Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

My cherry tree

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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Broken dishes and overthrown dictators

I did eventually come to greatly admire the spirit of Catholicism, if not its apparent rituals. It certainly had nothing to do with my classmates’ failed attempts at converting us. It was the behavior and character of our nuns that impressed me. One Saturday, Saadia and I raised our fingers and volunteered to stay behind and help clean up after lunch when the sister on duty asked. After cleaning the tables, we were assigned the job of drying stacks of hot wet dishes fresh out of the huge dishwashers.  Our tabliers had large deep pockets sewn on both sides, that had grown saggy with the constant weight of all kinds of little treasures as well as that of our hands when we had nothing to do with them. As I turned to place a dried plate away, my pocket caught the sharp stainless steel corner of the counter. I shook myself to free the pocket, but instead, shook the entire counter. A stack of plates as high as my nose trembled with the quake and flew off, crashing onto the floor in a formidable clanging cacophony. I stood there frozen. My friends later told me my face had turned pale.

Had this been at home, Mama’s hand or knuckles would long have come down on my back or head, accompanied by an explosive string of remarks on my lack of sense of responsibility, and the current cost of porcelain. But the sister with the black-rimmed glasses hurried over, lifting her robe for longer strides. She took one look at me, and kindly patted my shoulder. “It’s all right, no matter. Don’t worry. Think about it, had you not offered to help out, you wouldn’t have broken the dishes.”

“That’s right,” I thought, “I only broke them because I was helping dry the dishes…” I could not believe it. Not a single word of reproach passed her lips, even though there must have been well over two dozen plates in shards on the floor. By the time I recovered from the shock of her kindness, she had finished sweeping up the mess.

tall stack of plates

My obsession with history led me to ask once Maria-Marta to tell us about the history of Argentina. I was stunned. It wasn’t very long, only a couple of hundred of years long. And it consisted — at least that is what it sounded like — of a series of coups d’etat, one person overthrowing another till he himself got overthrown by a newcomer. I thought she must be joking. But she was dead serious. That was my introduction to the history of the New World. No dynasties lasting a few hundred years, no galant knights or damsels in distress, no historical legends shrouded in the mists of time, no valiant general turning into exiled emperor pining for his blond cherub son on a lonely rock in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Just plain sparring sessions, king of the hill for grown-ups. My interest in South American history took a nose dive. It was not until years later, after watching the musical Evita in London, that I started becoming interested in it again.

history of argentina


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What is the Trinity?

This time, there was no hiding what our religion was. No more riddle in installments.

Before registering us, Uncle Lung had chatted at length with the Headmistress about our religion and our dietary restrictions, as well as the understanding that we would be exempted from Bible study and Mass. Except for Saadia and I, everyone was Catholic this time. Although we were exempted from formal religious classes and activities, we were immersed in the general Catholic atmostphere of the school nevertheless.

Every morning, we started class with everyone standing up, making the sign of the cross and reciting a prayer. Obviously, we two, who again ended up in the same classroom, had to stand up too. We did not recite the prayer, but after listening to it a few hundred times, we do know by heart the “Notre Pere, qui etes aux cieux,…”  (Our Father) and the “Je vous salue, Marie, …” (Ave Maria).  In the lunchroom, before eating, again everyone recited a prayer, and everyone made the sign of the cross.

Since this was a girls-only school, I suppose the overall culture was more subdued and well-behaved. At least, I did not have to dodge food launched from spoons-turned-catapults at lunch or scotch-tape-balls at break time. I cannot vouch however, for what the girls did after school though, because some of them made a point of mentioning quite brow-raising things in their conversation, to show they were actually very worldly.

Maria Marta's entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

Maria Marta’s entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

What was really interesting was the sprinkling of girls with an interesting and different background, like us. Maria-Marta Mantel was an Argentinian girl, and like us, her father worked in a diplomatic mission. He was the Military Attache at the Argentinian embassy. Diane Briere de l’Isle was French, but her father worked with the UN and had been posted previously in New York, so she was more open-minded than her compatriots to globalism. Marie-Therese Le was Vietnamese. She had a slight inferiority complex because as a refugee, she attended the school on a scholarship. But I loved her gentle personality and we became great friends. Marianne Powell’s father worked with the BBC, but unfortunately, he was British and more unfortunately still, Marianne’s mother was German. The deadliest mix.

Marie Therese's entry is on the left page, and Christine's on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

Marie Therese’s entry is on the left page, and Christine’s on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

For the first time in my life, I was thankful to be Chinese. Oh, of course, we still got discriminated against. That subtle type of discrimination that is not out in the open usually but unmasks itself now and then upon demand. One day, we were getting our history tests back and our teacher had returned all the papers except one. “In all my years as history teacher,” she began proudly, looking at the last paper in her hands, “I have never ever given a full mark for a history test.”

I must explain here that in France then, a history test was usually an essay-type question, with the response running through three to five pages. That particular test, I remember, asked us to describe the life and culture of Romans under the reign of, I cannot quite recall which emperor, but it could have been Augustus. Quite by chance, I had taken the trouble to study for it. I normally just scanned through the pages, and that was enough to make me top of the class, after Saadia, that is. But this time, I bothered to count the aspects of culture: clothes, architecture, food, leisure, etc and so made sure to mention and discuss all of them.

“Today is the very first time I have done so,” the teacher continued. “There was truly nothing I could find missing in this essay. This student…” At which point, a contemptuous voice somewhere behind me on the right sneered, “Ah, we know well… It’s the little Chinese…” — On sait bien… C’est la p’tite Chinoise, la…” The pink cloud I was riding on suddenly vanished in a puff, and I fell down amid storm and rain back to the muddy earth. I lowered my head and wished I had failed the test. I wasn’t just Chinese, I was a “little” Chinese. A despicable one. You know, you turn good somersaults, indeed, but since you are nothing but a circus monkey, we expect you should do so…

But whatever scorn we got, it was nothing compared to the blatant spite Marianne received. She was blamed for burning Joan of Arc, poisoning Napoleon, using chemical weapons in WWI, and so on. In brief, all the anger and hate accumulated from centuries of defeat at the hands of the English and the Germans were directed towards her. A few times, we caught her with shining dewdrops in her eyes, trying very hard to hide her flaming cheeks. And so, despite her long blond hair and porcelain skin, she hung around with us, the Yellow, the Hispanic, and the Cosmopolitan.

In the second trimester, a Lebanese girl joined us for a couple of months. I was happy to meet someone from the Middle East. I told her I understood Arabic. “Really?” she said, and immediately asked me, “How do you say… er… “tree” in Arabic?”  I was stunned to discover I could not remember. “It’s… it’s…” There it was, on the tip of my tongue… but what was it? I frowned hard, trying to squeeze the word back up from the recesses of my memory. She looked at me half doubtfully. “It’s shajarah. — Ah, yes, of course, it’s shajarah!” I rejoiced. And then, in the morning, she would greet me with, “Marhaba!” (hello) and I would stutter, tongue tied. In Saudi Arabia, we would say instead, “Assalamu ‘alaikum!” (peace be upon you) though I had heard the term “marhaba” from people like our doctor, who also used to say, “ahlan wa sahlan!” (welcome) but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall the correct reply to those!

The Arabic word for hello, "Marhaba"

The Arabic word for hello, “Marhaba”

No one bothered much about the fact that Saadia and I were Muslims. Actually they envied us the fact that we could skip Scriptures class. Until one day — I am not quite sure what triggered it, perhaps some missionary zeal from Bible study– a few girls took it into their heads that it was their duty to convert us. Christine Frachet, a kind tall heavy-boned girl with two long auburn braids, led the little group. They would corner us at lunch, at break time, wherever. They told us we should believe in God. We did, we replied. They told us Jesus could save us. We weren’t quite sure we needed saving. Finally, tired of the onslaught, I told them, “Look, I don’t mind converting. You convince me, and I shall convert. But if you cannot explain the Trinity to me, how could I convert into a belief I don’t understand?” And, surprisingly, they were unable to explain it. They would beat round and round the bush, and traipse all over it too. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they are one but they are three, well it’s a mystery and you have to accept it and believe in it… I knew very little about my own religion, but I did know that God was One. And to this day, I marvel at the simplicity of God’s Oneness, and how that faith in His Oneness shone in its logic and protected me from straying.

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