I was exposed to several different teaching methods at Alliance Française in Paris, which reflected the temperament of the teacher and that teacher’s representation of France as much as the somewhat scattered way in which the school organized the teaching of French. It was like a taxonomy of French character traits through the conjugation of verbs.
It’s only natural, or it was for me, to infer character through daily three-hour encounters with a particular French teacher.
One teacher a lot of the students liked, whom I found efficient enough if a little too smug regarding all things French, was Tony. He had the most up-to-date teaching equipment, with efficient computer graphics and video projections. His classes moved swiftly. He explained grammar well. But he was one of those teachers who found it effective to belittle the students – he mocked me for being in my 50s and learning French, which seemed to be counter to the aims of Alliance Française – and didn’t hesitate to share with us how much he looked forward to his retirement in 25 or so years.
I took his class – grammar, conversation, writing, three hours a day five days a week – at a time when changes to the retirement age in France were being discussed. The possibility of shifting the date of retirement eligibility from 60 years to 62 years led to a series of strikes and slowdowns among workers that summer. (A French friend mentioned to me that in France, anytime you mention the word “reform” everything shuts down.)
He had the casual-slob look of an early-model hipster – faded t-shirt, messenger bag – he lamented the quality of the French national soccer team (Les Bleus), brought with him every morning the sports daily, l’Equipe, and shouted invective across the courtyard to the people in the facing apartment who sometimes played their music too loudly during his class. He was, to use the French phrase, un peu con, or a bit of an ass.
At one point Tony told us in his class that if he had to work until he was 62, he’d shoot himself, arranging his fingers into the universal sign for pistol to the temple. Beyond a better comprehension of French, I came away from his class with an understanding of a certain French character: Someone who wasn’t ashamed to let you know that he didn’t enjoy the work you were paying him to do. Even if he considered it only natural that everyone should want to learn French.
My teacher Hélène enjoyed her work, but it seemed as if it were a job she’d grown into rather than a profession she’d chosen. She liked to chat with us before the class, almost reluctant for the actual lessons to begin. She wasn’t one of those teachers like Myriam, my first onversation-class teacher, who arrived late and befuddled and barely took the time to gather herself before the class was ended. Hélène was reserved, professional, unassuming and charming, and took the time to try to find out why we wanted to learn, and what that might mean to us (which we explained, haltingly).
Hélène seemed about 70, but was apparently about 20 years younger. She had been aged in nicotine. Barely thicker than a Gauloises, her protuberant yellow teeth (and catarrhal coughing) betrayed a lifelong tobacco fiend. At each break during the class (we’d have two during the three hours) elle fumait comme un pompier – she smoked like a fireman, or as we say in English, like a chimney – relishing each inhalation of her two or three swiftly consumed cigarettes with what seemed to me a particularly French appreciation of carcinogens.
During her class Hélène didn’t have access to the snazzy computers of her colleague Tony, so she relied on old-fashioned overhead projectors, using transparencies of photocopied lesson-guide pages to have us go through exercises in the use of the subjunctive. She encouraged each of us to participate, without humiliating the slow (or the middle aged). She wanted us to live in French, so that we could appreciate its smoky allure.
Where Tony was all snooty hauteur in the guise of an everyday citoyen, Hélène was all graciousness under a layer of fine ash.
My favorite teacher, though, was Mademoiselle Hakiki, energetic and enthusiastic. She wasn’t on the school’s fulltime staff – she had what the French call a CDD, un contrat à durée déterminée, a sort of fixed-date term of employment that could last from nine months to 18 months or perhaps longer, and that was up for renewal. Mlle. Hakiki cobbled together a career by teaching when she could, either at the Alliance Française or at a few other schools in Paris.
Perhaps because she was born in Algeria, Mlle. Hakiki had a certain openness that seemed, well, foreign among some of the more reserved French teachers at Alliance Française. She more than anyone seemed to love helping us acquire a new language, as a gateway into a culture that had helped shape her from afar. I don’t know if I learned French better from Mlle. Hakiki than from some of the other teachers I’d had, but I came to appreciate in her the love of learning and the vigor that it gives you. I couldn’t tell what age Mlle. Hakiki was, but she had the effervescence of youth that came from treating us all as fellow travelers on a path toward knowledge.