Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

My cherry tree

on May 3, 2014

I am not sure whether it was the general atmosphere of a parochial school, or whether it was the after-effects of those Comtesse de Segur books in my early childhood, but it was at the Ecole Lamazou that I encountered my deepest character-building experience.

Jean Valjean unveils his true identity.

Jean Valjean unveils his true identity.

Whenever I re-read Les Miserables, or nowadays, watch the musical, and reach the part where Jean Valjean as the mayor M. Madeleine agonizes over whether or not to go to the court and tell the world who he really is so as to save a vagrant accused of being Valjean, I reminisce. I reminisce about that event at Lamazou, in 5eme, in our third trimester, when I had grown more friendly with my classmates and more free in my actions. Our French teacher was on maternity leave, thus an older lady with pale blond hair and heavy make-up was her substitute.  All teachers know that the hardest students to teach are the middle school ones. They are in that no-man-land called puberty where they have started rebelling against authority but not yet started worrying about college entrance. Poor Mme. Viguelloux did not stand a chance.  Her make-up foundation was of a distinctly paler rose shade than her neck and stopped at an obvious line a few millimeters short of her hairline. I personally did not notice it, but the girls in 4eme mockingly discussed the strong body odor emanating from under her armpits whenever she leaned over a student. Her worst shortcoming was definitely the talent she had at turning any lesson into a profoundly boring endeavor.

That afternoon, she paced slowly across the front of the classroom reading a literature text. Her wonderfully monotonous voice and low pitch lulled us all into that uncomfortable zone between sleep and consciousness where you fight the nod and try to look lively but feel that the effort is impossibly herculean.  Already, Emilia got into trouble for playing some small portable radio every time the teacher turned her back, and pretending it was not her when Mme Viguelloux demanded she hand it over.  The atmosphere was heavy, hot with impending summer, and simmering with listlessness and apathy.

I kept shaking my calves, a trick I had developed to keep my blood pumping without appearing to be moving anything. No use. I kept switching from one to the other of the two permitted positions in class: crossing my arms on the desk, or crossing my hands behind my back. Still, my head threatened to nod and my eyelids to sag. My creativity got the better of me. I craved to share my thoughts with my friend, the one sitting behind me. I propped my literature book up against the back of the girl in front, and silently tore a small triangular corner off a page. Then, still pretending to cross my arms, I stealthily covered that little triangle of paper from torn edge to torn edge with tiny lines of “hahahahahaha… hehehehehehe…. hohohohohoho…. hihihihihi… houhouhouhou… ” and so on. Then, pretending to shift to the hands-behind-back position, I held the paper up in my fingers and waved it at my friend. She quickly picked it up and tried reading it. But her co-table-neighbor Myriam (we were seated two to a double-desk) leaned over and whispered not too softly, “What is it? Let me see! Let me read it!” A shuffle ensued behind me, causing Mme Viguelloux to walk over and slam her book shut. She stretched her hand out. “Give it to me!” Then angrily, she threw at Myriam, “Zero to you for misbehaving in class!” In France, it was quite routine to hand out academic zeros for behavior problems.

I felt really bad for Myriam, but I felt even worse when she ran to me when class was over. “Fawzia,” she snapped angrily, “it was your fault that I got a zero! You are the one who wrote that paper! You had better go to the teacher tomorrow and tell her it was  you so she can remove that zero and give it to you instead!” Myriam’s father was a banker, so I guess that is how she got her skill at crediting and debiting. Whatever the case, that remark came like a thunder out of a blue sky. It carried with it wafts of Jean Valjean’s dilemma, the one that turned his hair white overnight. And it brought back the mixed feelings I had at pretending to be a good sister and taking over my little brother’s sins in Ankara. It reminded me freshly of the horror I had felt at my father’s threats of telling my classmates I was a thief and a liar (see The Famous Chocolate Story). I barely slept a wink that night. Of course, I could not share that anxiety with anyone. It was a torture I had to withstand alone. Should I? Should I not? To tell or not to tell, that was the question.

To tell or not to tell... that is the question.

To tell or not to tell… that is the question.

As a child, all I could think of was that it was her own fault for trying to read what was none of her business. I recalled those ruler spanks on the palms I received unjustly in the cramming school in Jeddah and realized she must be feeling the same way. On the other hand, as an adult who has by now judged over hundreds of children’s altercations, I can see immediately that there were two different culprits, the one who wrote the paper and the one who talked during class. However, for me at the time, my own fault loomed huge across my mind and would not go away. I would tell myself that after all, Myriam had so many zeros anyway it was not going to make much difference. A zero for me would not harm my average too much but would stand out in angry red as a witness to my bad character and false image of a model student.  Finally, by the time morning came, I went to school totally haggard and pale but with a final resolution. I would tell, come what may. It was the right thing to do.

I walked into the school yard where all the girls played and chatted awaiting assembly time.  I looked for Mme Viguelloux but could not find her. By the time class started, we found out why. She had quit. Yesterday, on top of her harrowing session with our class, she had received a gift from the girls of 4eme: an entire carton of deodorant. Spray underarm deodorant were a new invention then and quite expensive. All the girls in 4eme had pitched in to buy that carton. But I don’t think Mme Viguelloux appreciated it. That had been the last straw. She would not take it any more.

Right hand page: Mme Mangematin's entry in my Cahier de Souvenirs.

Right hand page: Mme Mangematin’s entry in my Cahier de Souvenirs.

The new substitute was younger, more good-looking, which was always a plus with the girls, but with a facial expression and voice that were much more firm. To top it all, she had a threatening name: Mme Mangematin (Mrs. EatMorning). I looked at her and wondered where I was going to find the courage to tell her about the zero. Myriam bugged me, “Fawzia, did you tell her yet? If you don’t, I will!” So finally, during break time, I approached Mme Mangematin who was on yard duty. Cough, cough. Hum! Cough, cough. “Madame…” She raised an eyebrow, “Yes? What is it?” The worst stammering show I had every put on. I… I… well… Somehow, I managed to mention that Myriam had received a zero the previous day for talking in class while holding a paper, but the paper in her hand had actually been written by me. “So?”  So Madame should remove her zero and give it to me instead.

Mme Mangematin had very piercing eyes. She turned those radar beams on me, beams that were disguised as kind brown eyes. She remained silent for what seemed like centuries. Still red-faced, I bowed my head in dread and sweaty anticipation. Finally, in an emotionless voice, she said, “That grade was given by another teacher. I am not allowed to change other teachers’ grades. I’m sorry.”

To say I was not relieved would be a lie. I finally could breathe. Although I did have to act like I was sorry about it when I related Mme Mangematin’s answer to Myriam. Well, I thought, George Washington owned up for axing down the cherry tree, and he became the first president of the United States.  So I wondered, what was I to become?

Washington and the cherry tree


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