As I may have mentioned here at some point, probably back in August (SEVEN MONTHS AGO, PEOPLE), I started “studying” French when I was seven years old. I was just starting at a new school, and my family decided that I should take French, as my grandmother had been a French teacher and my mom and aunt had taken French in school. All of the language classes (and middle school art classes, and women’s life studies as well) took place in the Annex, which was ironically the original school building. The way you knew that was that, first of all, it was clearly older and more rickety than any other building on campus (log cabin excepted), and second of all, because the doorways were so wide, presumably to allow young ladies in voluminous skirts to pass through, in the early days of the school’s existence.
My first French teacher was called Madame Nadkarni. If memory serves, she was a small Frenchwoman with very short dark hair. I know for sure that she played the guitar. We would all put our heads down on the desk and when she called our names for attendance, we would squeak out, “Ici!” (Later on it became much more sophisticated to say “Présent!” instead, but I always liked the “ici” game.)
After that for a few years we had a series of teachers I barely remember. There was definitely Madame Midori, whom I remember as being quite chic, and Madame Burnett in sixth grade, a very athletic blonde Parisienne who used to tell the popular girls in study hall to “break up the magic circle” where they were all sitting. I can still imitate her accent: “This is a SILENT study hall!”
And then in seventh grade, we moved to the highest-but-one floor of the upper school building for French with Madame Moreau, who was also my adviser. She was from Bordeaux, and I thought she was just the coolest person ever (when we went on school trips, our very small adviser group counted off by animal sounds instead of numbers–I think at age twelve I must have been a little embarrassed to be mooing at Quincy Market, but looking back, I love her for it). Unfortunately, in seventh grade it was distinctly unhip to enjoy a language class, especially one that took place up so many flights of stairs, and so I grumbled along with my classmates every day, and tried not to learn too fast.
But I loved Madame Moreau. I don’t know how often she googles herself, but maybe this will come up, and maybe she’ll remember me. (If it helps, dear Google, her first name was Françoise, and I remember that not only because I just looked it up on the school website, but also because she told us that her father’s nickname for her was “Framboise”–raspberry.) She spoke with the most beautiful accent. She brought us bags of Carambars (chewy caramel candy that also came in various fruit flavors…which I have yet to hunt down since I’ve been here) when she came back from visiting her family in France. At the end of each trimester, we would have a party or a picnic, depending on the weather, and she would bring bread and Nutella and quiche Lorraine and Perrier. It was all just so authentic (well, as authentic as French food gets in New Jersey!).
But the thing that has really stuck with me about Madame Moreau and middle school French class after all of these years is poisson d’avril. Every year on April 1st in Madame Moreau’s class, we would cut fish out of construction paper and write “Poisson d’Avril” on them. Then we would put scotch tape on the back of each one and wander around the school, sticking them to people’s backs when they weren’t looking. I’ve always loathed April Fool’s Day, but I loved Poisson d’Avril. Such a chic, European way to play a trick on someone! (Wikipedia tells me that the paper fish tradition is only for children, and that the French actually do play proper pranks on April 1st as well, but I’m going to stick with the fish.)
And Madame Moreau was, as you might expect, an expert. You could walk past her on April 1st, say “Bonjour,” then have somebody pluck a paper fish off of your shirt three hours later, when you didn’t even realize that she had touched you when you passed in the hallway. I was always so clumsy about it, the fish would just fall right off and I’d have to tell the person to hold still for a second so I could properly affix my poisson d’avril, by which point the joke would be ruined anyway.
It might seem like all I remember about Madame Moreau is food and games, but the truth is, I don’t have much recollection of learning French at all–and yet I knew French, sort of like Sara Crewe except less elegant. I feel like Madame Moreau might have taught us French by sneak attack; the grammar was hidden behind croissants and singing and paper fish.
So really, what I want to do this year on April 1st, after seven whole months of living in France, is thank Madame Moreau. I don’t know what brought her from Bordeaux to New Jersey to teach French in a private school for girls, but I’m awfully glad to have had her as a teacher. Merci millefois et joyeux poisson d’avril!
P.S. Because…well, yeah. Sacré bleu! I ‘ave meeeeessed one! Also, because that’s totally René Auberjonois.