Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Barrette and compass

on April 5, 2014

Dance class was only half of PE class. The other half was real PE, the type I did not relish, although it was manageable most of the time since it was “gymnastics”.  And indeed, we did learn to walk on a balance beam, and to execute  somersaults correctly. As in previous years, we continued practicing high jumps and climbing ropes. The one time our PE teacher noticed something was wrong with me was the day we had to run. She measured the length she wanted, probably 100 m, diagonally across the school yard, drew the start and finish lines, then paired us in teams of two. We were to start at one end and finish at the other, while she would time us. I was lucky, I was paired with Marie-Rose Gonier, the girl from the Martinique. For she was as clueless as I was regarding running. We chatted amicably until our turn came, then took off. We glanced at each other smilingly, giggled and jogged happily onward, at a leisurely pace. When we arrived, the teacher looked at us inquiringly: “So, this was running? Is that the best you could do?” Which is when I realized we were supposed to race each other.

Walking on a balance beam was part of the gymnastique curriculum.

That, I suppose, was the short run. Then we also had to practice the long run, maybe a mile? Which was I think twice around the yard. By the time everyone had arrived, I was still somewhere in the middle, my limbs coming apart, my breath ragged, my head dizzy, my eyes seeing black. I must have made quite a figure, for the teacher came to me and asked if I was all right. I cannot remember whether I finished that run or not.

But this was not really the worst part of school life at the College d’Enseignement Secondaire. Truth be told, it was the fact that this was a school where boys and girls were mixed, something that was still not too traditional. Wikipedia states that in France, “Mixed-sex education became mandatory for primary schools in 1957 and for all universities in 1975.” I do not wish to contradict Wikipedia, but the public elementary schools I went to were certainly still segregated.  Apart from the French embassy school in Ankara and the Chinese embassy school in Jeddah, I had never been in a mixed classroom before.

And when I had, the fact that there were boys in the classroom had never bothered me. I barely noticed them. But suddenly, as a result of the severe psychological effect of that episode in Jeddah, (see Typhoon in a Teacup), I had turned into a handicapped student, who could not behave normally when boys were around. I would be afraid to even blink in class, for fear that boys would mistake it for winking. You can imagine how hard it was to sit in the classroom, with my eyes fixedly glaring at the teacher and turning dry until I made a show of slowly closing them and re-opening them.

It was worst when I first joined the school. We were temporarily assigned seats in the lunch hall, ten to a table. I happened to be one of only two girls at mine. Fortunately, my seat was at the very edge of the bench, so I involuntarily turned sideways, so I could turn my back to the boys. Eventually, we were re-assigned to our permanent spots, and there were only two boys this time at my table. This was much less stressful, and would have been great if we did not have a full table of boys behind my back. Right in front of me sat Didier Vincent, a classmate who often managed to make it to second in rank, right after me, in our monthly report cards. I can only remember a big nose, a large mouth and blond hair that looked more yellow than blond. He eventually became a friend, and was admitted to our little circle, but never quite stopped trying to find any opportunity to tease me.

I had never really taken any course in table manners, and did not realize how important these were in France. Although, come to think of it, I did receive the first prize for behavior at lunch at the St Sebastien school.  So Didier would purposefully make fun of me, which I should really be thankful for, since I now am very well-versed in the art of table etiquette. For instance, if the gravy on the steak was delicious, I would finish every bit of it, and start licking the knife as well. Didier would immediately shout out to the whole table, “Everyone, look! Fawzia is putting a knife in her mouth!” Or if I put too much food in my mouth, he would start asking me a question. I would innocently –or rather, stupidly —  try to answer, causing me to sputter and spit food all over the place. To which Didier would delightedly sing out, “Hahaha, Fawzia is talking with her mouth full!”

His teases did not stop in the lunchroom. After lunch, we had a half hour break in the yard. Once, he sneaked up behind me and quick as lightning, pinched open the “barrette” (hair clip) that held my pony tail.  Horrified,  I grabbed my hair so as not to let it fall all over the place, and tried to order him to return it. Just like the girl back in Jeddah who took my handkerchief, he would run a bit, and wave the barrette with a laugh, and dare me to get it, then run again. It may sound like nothing, today, when having your long hair loose has become common place, and girls vie in the dyeing, shaping, curling and styling of long loose hair. But back in 1968, letting your hair loose was a new hippie trend. Very trendy girls would do that, but good conservative girls still kept their hair neatly combed and away from their face in braids, pony tails or “couettes“, those dog ear type of pony tails on either side of the head.

The most common type of barrette hair clip then in vogue: the classic tortoise shell style.

The most common type of barrette hair clip then in vogue: the classic tortoise shell style.

So thankfully, my girl friends joined me in my incompetent chase of the boy, me still holding my hair with one fist. Useless. Boys run faster than girls, that’s a fact. So we opted for the best alternative, we told the teacher. M. Pierre happened to be on duty that day. He glared at Didier who was standing somewhere nearby, still with a smirk on his face and holding my barrette. He simply held him with his gaze, lifted one index finger, and beckoned him over. Didier obediently walked to him. M. Pierre opened his hand quietly, and Didier placed the stolen good in it without a struggle. I got my barrette back, and was able to fix my hair back again, swallowing my tears back.

My worst experience was yet to come. One day after lunch, our little group was standing and chatting together: Pascale, Brigitte, Didier and me. Marie-Rose usually went home for lunch. I do not recall what the topic was, but at one point, the girls said to Didier, “You need to be punished!” And Pascale then said, “You must kiss Brigitte as your penalty.” Didier acted scared and horrified, “No, no, anything but that!” I was busy having a good laugh at his antics, when he added, “but I am willing to kiss Fawzia instead.”


I am reminded of those movies where a person is hypnotized to do certain things, and the hypnotist can suddenly trigger those actions with a cue word. This is exactly what happened to me. The dreaded word “kiss” suddenly triggered my severe phobia. I took two steps backwards and hastily unzipped my pencil holder. I pulled out my compass and held it convulsively in my fist, pointed end forward. I then growled, “Not one step more! Stay away!” My friends froze in place, eyes widening, mouths gaping. They said later I had turned deathly pale and was shaking uncontrollably. Brigitte tried to soothe me, “Fawzia, it’s okay, it’s just a kiss…” I acted even more wild, “No! I will stab you! Stay away!” Pascale then said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay, you don’t have to. Didier, you don’t have to.” It took maybe a few minutes, but I finally relaxed, stopped my hand from shaking, and placed the compass back in the pencil holder. All of us remained quiet for a while.

We never mentioned this episode again.

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