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 I pored over my parents’ musty-smelling, outdated World Book Encyclopedia collection for signs of life beyond the fried chicken and corn bread existence that was mine.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.