Parlez Vous Francais?

The room was comfortably cool. Not too hot, not too cold. The windows would have let in a lot of sunshine, if it weren’t for the dark chart papers that blacked them out. The furniture was clean and minimal. Desks and chairs that can accommodate a maximum of 40 students. A few charts adorned the freshly painted walls. There was a bookshelf which was always empty except for the chalk dust. This was Class IX-C. The students, in the precarious know-it-all age of 14, were a balanced mix of boys and girls. The Bright and the Not-So-Bright. The Serious Sams and the Naughty Nicks. The class was a perfect mix.

The class teacher of IX-C called his class the ‘Crème de la Crème’. They silently agreed to the nomenclature and resorted to their own ways of calling themselves. Naming teachers was not a difficult task. But most students made a tacit agreement to NOT name this one. Let him remain as ‘Sir’, they gulped the fear that was swelling in their throats. An introduction with this teacher in school was not something that was essential. Word-of-Mouth messages always work dedicatedly. ‘Stories’ about this teacher had already made an impact. From the very first day he came into the class, we all knew it was going to be a long, long, long year.

We were making the normal classroom noise when he walked in. As quiet as a mouse, he walked in. A tall and lanky man. A not-so-young, not-so-old person. Sharp features and blackened hair. His features got even more sharper if you get a glimpse of his profile silhouette against the shiny windows. This is how I remember him today – as a black-silhouetted profile of a man who was around six feet in height. He was definitely six feet, I had concluded, because he was ‘taller than my tallest cousin brother’. Crisp shirts and complementing trousers. Spectacles that were more comfortable resting in his palms rather than his nose. He walked in and something in that particular action meant that we should be quiet, and so quiet we stayed.

He spoke.

But while he was uttering the first few syllables, most of us in the backbenches thought he was simply lip-synching. We craned our necks and strained our ears. We fine-tuned our ears to listen to words uttered in a couple of decibels below what we were used to otherwise. This was just one of those things that we had to get used to, for the rest of the year. He informed us that he would be teaching us a beautiful language that even beats ‘your English’ with respect to lucidity and clarity. You don’t have to keep reading between the lines, he said. “French is used in international treaties because of its clarity.”

So, he was our French teacher.

The joy of taking up French instead of Hindi evaporated instantly for some of us – those few who clinged on to the desperate hope that he was only a substitute teacher for the time being, and this was all just a very bad joke.

In the days to come, it was routine to have sir walk in and we maintain a silence that is more befitting a funeral service. We speak only when asked to. We answer only if the question is meant to be answered. Fourteen is a funny age. You would find smart answers for even those rhetoric questions that an adult throws at you in dismay. Something like, ‘what is this class coming to be??’ would have a well-packaged answer that would guarantee a nice laugh if delivered well enough. Now, such answers are safely stashed away during the French class. You would be suicidal if you choose to give wisecracks in this class.

Sir always chose the table rather than the chair to sit upon. Sir always had one chalk with him. He would never hold it unless it is really urgent. The man couldn’t stand chalk dust. He was constantly dusting his palms to clear off the imaginary chalk dust from him. Every time he turned a page, he would clean his fingers as though the chalk dust emanated from those pages. He whispered chapter after chapter to us. He gave us an insight of how the French live. What they have for breakfast, lunch and diner. From such information, you are supposed to deduce that he has spent a considerable period of time in France. With the French whom he knew just so well. We had a tête-à-tête with De Gaulle. I am not sure if Sir liked that guy or not. Nevertheless, we were spoken to, about him. Sir never wore his specs. Well, almost never. He chose to hide behind them only when he was angry, or when he read to us.

Some antics of his were nearly comical while some others sent a chill down your spine. He would read out lessons to us, rather, whisper them. Then he would look up, through his imaginary second pair of spectacles (the real pair was in his hand), and get up from the table. This was a sure sign of lurking danger. We all knew that his next action was of walking all around the class, meandering between the desks (housing us), asking a question or two, aloud. It would be the conjugation of an irregular French verb, or a ‘Traduisez en Français’ exercise. He simply taps on the edge of your desk with his fingertip. That means he is expecting an answer from you. If you answer it correctly, he awards you with a ‘bon’. If you are wrong, he displays his left hand fingers twice, indicting ‘ten times’. What he means is that you are supposed to write down the correct answer ten times for him – the dreaded Imposition that eats away most of your homework time.

At the end of two years and countless exams where I scored somewhere around 60% for French, we had the Social in the tenth class. We had come up with a unique idea of presenting a quiz of sorts. We would make up riddles about our teachers and the audience would have to guess whom we were talking about. I wrote those riddles. The one about sir was somewhat easy to script… I don’t remember all of it but the childish opening lines went something like this –-
I resemble Hitler… While teaching I am a killer….

Today, picturing my French teacher as a terror is a little difficult. He has shrunk to a normal sized human being, from the larger than life person we all feared. In my mind, his image has softened to that of a man who shared a few nice words with my father, in the venue of an Usha Uthup concert. In my mind, he has become just like any other churchgoer my mother met on Thursday evenings. He became my younger sibling’s schoolteacher, while I moved along with time, passing out of school and college. The distance widens with days and he becomes a fuzzy picture… softening anything harsh said or done, highlighting all the nice moments instead. And this is the picture that I would like to keep. I would like to believe that all the terror we felt years ago was just a fourteen-year-old figment of my imagination. I conclude that he wasn’t so bad after all…

God Bless you sir, wherever you are.

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