right toe pointing next to it; and so on stepping right and finally back. Then as the music livens up, you start jumping and skipping rather than step. You keep your two arms up in the air on either side and snap to the rhythm.

It is strange that folk dancing is a missing item in American public education. When I took my daughter to her Model United Nations international conference in Athens, Greece recently, the entertainment crew on the ship called on the tourists to compete in learning and dancing a Greek line dance to the tune of Zorba the Greek. Just about every nationality did better than the American students.

ballet fifth position

In the second trimester we took classical ballet. I was thankful for that because I did regret kicking a fuss and screaming my head off as a four-year-old when Mama attempted to sign me up for a ballet class. I loved learning the five basic foot positions, especially the fifth one, and doing the barre exercises. Unfortunately, I was never singled out for the beauty of my posture or position as some other classmate was. Many may think that it is ridiculous for an entire nation of girls to learn ballet, since they cannot possibly all end up as ballerinas. Well, this situation is actually a step down from the 14th or 17th century when boys too had to learn ballet. And I certainly support the idea, when I see our modern teenagers slouching on their chairs, slouching as they traipse and shuffle around, and slouching even when they are just standing.  Girls tend to clonk around in their high heeled shoes. Contrast this with the young men of 18th or 19th century Europe, as exemplified in that scene from Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth enters the drawing room and sees Darcy, Colonel Fitzgerald and even Mr. Collins gracefully standing each in a striking pose (though Mr. Collins’ pose was rather ridiculous), one fist on the hip or one hand lightly resting on the mantelpiece. Girls who take classical ballet walk gracefully, hold their head and shoulders with royal poise, and keep their back straight even when sitting.

By the third trimester, we moved on to modern dances such as the Casatchok, which was danced to the tune of the Russian folk song Katyusha.  All Paris was in frenzy about the Casatchok, and it was then a party dance. My friend Catherine, who considered herself a ballerina, would cry and refuse to dance it. I, on the other hand, enjoyed greatly the Russian folk aspect of it, except for the ending acrobatics done with jumping squats and kicks. I invariably ended up on my butt on the floor.

Casatchok, Rika Zarai

The Casatchok, as danced in France in 1968-69

Modern technology is such a miracle! The link above is almost the exact replica of the version we danced at school, except for their final acrobatics which are harder than ours. As all fads do, the Casatchok craze came and went, and none of my children know how to dance it.


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