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Votre dévouée élève, qui vous aime de tout son coeur

While reading The Professor (thanks for suggesting it, Katie), I was full of fantasies about updating it (à la Pride & Prejudice/Bridget Jones), writing a novel loosely based on it, or bringing it to the big screen. The book is about an Englishman who is unhappy in his work, so he goes off to Belgium and teaches English. I like it despite the protagonist's airs of grandeur, because there are parts that remind me of my experiences as a teaching assistant in France.

No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, "I am baffled!" and submits to be floated passively back to land. (Chapter 4)

That reminds me of this post about never ever leaving a job.

Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium! I repeat the word, now as I sit alone near midnight. It stirs my world of the past like a summons to resurrection; the graves unclose, the dead are raised; thoughts, feelings, memories that slept, are seen by me ascending from the clods--haloed most of them--but while I gaze on their vapoury forms, and strive to ascertain definitely their outline, the sound which wakened them dies, and they sink, each and all, like a light wreath of mist, absorbed in the mould, recalled to urns, resealed in monuments. (Chapter 7)

Believe it or not, I do feel that way when I hear "Vichy" or "Grenoble" or sometimes even just "France". Maybe not to that extent, but I'm not a character in a Brontë novel, either.

"Would you object to taking the boys as they are, and testing their proficiency in English?"

The proposal was unexpected. I had thought I should have been allowed at least 3 days to prepare; but it is a bad omen to commence any career by hesitation, so I just stepped to the professor's desk near which we stood, and faced the circle of my pupils. I took a moment to collect my thoughts, and likewise to frame in French the sentence by which I proposed to open business. I made it as short as possible:--

"Messieurs, prenez vos livres de lecture."

"Anglais ou Francais, monsieur?" demanded a thickset, moon-faced young Flamand in a blouse. The answer was fortunately easy:--

"Anglais."

I determined to give myself as little trouble as possible in this lesson; it would not do yet to trust my unpractised tongue with the delivery of explanations; my accent and idiom would be too open to the criticisms of the young gentlemen before me, relative to whom I felt already it would be necessary at once to take up an advantageous position, and I proceeded to employ means accordingly. (Chapter 7)

Thrown into classes and frightened of your French being mocked by your students? Sound familiar?

She liked to learn, but hated to teach; her progress as a pupil depended upon herself, and I saw that on herself she could calculate with certainty; her success as a teacher rested partly, perhaps chiefly, upon the will of others; it cost her a most painful effort to enter into conflict with this foreign will, to endeavour to bend it into subjection to her own; for in what regarded people in general the action of her will was impeded by many scruples; it was as unembarrassed as strong where her own affairs were concerned, and to it she could at any time subject her inclination, if that inclination went counter to her convictions of right; yet when called upon to wrestle with the propensities, the habits, the faults of others, of children especially, who are deaf to reason, and, for the most part, insensate to persuasion, her will sometimes almost refused to act; then came in the sense of duty, and forced the reluctant will into operation. A wasteful expense of energy and labour was frequently the consequence; Frances toiled for and with her pupils like a drudge, but it was long ere her conscientious exertions were rewarded by anything like docility on their part, because they saw that they had power over her, inasmuch as by resisting her painful attempts to convince, persuade, control--by forcing her to the employment of coercive measures--they could inflict upon her exquisite suffering. Human beings--human children especially--seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to make others wretched; a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over that instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare. Frances, I fear, suffered much; a continual weight seemed to oppress her spirits[...] (Chapter 16)

Frances, another teacher at the school, takes English lessons with some of her students, just as I did in Spanish at Valéry Larbaud. She likes to learn, doesn't like to teach, and is intimidated by some of her students.

"Confound it! How doggedly self-approving the lad looks! I thought he was fit to die with shame, and there he sits grinning smiles, as good as to say, 'Let the world wag as it will, I've the philosopher's stone in my waist-coat pocket, and the elixir of life in my cupboard; I'm independent of both Fate and Fortune'" (Chapter 22)

Never mind. I'm just a nerd.

srah - Thursday, 24 July 2003 - 12:07 AM
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Comments (1)

gravatar katie - July 27, 2003 - 5:33 PM -

That passage from chapter 7 is exactly what made me recommend the book to you.

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