Friday, October 8, 2010

Thank you, Madame Stambaugh

I recently came across the obituary of my high school French teacher, Madame Stambaugh. Although I was sad to hear of her passing, I can't hold back a smile when I think about everything this woman taught me. She was a bit kooky and eccentric (not unlike myself), but I loved the slow, meaningful way she moved around the classroom. It was as if by her gestures alone, we were to understand that these were words to ponder over, to drink in and savor as you would a café au lait from a quaint Parisian coffee shop. It was obvious that she wanted us to have the same kind of love affair with France that she did. Her graceful way of teaching a romance language to this unsophisticated group of small-town, southern teenagers left a mark on a certain awkward sophomore and ignited a love of All Things French in me that lingers still today.

Growing up lower middle class in the South inherently lends itself to daydreaming. I knew there was a big, ol’ world outside my tattered screen door, but I assumed the only way I would see it was through books and television. I pored over my parents’ musty-smelling, outdated World Book Encyclopedia collection for signs of life beyond the fried chicken and corn bread existence that was mine. For some reason, France spoke to me. Maybe it was the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees. Maybe it was the berets. Maybe it was because I had a date every Saturday morning with Pepe Le Pew, and I figured that if a cartoon skunk could be that charming, I could only imagine what a catch a real, live Frenchman would be! I had visions of cozy book stores and sipping coffee from tiny cups while looking at the lights of Paris with my dark-haired Pierre whispering sweet nothings to me in a thick accent. We would gaze into each other’s eyes as Edith Piaf's songs played in the background. (Ahh, yes, the original emo music.)

When I reached high school, we were required to have a year of foreign language instruction in order to graduate, and I rushed to sign up for French my first semester. Although the day to day lessons weren’t exactly romantic, I delighted in being “Mademoiselle Claire” for that hour. (And what a bonus that I got to select my own name since the one I was born with didn’t translate! Oh, and a message to John Bender:  Claire is certainly NOT a fat girl's name.) I could be a cultured, well-heeled woman of the world, if only in my own mind, during this time with Madame Stambaugh.

I immersed myself in this class.  I joined the school's French Club and was elected Treasurer.  I relished our trips to French bakeries where I could nosh on crusty bread and delicate pastries.  I would close my eyes for a moment and pretend that I was in a bistro across the ocean and not in the armpit of America. I listened to French music and began to groom myself for my exciting adult life as an expatriate in France.

But, somewhere along that road, life got in the way.  I found that I really liked boys, even boys with no interest in discussing the pros and cons of living in a flat in Paris versus a cottage in the countryside.  I realized that I had to get an education and a job if I wanted to be on my own.   Parents became sick and died.  Children were born, and the burden of a mortgage was heaved onto my shoulders.  I began to realize that my feet were soundly planted in my mosquito-filled hometown, so I carefully folded up my dream of living abroad and tucked it safely away under the heading "To Be Opened at a Later Date".

I had mostly forgotten about that dream until reading of Madame Stambaugh's passing.  I wish she knew what her class meant to me, what it did for me, and how it opened a small door to a big  world.  It is obvious now why my all time favorite movie is "Ratatouille", the story of a little rat that finds the big time at a magnificent restaurant in Paris.  I will not apologize for listening to "La Vie En Rose" over and over until I'm spent.  Most of all, I would like to say, "Thank you" to a teacher I will never forget.

Repos dans la paix, Madame Stambaugh.  Repos dans la paix.


  1. It’s easy to see why France spoke to you - after all, it does have an air of elegance.

    It’s a nice fantasy, and it’s probably great for you that it never became reality. The world is full of places that are fantastic to visit, but you wouldn’t actually want to live there. The culture is different, the people and their attitudes are different. And you would always be regarded as an immigrant, or alien, or whatever they wanted to call you. And you’d find out that people in other countries don’t necessarily like Americans. It gets worse – your “live Frenchman” – you probably wouldn’t find out that he’s Eurotrash until it’s too late.
    Dorothy had the right idea. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

  2. Dave, you are so right. I'm sure it's a good thing that my fantasy will be preserved. Although, with my surly and sometimes condescending attitude, I would probably fit right in there. My biggest concern is that Duke's mayonnaise and sweet tea are probably hard to come by in Paris, so I'm staying right here. :-)

  3. Okay Lynda,

    I live five hours from Paris. We go there about three times a year. It is great.

    I live in Germany and we have an extra room so...

    Four and a half hours from Amsterdam, Five hours from Zurich, four hours from Munich,

    It could still happen... plus German beer, driving on the autobahn... muhh ha ha....

    We also have Dukes Mayo and sweet tea...

    Balls in your court....

  4. That's sounds absolutely delightful except for one, little thing...I have a teensy weensy fear of flying that is growing by leaps and bounds as I get older. However, I'm sure there is a pill for that... :-)

  5. I remember my French teacher very well. I never forgot:
    "On n'est pas civilise, si on ne parle pas francais."

    1. In addition to my wonderful High School French teacher, I remember a 5th grade teacher who wore very fashionable dohlman sleeved tops (1966) who would say to us as we crossed the street "Avoir, mes enfants - abiento!!" I could sense even then her sophistication! My situation sounds very similar to yours Lynda and two years ago I went to Bordeaux on the way to India. I actually tried to speak French to was amazing. It's never too late. Take a pill - and a friend to watch over you.....

  6. Lynda,
    I am so happy you have such fond memories of French class. I,on the other hand, had to call her into the hall to discuss what we were going to do with Cliff Covington's girlfriend who wet her pants in the middle of class and Mrs. Stambaugh chose to ignore the fact. She did indeed roam around the room,althought on that day just the opposite side.
    I was wayyyyy to into boys by that point to think of and dream of French.I was dreaming of how to get to Northwestern for a visit before I was to be home from band practice!

  7. I guess I need to register,uh? This is Hydie

  8. Hydie!!! That is CRAZY!!! I always wondered what meds she must have been on, but I liked her anyway!

  9. This is a lovely tribute to your teacher. Whatever you do, DO not give up on your dream of going to France. When my oldest had an opportunity to go on a school trip to Italy, we couldn't afford it, but the whole family adopted austerity measures for months so that he and I could go. Italy was wonderful, but the bonding experience with my son was so much more than I ever imagined. Now it's the little one's turn for a school trip to Europe. The dreams I put on hold for over 30 years are coming true. Yours can, too!

  10. Oh gosh hun. This tribute is so eloquently written and so heartfelt that I am sitting here all choked up . . . I appreciate the beauty you added to my late night via this gorgeous post. Much love to you and I am sorry for your loss.


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