Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Skeletons, and How to Attract Ghosts

I was vaguely aware then of major earthquakes within the French Educational system that year. I knew that we only had to pick one modern foreign language and unlike the years before us, did not have to take any classical language until two years later in 4eme when we would also add a second modern language. Our middle school was called then a CES, or College d’Enseignement Secondaire. I was not aware that this classification disappeared in 1977 to be replaced by just the term “college”.  Which is why I couldn’t find on Google my alma mater as the CES Noyer-Durant, but as the College Georges Rouault in its place, occupying its address on the north eastern edge of Paris.


The “peripherique”, the loop of highway encircling Paris, ran right outside the school, a fact imprinted upon my brain by the one and only visit we ever received from our headmaster. For some mysterious reason, he passed by our classroom one day and embarked upon a lecture on the undesirability of chewing gum in class. He pointed out that we had a spread of grass outside the windows, under the highway. There, he asserted, was where cows could graze. If we chose to chew gum and become cows, then we belonged on that bit of grass, not inside the classroom.

As luck would have it, our science class in the first trimester dealt at that time precisely with cows, or the bovine family. I am still amazed today at the details we used to go into in biology, since not one student in Grade 6 today is able to draw, freehand, the entire skeleton of a cow, a horse, a rabbit, a dog, a cat, a chicken, a bat, and a fish; as well as their skulls, in profile, and their teeth, as viewed from above. All to scale, and properly labeled. We would be tested on these drawings. I do mean that as a chapter test, we would be given a piece of blank paper and asked to draw for example the skeleton of the cow with its scientific name and labels, with a correct scale. Or the drawing of the cow’s stomachs, including the direction the food went.  Today, students are unable to even label a pre-printed drawing properly, with correct spelling, let alone draw one. Our biology teacher, who I think was called Mme Loiseau (though I could be wrong), was an elderly lady who was passionate about living things, and would show us a real specimen of a dead bat, and how it would hang upside down on her sweater. We spent the first week relearning to write the alphabet correctly in print, so we could write our labels legibly and beautifully, in ink. The drawings would be sketched lightly in pencil, and then traced over in ink.

Identify what animal this skull belongs to. Then write its scientific name and common name as title, and label all parts and teeth.

Identify what animal this skull belongs to. Then write its scientific name and common name as title, and label all parts and teeth.

We then studied the human body, skeleton and organ systems in the second trimester, also complete with drawings and labels, then moved to flowering plants in the third trimester. Our professor would drive out to the countryside over the weekend to bring us fresh flowers for our herbarium the following week. Yes, each one of us had to create our own herbarium, by dissecting and fixing the flowers of such or such a family to a piece of paper to be kept in our folder, then drawing and coloring on the opposite page the exact replica of the live specimen, and add, again accurate title (scientific and common names), labels and scale. At the bottom right-hand corner, we stated the number of stamens, pistils, petals and sepals, and what number they were multiples of. I compare the result of such training to that of the students of today in the States, and find the latter appallingly lacking. Students mix up stamens with just about anything else, and fertilization with seed dispersal. If one dissects a dozen different families of pistils, there is no way one forgets what they are and the fact that they are not called anthers.

Needless to say, I fell in love with biology that year. I have no memory whatsoever of what we did in art at all, but remember vividly my drawings of skeletons, buttercups and lilies-of-the-valley.


Music also took a new turn for me that year. In elementary school, music class consisted mainly of learning French or international folk songs, in several parts. I would be generally placed in the first group (soprano I) but would memorize all three parts and sing them at home. Occasionally, the teacher would bring a record, say of Beethoven’s Pastorale, explain it, and make us listen to it. In 6eme, we still sang folk songs in parts, but by springtime, the teacher also asked us all to buy recorders so she could groom a recorder orchestra. I loved it. Piano lessons had never been resumed after we left to Turkey, but that same  year, in our new furnished apartment, there was an upright piano. I played songs by ear and had a lot of fun singing along my own playing, and showing my cousin how to play. But we never got a teacher or any kind of formal lessons. So you can imagine how excited I was to finally resume learning how to play an instrument! We started by practicing the scale over and over, making sure to close the holes properly with the fat pad of our fingers, and eventually started playing simple tunes. Of course, we regularly forgot to practice and would do so the night before music class. Saadia would practice earnestly, but Aunt Lily would run over to our room and stop her, “Don’t play the flute (!) at night!!! It attracts ghosts!” So Saadia would hide inside the closet among the coats and practice there. I am not sure whether the ghosts came and hid in the closet too. Saadia never told us. Despite my bad habit of procrastinating on practice, the music teacher thought I was excellent at the recorder and would make me perform in front of the whole class.

Wooden recorder
Wooden recorder



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