In French, any type of learning program is called a formation. On the first day of classes in the tech school where I worked for six years, I’d draw an amoeba-like forme (shape) on the board, and tell students that they were informe – shapeless – and that by being in training for two years, they were going to find their shape, which would hopefully resemble a square, if I did my job right. Based on exam success rates, I’d like to think that most of them ended up looking at least like rough parallelograms.
But when I was in high school, I didn’t really resemble any shape at all, and was lucky enough to find myself spending a lot of time with Eloise, or Mrs. C., as we called her back then. Mrs. C. taught French and English, and also coached the school’s public speaking team, which she encouraged me to join. Her classes were challenging: who else would have asked us to memorize the [**prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in Middle English*] ?
But we did it (and I can still recite the beginning, all these years later), because Mrs. C. was precisely the kind of teacher who believed in us so much that we couldn’t fathom disappointing her. She raised the bar on teaching and learning. But what about those students who didn’t meet the challenge?
I’ll admit freely that I dozed through a lot of my classes back then, dreaming of the day I’d finally have my driver’s license, or about how fascinating Luke and Laura were compared to my boring suburban existence. (If you never watched afternoon soap operas growing up, then you missed out on a very peculiar kind of education.)
But when I arrived in Mrs. C.’s class sophomore year, my real education began. My lethargy ended the day I saw what happened to sleepy students in her classroom: Mrs. C. would continue to talk to the rest of the class, and at the same time she would stealthily approach the listless teenager in question. Then she would suddenly slam a large, heavy book onto the desk next to the student, jolting him awake and of course, as all the other students pointed and laughed, embarrassing him enough so that it wouldn’t happen again.
All of Mrs. C’s little tricks and tips to keep students on their toes are ones I’ve adopted for my own classroom: when students get chatty, I start speaking very quietly so that they must strain to hear me, and they shush the other talking students, a kind of internal regulation of the classroom that works wonders.
Pastis and topless sun-bathing
But it wasn’t just all about little tricks: Mrs. C had a sincere and genius way of teaching that was all about flexibility and creativity. She would help us find mnemonic devices or acronyms to remember French verbs or the order of adjectives. I remember one day being surprised to see Mrs. C.’s wedding ring on her right hand, and she told me she’d changed it just an hour before, so that when she got home, she would see it, wonder why it was there, and then remember to water the plants.
The first time I traveled to France, it was with Mrs. C. I was 17, and she chaperoned our little group through Paris and on to Antibes in the south of France, where we had home-stays and French classes every day at a local school. I still remember the exotic dilapidation of the school facilities: forlorn classrooms scrawled with graffiti, and in the bathroom, there weren’t any toilet seats, just bare toilets. And I’m sorry, Mrs. C., but the south of France was also where I took my first sip of pastis and sun-bathed topless on the beaches in Nice. You’d be happy to know I got a sunburn in two of the worst places possible.
But Eloise, as she asked me to call her about 10 years ago during one of our annual visits together here in Paris, would never be happy about something like that. But she most definitely would have made a comment that just verged on sarcasm, and that was also a witty and yet compassionate equivalent of “I told you so.” When students were acting up in class, she would sometimes say, “Education is wasted on the young.” Such a strange comment from someone so dedicated to her art.
And Eloise did indeed elevate teaching to its highest form: an art. Eloise was so good at her job that I wanted to do what she did – it seemed like magic. Have you ever watched someone who is really good at what they do, and then tried to reproduce their technique, because they made it look so easy?
Learn with the best
That happened all the time during my culinary training – for example, our teacher would make an au poivre sauce for steak. It seemed like he moved his hands twice, and suddenly, the pan was aflame, and then he was turning the creamy sauce out onto that juicy steak. When we attempted the technique, we set our tea towels on fire, dropped spoons on the floor, or ended up with crème fraiche in our eyes. How did he do it?
Last week, we lost one of our best educators, precisely the kind that made it all look effortless. Eloise has left behind a loving and equally enthusiastic and curious husband – her high-school sweetheart – as well as three children, and many grand-children. She had moved to Florida years ago. When most people would have stopped working, she had no real interest in full-time retirement, and continued to teach all sorts of people who were lucky enough to learn with the best.
So Eloise, it is with a heavy heart, but also with plenty of fond memories of our friendship, that I dedicate this post to you. You touched many, many lives in the course of your career and life. It is thanks to your art, your sense of dedication, and your joie de vivre that I became a Francophile and a teacher. Merci beaucoup, Eloise.