French Teachers

Photograph of a white orchid, a French book and a ruler
  • By Hari Kunzru
  • Issue 14
  • FableFebruary 2016

He was polishing a pedestal of impressive height. Almost any girl could have climbed up on it, to receive his cramped and abject worship. The First Ideal was blond and played tennis and her mother drove a silver Mercedes, in fact once drove it into the back of his mother’s forest-green Vauxhall Cavalier during school pickup, because, she said, she’d been wearing new shoes. The boy supposed she meant that her foot had slipped off the pedal, or something like that. The accident was a disaster for him, a mortal embarrassment. His mother vocalized certain long-held opinions—of the immorality of German cars, the immorality of new shoes and the new money that bought them. The tennis-playing girl with her blond hair and the pleated skirt that rose up when she lunged or served, exposing her thighs and her sensible gym knickers, came from new money. She said “haitch” for h. This was apparently a bad thing, but for his part he was prepared to forgive her.

He did not know what he wanted to do with her. He wanted to be noble. He went to sleep every night imagining scenarios in which he saved her from perils (skinheads, orcs) or, in more depressive moods, performed deeds of suicidal self-sacrifice, so she would cry over his grave. He would float above the scene, experiencing a bittersweet sensation of righteousness, the knowledge that if only she’d known who he really was, the kind of heart that beat within his twelve-year-old breast, she would not have spent all her time with Bradley Nash. Meticulously he constructed situations in which he and the Ideal were thrown together in conditions of unexpected intimacy. As the earth was struck by an asteroid, they would escape (with many people from their school year, though by no means all) in some sort of coed colony ship, where he and she would have to share living quarters, which they would do at first shyly and then with increasing pleasure. Unisex trench warfare was also a thing, though there was no mud or gas or stinking corpses, just a fierce cold that required a lot of snuggling under fleecy army-issue blankets. He shared none of this with her. She would not have understood, or been interested.

The French teacher erupted into this airtight world like a revolution. A carnal shock. She would stand in the light of the tall classroom window, to open or close the sash, and her long thin cotton skirt would turn almost transparent. It was shaming to picture what lay underneath the Ideal’s tennis dress, a sign of ignobility. By contrast, the French teacher invited all the outrages of the imagination. Her dark curls framed an enticing mouth. The boy, now thirteen, would watch it closely as she pronounced the words of the text. In class she would pace in the revealing light and dictate exercises, and he was not the only one to race to complete them, for she had favorites, and to them she would grant favors. The first to finish, if it was early enough, if the others had to be given a chance to catch up, would find his exercise book turned round on his desk. She would lean forward, lean into him, over him, so his forehead was almost touching her shoulder, and she would mark his exercise, ticking and circling with her red pen, seemingly unaware that her blouse was hanging open and her pupil was inhaling her smell and gazing at her round white breasts.

There was a boy in the sixth form, as dark as he was, who would often go to her classroom at break. They would shut the door and laugh together. He wished he were older, so he could go in to her classroom and shut the door. Just a little older, old enough for her to do things with him. He knew she wanted to.

Midway through the year, the French teacher disappeared. Another woman was standing in her place by the window, a woman with blotchy skin and a woolen kilt and a severe bun of unwashed hair. “Dictée,” she said, in as unsensuous a way as the word had ever been pronounced. “Le soleil brillait vif et clair dans un ciel sans nuages …” It was said that the sixth-form boy and the first teacher had been caught together, and she had been dismissed. There were lurid tales, based on nothing, about what they had been doing. It was said, authoritatively, that she had been fellating him as he sat behind her desk when the deputy headmaster, a notorious martinet, burst in. It was the scenario that seemed most vivid—the aroused and angry man spying through the keyhole as the teacher knelt before her pupil—and so it became the truth.

In revenge for her plainness and ill humor, they burned the second French teacher at the stake. She was Joan of Arc and other Catholic saints, cut and amputated and torn. They spat in her water glass. They imitated her voice, exaggerating the unfortunate shrillness of its tone into a foul, constipated whine. They let their misogyny fly. They imagined her in sexual situations, grotesque humiliations with fat old teachers. They claimed to one another that she had a disease. More than once she fled the classroom in tears, and they exulted in their victory until some gallant young master came flying in with a cane and threats of lines and detention.

The years ground on. At fourteen, the Ideal had freckles and liked him enough to sit beside him in biology class. Once, out of boredom, she doodled her initials on his folder, an act that he found charged and significant. By this point he had kissed other girls, and so he could imagine what it would be like to kiss her. The Ideal went out with Casual boys. They picked her up in cars and drove her to pubs out in the forest. His parents were strict. Social events were few and far between. There was an end-of-term disco where people did a sort of rowing dance to “Oops Upside Your Head” and sneaked cigarettes behind the hall. At the end there was a slow dance. He did not ask the Ideal to dance. She would not have said yes. He danced with another girl, who let him kiss her as he looked over at the Ideal and Bradley Nash, snogging nearby.

He was seventeen when the third French teacher arrived at the school. She had attended one of the women’s colleges at Oxford and seemed to have landed in an era at least a hundred years later than the one she was dressed for. She wore her hair very long, like a Pre-Raphaelite muse, and in her leisure time played the recorder in an early-music ensemble. She carried herself as if she were an intoxicating creature from bohemia, pacing along in her ballet flats like a participant in a sacred rite. The boy did not notice her in a sexual way. He was in a relationship with the Third Ideal. They had recently lost their virginity to each other, and because he had at last successfully collided nobility with actual sex, he imagined himself deeply and spiritually in love. His mother got wind of what had happened and made a scene, calling him a slut. When he corrected her, saying that technically he was a sloven (that being the masculine form), she had slapped his face.

In French class they read Le blé en herbe, by Colette, a novel whose English translation, prohibited in the classroom for the liberties it took with textual accuracy, was titled Ripening Seed. The novel concerned two teenagers who were discovering sexual feelings for each other while scampering among rock pools on the Normandy coast. The boy was introduced to the pleasures of carnal love by an older woman who lived nearby amidst chinoiserie and the scent of orchids. And how do you think Phil would feel at this moment, the French teacher would ask him, playing with her hair. Always him. Any time it came to the question of Phil’s sexual initiation, she chose him to answer. Why did he think Phil reacted in that way? What was going through his mind? She was relentless, single-minded. Everyone in the classroom felt uncomfortable. After a while, the atmosphere grew so strange that other pupils would step in to protect him, to deflect her attention.

At the leavers’ ball, he danced with his girlfriend. She was wearing a puffball dress that showed off her legs. Later they planned to drive out into the woods in her car and find somewhere to park. He was elated, happy that she seemed to love him as much as he loved her. School was over. A new phase of life was beginning.

It was obvious the French teacher had been drinking. She appeared between them and took the boy by the wrist. Come with me, she said. He was confused, and still technically a pupil of the school. Though he did not want to go, he was conditioned to obey her. Once outside, she put her arm in his and walked him towards the back of the hall, the same place where he used to smoke cigarettes with his friends, years previously.

You don’t know what to do, she said, stating the obvious. You can’t handle this at all. He felt embarrassed, nervous. He knew what she wanted. She had made it perfectly clear in the classroom. He was sick of being badgered, sick of her flirtation. He had no feelings for her at all. If she had been the first French teacher, it might have been different, but he was in love with the Third Ideal and it would have been ignoble to kiss anyone else. She pushed him against the wall. He turned his face aside and mumbled that his girlfriend was waiting for him. Just then, two young masters walked round the corner. They glowered at him, those responsible adults in their tweed jackets and rugby-club ties. The French teacher stepped back and floated away, lifting her legs in a stylized run, like an Isadora Duncan nymph. The two young masters interrogated him. Was he drunk? What the hell did he think he was doing? Their anger was fierce, palpable. He wondered if they were going to hit him. But they could prove none of their suspicions, and once he left the party that night, he would no longer be any of their concern. They stepped away and he went back inside to the Third Ideal. He told her he wanted to leave, and they got into her car and drove away. After that, there were no more French teachers.