Madame Latte

By Thérèse Soukar Chehade
 

Madame Latte was blond and imposing for someone so short. I think of her, my French seventh grade teacher at the Collège des Soeurs des Saints-Coeurs in Beirut, Lebanon, in crispy white shirts, pacing the classroom, her heels clacking on the terrazzo tiles, slashing the silence, calling us to attention. She had a tendency to lean over closely as we toiled at our desks; we were painfully aware of her disapproval. We would hush whenever she came striding through the corridor, her ponytail briskly swinging to and fro, and we would always silently break our gatherings to let her through.

She was one of the few teachers from France at my school. This made her an object of fascination. Four decades later, her image floats up to me, shifting and changing across time. I reconstitute her memory from fragments, straining to paint a truthful portrait of a teacher feared, but not revered. The vividness of some of the recollections amazes me, yet I hesitate. I want to be thorough and fair, almost foolproof, as though she might walk out of the shadows and fix me again with her eyes. The essence of Madame Latte I tell in these pages is true. She was strict. She knew the subject. And she could be mean.

Her voice could fall down to a whisper then rise suddenly, startling us. I hear her trilling her rs in an exaggerated way, vibrating them in the manner of Édith Piaf. None of us had visited France or knew much about real French people. But we watched the French channel and listened to French music on Radio Monaco, and we knew enough to tell that Madame Latte’s manner of speaking was singular and old-fashioned and perhaps even an affectation. It certainly added to her power, the percussive sounds rattling out from her throat straight into our eardrums, giving her speech an unassailable quality.

We did not mimic her accent. Trilling your r like the French got you pegged as someone who put on airs. We feared the ridicule that came from aspiring to a station above our own. Molière’s Middle Class Gentleman we were not. So we stuck to our native r, which rolled softly and with a slight undulation that stretched the words out, not unpleasantly, but in a manner clearly antithetical to the sprightly and bubbly French. Sometimes, alone in my room, I would read aloud a French passage, trilling to my heart’s content, and delight in the minute explosions the language made when strung with all those chirping rs.

The problematic r aside, we strived to get the pronunciation right. We mastered the variations between nasal vowels requiring different positions of the lips and subtle exchanges of breath. We made fun of country people, who notoriously botched their way through the little French they knew. There was much at stake in gaining proficiency: distinctions of class and education, of city and country. During the war, French, which is spoken by most Lebanese regardless of religion, came to designate the Christians in particular, who clung to it as a way of distinguishing themselves from, and looking down upon, the predominantly Muslim world surrounding them.

Ours was a Catholic school modeled after those the French Jesuits established in Lebanon in the 18th century. They followed the French education system, and were what we call in the U.S. dual language schools. Most Christian families sent their children there, partly for the religious education, but mostly because they were considered superior to the public schools, which did not provide a high enough standard of education, were plagued by student and teacher demonstrations, and, most importantly, taught French poorly.

I grew up in a Maronite Catholic family. My mother was devout, my father less so. My beliefs ebbed and flowed. I found Mass boring and resented being on double duty, forced to attend Mass on Thursday in the school’s small chapel and on Sunday at the neighborhood church. I was jealous of the Muslim girls, who were exempt from the excruciating catechism and Mass. There was always a sprinkling of them, their families lured by that coveted French. I remember them sitting alone at their desks, smiling smugly as we filed out of the classroom every Thursday morning.

Arabic was the official language of Lebanon, but French enjoyed a higher status in many circles. At my school, rumor had it that the nuns’ spies would listen in during recess and drop a small red-painted wooden block in the pockets of the girls who spoke Arabic. What happened to the girls who got caught, we never knew, or cared to find out. Who started the rumor and how did it come to exist? It had always been among us, and tracing its source was like trying to elucidate the mystery of creation. No one had ever seen it. Like God, it was invisible, yet we did not question it. Most of the time we forgot its existence. Then someone would remember, and suddenly fear and suspicion would ripple through us, and we would eye each other with hands tightly clamped to our pockets.

We must not have truly believed in the existence of the wooden block, which we called “signal,” since we never spoke French amongst ourselves outside of class. Only the upper classes conducted their entire lives in French. We came from the middle and working classes, and despite our high proficiency, French remained an artifice, an accessory we put on for show because it assured us a solid place in the world. When we spoke French amongst ourselves we felt stiff and unnatural, as though decked out in our Sunday best on non-holy days.

Even if the “signal” did not physically exist, its effect was deeply internalized. Mistakes in spelling or diction in French caused deep embarrassment. On the other hand, girls boasted of their weakness in their mother tongue, Arabic, as though their inability to master it was a virtue, proof of their innate immunity to something inherently inferior.

When I was growing up in the seventies, the Christians called France Lebanon’s tender mother, a reference to France’s role as protector of the Christian minority during sectarian conflicts. From this infantilized position we looked up to our former colonizer to save us from the perceived threat of the Muslim majority. In many ways, and without grasping the full implications of our actions, we were also calling on France to save us from our mother tongue. Arabic tied us to the Arab world from which we sprang, and whose cord we sought to cut. It was a classic case of split identity, which fostered deep divisions and would later tragically stoke up the flames of the civil war.

When Madame Latte entered the classroom we rose to our feet in greeting. She nodded, we would submit to her scrutiny, which never, as far as I can remember, yielded positive results. She would say things like “mes petites écervelées,” my little empty-headed ones. To her, Lebanon was a backward country. Her contempt angered us. Yet what could we say? We had been trained to be quiet and obedient.

One day, she assigned a short free write. In my piece, the furniture sprang into talk; the upholstered living room chairs complained about their new coverings in rusty “havane,” a color only my mother liked, and the TV room divan still reeled from my grandmother’s enthusiastic bouncing on its rickety frame during a dramatic soccer match. My story pleased Madame Latte, who hovered above me in her usual way, muttering words of satisfaction and patting me on the shoulder.

My heart thrilled. After she moved on to the next girl I sat there, flushed with pride. Through the animating force of language I had levitated. I felt wonderfully special, lifted up to the light. Writing had always been “my thing,” but this particular instance stands in my memory as pivotal. Being noticed by Madame Latte gave me the courage to speak up a few weeks later.

We had been taking turns reading aloud when we came upon a passage that referred to Paris as a dirty city. Interrupting, Madame Latte looked up to declare that the words were false, that Paris was perfectly clean, and that if one wanted to see dirty streets, all one had to do was come to Beirut.

Anger rushed through me, and my hand shot up. When I was given the permission to speak, I rose to my feet and stammered that Paris’s uncleanliness must have been true. Why else would the author, who was French, have made it up? Gazing at me steadily across the room, Madame Latte blamed the author’s youth. He was wrong, and that was that. I could think of nothing to say and I sank down in my seat, veering from pride to impotence.

I had reason to be proud. Speaking up against authority was no small feat at my school. But my intoxication was curtailed by a crushing sense of my limitation. Madame Latte’s argument was weak, yet it had been enough to silence me. I had been told, as children usually are, that things fell in categories randomly assigned by adults. I was good in French. My compositions earned high grades and I read constantly. But because I was thirteen, and because I spoke someone else’s language, I could not think of a comeback, and I stood there with nothing to say and no way to defend myself.

Yet, something happened during that quick interchange. Power shifted in my favor in ways that would slowly reverberate across the years. Madame Latte hadn’t ridiculed me, as she did in other circumstances. Instead, she addressed me calmly. I remember her eyes as thoughtful, as though she was seeing me for the first time. I liked being in that beam of spotlight she threw at me with her gaze, the feeling of being worthy enough that she would take the trouble to come up with a reason, however flimsy.

At the same time, I felt a little guilty—it was only recently when she had praised my writing, and here I was, already a rebel. Attention and praise had triggered my gratitude. They might have weakened the force of my objection. Such are the crumbs that sustain the powerless.

One day, Madame Latte brought marzipan to class. She had been talking about her påte d’amande for weeks, I can’t remember in what context, but it was an ongoing topic meant to build our anticipation and perhaps provide a glimpse of French culinary culture. (A French friend explained that the påte d’amande is a specialty of Provence. Could Madame Latte have come from that area? The concoction, my friend added, also forms the base of many Algerian pastries. Maybe Madame Latte taught in Algeria before coming to Lebanon. An email to my old school has gone unanswered, so I do not know my teacher’s connection to the pastry.)

On the promised day, she unveiled the delicacy, a pale green lump she placed on a plate then proceeded to cut into small pieces and distribute. We had heard from the classe de quatrième A that her knife had not looked thoroughly washed when she took it out of her bag. Our morning recess had been spent jeering Madame Latte’s lax housekeeping, and we had no intention of putting anything she had touched in our mouths. Besides, the pastry looked unappealing, lumpy and colorless, as though no effort had been taken in making it. Thankfully, the bell rang as she was handing out the pastries. We quickly snuck them in our pockets and rushed outside to toss them in the trash, our gleeful laughter sounding through the courtyard.

There is something sad in this remembered scene: her surprising offer of food, (and confusing—she had never before given us anything besides her strictness), and our rejection of it because of her mean-spiritedness and inability to nurture her students’ abilities. The recurring motif of dirt strikes me. It was the main ingredient of our meanness to each other, in her racist deprecation of our city and our vengeful retaliation when she tried to offer us something of herself.

A year later the war broke out. She was still in Lebanon in the early weeks of the fighting, in her apartment in Dekouaneh, a hot spot in the early days of the war. A friend who was staying at her place was struck by a stray bullet and bled to death. A few days later she got on a plane for France. I wonder if she’s still alive. She looked middle-aged when she taught us, but to a teen-ager everyone looks old.

Madame Latte wasn’t an anomaly at my school. She represents a time when shaming children was acceptable and presumed to build character. But she stands apart in my memory because her language was valued at the expense of mine. A lasting effect of colonization is the suppression of a people’s native language and their memory and culture.

I love that I can speak French with ease, that I read and write it fluently. But it is one of my deepest regrets that my knowledge of Arabic lags far behind. I have had to scramble to fill the large gaps left by my skewed education. I am still a long way from where I need to be.

These days I negotiate with English, my adoptive language. I have a sense of always writing against an authority that tells me my voice is not good enough. It takes me a long time to craft a sentence I am reasonably happy with, to quiet the voice that second-guesses and undercuts my self-confidence, and to rescue my native speech from the depths of all the layers that have gone on to cover it. My English is a composite of languages and voices funneled onto the page. Some voices are quieter; one must lean in to hear them. I think it is a worthy endeavor to attempt their revival.

In an odd way I feel a debt of gratitude to Madame Latte, whose approval gave me a voice and the courage to speak to power. I am still seeking approval in the way I labor over the words, chasing an elusive foolproof veneer, carefully calibrating my accented prose to reflect an inner rhythm I can still hear. It still takes courage to speak and write. Yet in those few minutes when I stared back at Madame Latte she acknowledged me, if only barely. She acknowledges me still after all these years, the force of her dismissal diminishing as I return to the charge over and over, wielding the same demand to be seen and exist fully.

I am a public school ESL teacher. My students come from Cape Verde and Latin America, China and the Middle East. They are here in passing or to stay, but they all understand that they need English to stake their place in the world. I wonder what part of the soul gets lost in the whirlwind of our education system, in the pressure to speak English and to close the achievement gap and to hand out the tickets to success as quickly as possible. I wonder about my role in that loss.

I am at a stage, both in my career and in life, where I must stop and assess where I go from here. I want to say that a shift will take place: here is English, a language among many others. Its power is a construct limited to a period in history. One day this power might wane. In the meantime, it benefits us to learn and teach it well, to see its beauty and the way it is used to wield power over others. I love English the way I love all language, inflected with the breath and souls of its speakers. And when I offer it to my students, it will be to say, This is a map. Now show me yours.