Swans Commentary » swans.com February 14, 2011  



Dirty Teaching


by Marie Rennard





(Swans - February 14, 2011)   Being a translator does not feed a man, or a woman -- even a tiny one. That's the reason I have two jobs -- fortunately two jobs I like, which is not so frequent nowadays. Everyday after school, young pupils from 8 to 18 years old come home for private lessons. I can teach almost anything except math and science, with a predilection for French, English, Spanish, and History.

In a small city like mine, it's quite easy to find pupils to educate. In this day and age, most parents work late in the evening and have no time to dedicate to their kids, which explains why they look for my (remunerated) help. Do a good job with one child and his parents will send you their friends', making your timetable full within a month.

I used to be a teacher when I was much younger, before I had kids of my own, and though I really loved being with pupils, I had regular troubles with the headmasters of the schools where I taught due to unusual pedagogical methods and occasional complaints from parents. I once was convoked to the principal's office because I had threatened a 16-year-old girl who kept omitting the final "s" when writing verbs in the third person. I had given the class a written exercise, and was going from one to another to check their work. All of them were doing the same: "He live in London."

So I decided it was time to strike hard and mark their minds once and for all so that they would never forget again.

I asked the girl to remove her glasses and lend me a sharpened pencil, which, though surprised by the request, she did. Then I pointed out the verb on the paper, and, putting the pencil close to her eye, I told her next time she'd forget the s, I'd savagely poke her eyes out.

The next day, I was explaining to her mother that I didn't really mean it, and it was just a pedagogic trick -- which worked, and not only with that girl, but with all of the pupils in the classroom.

Anyway, I left this job a few years later, when my second boy was born, and for a decade dedicated my time to breeding my own cattle.

Till recently, when I started teaching again in my kitchen.

French kids are used to learning very complicated conjugations (French is a nightmare of irregular verbs) and when it comes to English grammar, they are very surprised to see that learning irregular verbs is extremely easy, though the mind always blocks on a couple of verbs. I remember copying thousands of times "To forget, I forgot, forgotten" when I was twelve years old -- the one verb I kept forgetting. For a few others, I had mnemonics of my own that I keep using with my pupils today -- and curiously the verbs that happen to be hard to learn are often the same for all kids. Except for one 12-year-old very clever girl I really love teaching. She couldn't learn Bite, bit, bitten, which is quite surprising, since Bite (meaning "cock" in French slang) is a word all kids learn as easily as anything dirty.

- How can you forget that one, I asked her? Don't you know what boys say?
- No, what do they say?
- When they face an insoluble problem, they always say "I'd bite mine."
- Their what?

With my pencil, I show her the verb "Bite" (still meaning "cock"). She becomes as red as a coquelicot (French poppy or Papaver rhoeas).

- Do they? Do they?
- Yes, will you remember now?
- No doubt I will, she laughs. You know what? I really love working with you. You know so many things. And when I am back home, I'll tell my father what you taught me. He'll be very proud of my progress.
- Really? Yet, if you don't mind, don't tell your father about that one. I'm not sure he will appreciate it.

She smiles again.

- Sure he won't. Do you think we have some time left for a few other translations? I really enjoy the game.

Yes, she does, indeed. And that's probably one of the reasons I like her so much. We share the same taste for words and languages, and it's always a pleasure to see this so young a girl who's learnt English for only one and a half years do better now than any other pupil I have, including 16-year-olds, just with intuition and a few extra lessons. We've advanced at least two years in English within three months of work -- which unfortunately caused her a few troubles with her regular English teacher at school who is a fervent defender of classical methods and hence keeps telling her those killing words made famous by the French author Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974): « Quand on sait, on se tait ! »


ed. Note: The expression Quand on sait, on se tait ! -- meaning in English, "When one knows, one remains quiet!" -- comes from a scene in the 1990 film La gloire de mon père ("My Father's Glory") directed by Yves Robert, based on Pagnol's 1957 autobiographical novel (with the same title). In that scene, Ms. Guimard, une vielle fille, or "old maid" -- a "spinster" -- who is a primary teacher, writes on the black board the French vowels -- a, e, i, o, u, y. Young Marcel Pagnol, about five years old, is shown pronouncing the vowels flawlessly, thus triggering the ire of his school teacher. It's a pleasing scene, but this expression is nowhere to be found in Pagnol's novel. Instead, he wrote: Elle [Mlle Guimard] apprenait patiamment leurs lettres à mes petits camarades, mais elle ne s'occupait pas de moi, parce que je lisais couramment, ce qu'elle considérait comme une inconvenance préméditée de la part de mon père. ("She [Miss Guimard] was teaching patiently the alphabet to my young comrades, but she did not pay attention to me because I was reading fluently, which she considered a premeditated impropriety on my father's part.") Still, it's a memorable line, a great scene, and a wonderful movie, especially if one loves the Provençal accent!


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 14, 2011