That Hideous Strength II

thoughts on c. s. lewis, and the terrors of attending a swiss village school in the 1960s

It must have been around the age of twelve that I first discovered C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy. I enjoyed the books immensely, although they did seem a bit old-fashioned and moralistic when I reflected on them later in life. Despite that, I consider the last book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, to be one of the most insightful and fascinating books I’ve ever read and it remains a favorite to this day.

The book jacket partly describes it thus: “A sinister technocratic organization is gaining power throughout Europe with a plan to “recondition” society, and it is up to Ransom and his friends to squelch this threat by applying age-old wisdom to a new universe dominated by science.”

Hmm, we might just recognize this as “The Great Reset.” 

I was never a big fan of school. I always felt on the outside, looking in. I was somewhat of a dreamer and had a tendency to question everything. I was a mixture of shy and quiet, never part of a clique, but also had a tendency to speak out when I disagreed with something, which often meant going against the popular ideas and getting myself in trouble for it. Over my life, I’ve gotten in quite a bit of trouble this way. I relate to how Lewis described school for children in The Narnia Chronicles. For example, in The Silver Chair, he describes the horrid school Jill and Eustace attend where:

“The Head said they [bullies] were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise.”

Learning to “say the right thing” has become extremely important nowadays.

I remember when my own son was in Middle School, I was told he needed to be medicated because he was disorganized and couldn’t remember to turn things in on time. An example was a book report, where there were very easy questions that he had to answer and he hadn’t done it on time. I reminded the experts that my son, who was twelve, had been tested as highly gifted (by them) and in the top one percent in communication skills. He was reading at a college level. He was writing his own book and was at sixty-some pages. His book report was on the first Harry Potter book and if they asked him, he could tell them everything about the plot and the characters and he would enjoy doing it because he loved to read.

Their response was a lecture on how life in the “real” world wasn’t like that. He needed to learn how to follow the rules and fill in forms or he wouldn’t fit into society.

Well, I agreed that it’s important to learn how to fill in forms. But maybe that could be taught in a different class? Wasn’t this class supposed to be about reading and comprehension, not about filling in forms?

I was informed condescendingly that I was only a mother, and as such wasn’t qualified to assess the situation.

I said, “So, what you’re teaching children is how to lie and be lazy. That they don’t really need to read the book, just fill in the answers. Education is about learning how to blindly follow rules and accomplish rote tasks, not about being critical thinkers.”

My son was given an “F.” I watched as he became more and more isolated and angry, to the point where he felt completely alienated and hated school. He’s now grown up and an amazing artistic soul who thinks for himself and bravely speaks out. All my three children are like this.

On the other hand, I do recognize that what the experts were telling me is basically true. I honestly don’t think any nation in the world really wants schools teaching children to be independent, critical thinkers. A functioning society needs most of its people to comply, without deep thought.

That said, there must be those few brave souls, such as journalists, perhaps, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, who don’t fear speaking out against the accepted narrative.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no one more arrogant than the expert who looks down from their ivory tower and analyzes the common folk, telling them how they need to behave. In our present situation, people have happily imprisoned themselves at the advice of these experts–experts who are carefully chosen, because there are always dissenting voices also among the experts. But we should not listen to any dissenting voices. Even asking a question is anathema. Clever language is used and certain words repeated over and over until the public echoes them without thinking what they really mean. We are kept in a constant state of anxiety and fear. Bravely going out for short jaunts to stalk up on basics of life, like the heroes in “The Walking Dead,” and then scurrying back to the safety and comfort of our cells.

It’s become a righteous act to search out those who use even one word in one sentence that is now deemed “hate speech,” perhaps even searching for that one word in things they said years ago, and then viciously attacking them on social media. This is a modern version of the “struggle sessions” of communist China, publicly shaming people. No one blinks twice at talk of reeducation camps for deplorables. In one moment, a person’s entire life can be destroyed, all while making the people who destroyed that unique life feel awfully self-righteous about doing it.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis describes this manipulation of the populace perfectly. The book revolves around a University in England and some sinister goings on. Here are some quotes that I just love.

As for the Common Folk:

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

Advice for the Press:

“We want you to write it down–to camouflage it. Only for the present, of course. Once the thing gets going we shan’t have to bother about the great heart of the British public. We’ll make the great heart what we want it to be. But in the meantime, it does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to and end. Odd thing it is–the word ‘experiment’ is unpopular, but not the word ‘experimental.’ You mustn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”

And what could be more apropos than this:

“Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done.”

During my childhood traveling adventures, we lived in a 17 century Swiss castle in the village of Echandens, outside of Lausanne. Chateau d’Echandens. Château d’Echandens – YouTube

I am including here one section from my memoir, INTO THE WORLD, about attending the village school. I learned so much from this experience. It was the late 1960s and to those Swiss children, we might just as well have been aliens from another planet. I hated that school, to me, they were all aliens, too. Here’s how I found out that it’s what’s beneath the surface that unites us, (the content of our character), not the facade or all of us saying the exact same words.

switzerland

Castle life would have been perfect if our parents hadn’t decided that it would be a good experience for us to attend the village school. The next morning we were roused from our beds before dawn, a cruelty that we found inexcusable, the air in our room so cold our breath was cloudy.

            “I don’t want to go,” I pleaded with Mom, terrified at the thought of being surrounded by kids who spoke French while I didn’t.

            None of us were happy. Outside, it was still dark, as if it was the middle of the night. It was never dark like that when I got up for school in Los Angeles. Never freezing cold, the kind of cold that had no mercy, like a living thing infiltrating my body and grabbing my bones.

            “I’m not going!” I sat at the kitchen table, tears in my eyes. Jon, too, looked frightened. Janna and Davy stoically told us to be quiet.

            “Eat your breakfast.” Mom sounded severe. Her lips were pursed. When she did that, there was no moving her.

            “It’ll be good for you,” said Dad, doling out blobs of oatmeal into our bowls.

            I stared down at what looked to me like throw-up. I wasn’t going to eat it.

            Mom put milk on the table, in a pitcher. We got the milk from the local farmer, warm from the cows. Mom would leave the milk to sit until the cream rose to the surface. Then, she would skim off the cream and whip it with a hand whisk, expressing delight when it actually started to thicken and turn to cream. Dad made Dutch apple pies and loved to pile a mountain of whipped cream on top.

            I was suspicious of that milk and cream. It smelled and tasted funny to me. I preferred the kind that came out of a carton, like the milk back home. 

            “The teachers are looking forward to having you there,” said Mom. “The other students will be so curious, you’ll probably be treated like movie stars. Lots of attention.”

            Great. The last thing any of us wanted was lots of attention. It would not be of the movie star variety, of that I was sure. I wanted to go back to my room, pull the quilt up to my chin and read a book. I’d started on Wind In The Willows and was loving it. I wanted to join Ratty and Toad and all the others on their adventures and leave mine alone. Anyway, we weren’t obligated to go to school, the schools back home had given us the year off. All we needed to do was keep up with our math. It wasn’t fair. How could our parents do this to us?

            They just didn’t have a clue. Here they were, dragging us after them on this insane journey, but they didn’t know anything about the world, not really. Our parents skimmed across the surface, like the cream of the milk, gliding along, never jumping into the real life of the people around us. So why didn’t they let us do that, too? Why didn’t they let us stay in the castle, able to observe village life from a safe distance? Why did they insist that we have to mix and interact with the local children? 

            At the table, just as always happened every single day of my life, my dad bowed his head and prayed before we ate.

            “Dear Lord, we thank you for this food and for this day. Please help our children to be good and kind and to listen to their teachers. Help them to overcome their fear and to be obedient to your calling. We pray that you will make them a blessing to the other children around them. In Jesus’ name—”

            And we all said, “Amen.”

            What could I do after that? Nothing. I couldn’t argue, I couldn’t outright disobey. I had no choice but to put on my coat, wrap my scarf around my ears, and face the blistering cold.

            As we walked out of the gate, leaving our cloistered world behind, the sun was rising above the village, shifting the black to a pale gray. The ground beneath our feet crunched with frost. I didn’t know it was possible to be so cold, to suffer so much.

            And I have to do this every day, I thought.

            Even Saturdays, because there was school on Saturday mornings. We had Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off and all day Sunday. But, of course, on Sunday we went to church. So that meant we never had a single day—not a single one, where we could sleep in. We left for school in the dark of the freezing early morning and we came home in the dark of the freezing late afternoon. Incomprehensibly, these people took time off from work and school at noon and everyone went home for a leisurely hot meal, then returned. It made the day interminably long. And, we had to walk back and forth to that hated schoolhouse four times. What a wasted effort!

            Winding through the village that first morning, vigilance was necessary in order to dodge the cars speeding through the narrow cobbled lanes. More than once we found ourselves jumping back, bodies pressed against a wall to avoid being smashed. On the other end of the village, the imposing schoolhouse loomed on a small rise, within a gravel courtyard; a square three-storied building with a set of stairs leading up to the entrance door.

            Just as we entered the gate, the tinkle of a bicycle bell sounded behind us, along with a jolly, “Bonjour!”

            We drew aside to allow the bike to pass. On it was hunched our teacher, Madame Petriquin, an old witch on her broom, the edges of her flowered dress billowing beneath a great coat, a scarf wound around her head and neck. On her feet were a pair of big black rubber boots. How she managed to maneuver a bike in those boots without falling off, I didn’t know.

            Madame came to a halt in front of the schoolhouse, got off and walked up the steps with a sure foot, her short, sturdy body slightly bowed and lurching forward with each step as if attached to rope that was pulling it up, her big boned, construction worker hands swinging back and forth.

            “She looks like every ugly Disney witch rolled into one,” shuddered Janna.

            “I can’t believe this!” I grumbled.

            “I’m not going in,” said Jon. 

            “Well, at least she’s not your teacher,” Davy told him. “You have the younger one.”

            Since there were only three teachers, the students were divided into groups of younger and older. Jon was stuck in the younger class, separated from the rest of us. His teacher didn’t look as scary as ours, but he was still terrified to be on his own. He would have rather faced the old witch if it had meant being together. The other teacher was a man but I don’t remember anything about him since none of us were in his class.

            Around family and friends, Jon was a pit bull, self-assured and feisty. But like the rest of us, he was shy and suspicious around kids that he didn’t know. Because we’d been cautioned from a young age to separate ourselves from unbelievers, we didn’t know how to act around strangers in any way other than with reserved caution. We had never learned how to accept people as they were.

            It was a strange dichotomy. Our parents wanting to give us this experience, and even back home always making us attend public schools, yet not realizing how hard it was on us. We’d never felt as if we fit in with kids in our home country, let alone with kids in a foreign one. It was easier when traveling through countries, not stopping longer than a day or two. Under those conditions, we didn’t have to worry about choosing who could be our friends and who couldn’t. There wasn’t enough time. But now, we were living in one spot, surrounded by all these kids with whom we were expected to interact, while not becoming too friendly. Our job, as Christians, was to be shining lights to those around us. We could love them with Christian love, interact up to a certain point, but we should never become friends. Friends were those with whom you identified and it was impossible for us to identify with heathens. Oh, they were sly, seductive, they would tempt us to be their friends, but we should not give into the temptation. If we started spending time with them, being influenced to go to their houses, parties, dinners, games, instead of to our own church events, they would corrupt us, lead us into sin.

            Anyway, why would a Christian even want to spend time with sinners? That would be cause for suspicion. The only reason to be around sinners was to save them.

            “You’re like missionaries,” Mom explained. “God’s giving you an opportunity to serve him in this school, to share the salvation message.”

            “But we can’t even talk to them,” I objected.

            Dad gave me a shrewd look. “Karen,” he said. “You’re an intelligent girl. Don’t try to make excuses when you know the answer in your heart. Language doesn’t matter. God convicts us in our spirits. Set an example by how you live, Karen. When Jesus lives inside of you, his light shines out.”

            “And you’ll learn the language,” said Mom. “That’s one of the main reasons for being in the school—to learn!”

            From the first miserable day, I hated that school. We all did, although somehow our parents continued to maintain that we loved it. “What a wonderful experience,” they’d exclaim. Except that they weren’t the ones experiencing it, so they didn’t know.

            Gathered with the other kids inside the entrance hall, we were greeted with friendly hellos and grins. A few of the kids tried to speak to us but we just shook our heads. Eventually, they gave up. The doors to the classrooms opened and we waved Jon good-bye, his face a pinched mask of fear.

            The first thing we found out was that we should have brought slippers. No shoes were allowed inside the classroom. The other kids found it very funny that we didn’t know such an obvious rule. This was only the first of many misunderstanding giving rise to jokes and laughter, making us feel more and more isolated with each passing day.

            I had never been in a classroom filled with so many busy, noisy and badly behaved children. It seemed impossible for many of the kids to sit still and not talk or throw things or fight with one another.

            Madame Petrequin yelled for quiet and introduced us to the class. This was apparent to us since she gestured in our direction and said our names and everyone greeted us in unison. Madame was truly ugly, I just don’t know any other way to describe her, with her raisin face, large nose with a wart on it so that you just had to stare, and oily gray hair held back in an untidy bun. Back home, elderly ladies tried to look young. They dyed their hair, wore make-up and push-up bras. Not in Europe. Old ladies didn’t try to hide it. I wasn’t used to such searing truth and it revolted me.

            Madame called us up to her desk where she let out a stream of guttural French, sounding as if she was constantly clearing her throat in order to spit. And actually, she did spit. I had the unfortunate luck of standing right next to her. As she spoke, spit spewed from between yellow teeth, caked with what looked like brown mold, landing on me. I was terrified to move or try to wipe it away, so I just stood there enduring it. She was a health hazard. Surely I would get some horrible disease.

            We all stared hard at Madame as she spoke, trying desperately to understand her rapid-fired words, thinking that maybe, miraculously, if we just listened with added concentration, it would make sense to us.

            It didn’t.

            At last, she handed each of us a cahier, a booklet. She demonstrated what she wanted us to do by drawing a very bad likeness of a cat and then, underneath, writing the French word for cat: chat.

            Ah, yes, so we were supposed to draw pictures of things and then write what they were in French. The other children would help us.

            That’s how we spent most of our time. Drawing pictures in our cahiers and writing the French words underneath: horse, cat, cow, rose, tree, house, and so on. There were a lot of words. This could keep us busy for a very long time. It was mind-numbingly dull. I liked to draw, but not this kind of uninspiring stupidity. 

            When the noise and confusion in the classroom grew to a crescendo, Madame Petriquin tormented the same two boys, although they weren’t always the guilty parties. We got the feeling that this pattern had been going on for years, the same action and reaction, over and over, without variation.  

            The first time I encountered Madame Petriquin’s display of discipline was on the first day of school and it shocked me the point that I wanted to escape immediately and never return. The boys that she picked on were bigger and seemed older than the other kids. We found out later that they had taken the exit exam more than once and hadn’t passed. So, they’d simply stayed in the village school.

            “How old do they have to be to get out?” Davy wondered disdainfully. He might have looked down on them, but he didn’t dare show it in school. Davy’s brain was big but his muscles weren’t and he was no match for these guys.

            These boys were a hand full, demanding everyone’s full attention with their trouble-making, rakish, devil-may care attitudes. One had freckles and a mass of wiry, dirty blond hair—and when I say dirty, I don’t mean it as a term describing the color, I mean it was really dirty—and everyday wore the same homemade brown sweater that looked three sizes too small. We quickly realized that fashion was not something these kids were big on, they all wore the same outfits day after day, no variation. The other kid was darker, taller and less meaty, although he wasn’t thin, and more morose than his friend. Janna and I immediately nick named the blond one Tom Sawyer and the darker one Huck Finn.

            From the moment the school day started, Tom and Huck began trying to attract Janna and my attention by making loud, very obvious “pst” sounds and throwing spit wads. We ignored them as best we could but most of the other kids found it quite amusing and kept looking over, smirking and giggling while Janna and I grew increasingly alarmed. Madame reprimanded the boys a number of times to no avail. Eventually she rose from her chair and marched down the aisle towards them, unleashing a torrent of sharp language. Standing between the two boys, still talking, she began hitting them about the head, first one and then the other. When this produced no results other than bigger smirks, she commenced wrapping them on the knuckles with a ruler.            

            I watched in fascination, feeling like I had really entered a chapter in Tom Sawyer. I was sure it must have hurt, but the boys just laughed, hiding their hands under their desks, refusing to bring them out again. Madame tried to pull their hands out but they wouldn’t let her. All the while, the boys kept glancing over at Janna and me as if we should be proud of their fearless defiance against the attack of this old lady.

            At last, Madame reached out and grabbed first one by the ear and then the other, twisting hard with all her might. That got a reaction; yelps of pain which they quickly repressed, Madame grinning fiendishly at us, as if we should now be proud of her.

            With a ferocious yank, she pulled Tom up out of his chair by his ear, walking him to the corner of the room where she ordered him to stay. Then, she went back and did the same to Huck, depositing him in the opposite corner.

            The surprising thing was that both boys actually obeyed. Without any protest. Over the course of the next few months we realized that this was the ritual pattern that always happened, always ending with the boys being pulled by their ears into the corners. Both boys then stood in the corners until lunchtime, or the end of school, turning around every so often to make faces at the classroom.

            Needless to say, I was a model student. Keeping my mouth shut was easy since I didn’t speak French. After a few days, Madame gave each of us a book called “Mon premiere livre” and we were then ordered to copy the French words out of the livre and draw pictures of the words in our cahier. This worked better than us simply trying to think up random words on our own. Day after day, that was what I did. 

            At recess, our relief at getting out of the classroom lasted for only a few moments before terror set in. I should have had a premonition when the teachers locked themselves in their rooms and the kids were let loose without supervision. My first mistake after I walked out of the school house was to pause at the top of the staircase. Almost immediately I felt a powerful push on my back and down I tumbled to the great merriment of the children around me.

            Nursing my wounds, I turned around to see who had done it, but no one owned up. The other kids were milling about, shaking their heads at my stupidity. A couple of them came up and talked to me, as if they were giving me advice, lecturing me even on how avoid such a calamity in the future.

            “It’s like they think it’s my fault,” I fumed to Janna. “Whoever did that to me should get in trouble. But no, that would be too civilized!”

            We met up with Jon who was almost hysterical with anger and fear. 

            “She’s insane!” he said of his teacher. “I think Hitler’s in her body. She never smiles, only looks at you with hatred, and then, when she sees you’re scared, she smiles. The bad kids, she beats them, I mean beats them. With a board! ”

            “She can’t be worse than the witch,” I said. “I think her ugliness is scarier than the violence. Have you seen that wart on the end of her nose?”

            “Uh, yeah, you’d have to blind to miss it,’ said Janna.

            “Her teeth look like they’re covered in brown scum,” said Davy.

            “And she spits when she talks. I had to stand right next to her at her desk and she spit at me the whole time. It was gross!” I said.

            “Getting spit at isn’t as bad as getting killed!” cried Jon.

            Davy rolled his eyes in disgust. “You’re not going to get killed.”

            “We’re Americans,” I said. “We must have some kind of protection, don’t we?”

            “Right,” said Janna. “Let’s go to the US Embassy and complain we’re getting spit on by our teacher.”

            “Why not?” I said. “It’s a health hazard!”

            We were standing by ourselves on the playground, shivering with cold and misery. I say playground, however there was nothing about it to inspire play. It was an empty area enclosed by a chain link fence, resembling a prison yard more than a school yard. The other kids were making a terrible noise, screaming, laughing, running around in circles, sliding across the icy spots, jumping over mounds of snow, always with the intent of gaining the advantage in hitting or pushing one another. They kept looking over, as if trying to impress us with their antics. The teachers were still nowhere in sight.

            We simply stood with our chins held high, aloof. They must have thought us to be terribly spoiled. We thought them to be terrible heathens. It was as if we stood on opposite ends of a battlefield, waiting to see what would happen. At least, that was how we saw it. I think now that they had no intentions other than to befriend us, they just went about it in ways that were unknown to us. 

            “Don’t the teachers come out to supervise?” Janna wanted to know.

            “I don’t think that would improve the situation,” said Davy. “They would just join in the violence.”

            On Wednesday the boys got the afternoons off while the girls had to stay and learn to knit and crochet. This was the last straw and I said as much to my parents.

            “It’s not fair!” I fumed. “I hate sewing, I hate knitting. Just because I’m a girl, I shouldn’t have to do that stuff!”

            But they turned a deaf ear. It was good for us. Through suffering came purity. And knitting and sewing were good things for a girl to know. My mom was an excellent seamstress and sewed many of our clothes. Ugh!

            Madame Petriquin had us knitting little bears. We made each limb separately, stuffed them with cotton, and then sewed it all together. And pillow cases. And scarves.

            I ended up enjoying making the bears. I’d had a favorite stuffed bear back home and I missed it.

            “Now I can make my own bears,” I told Janna at the end of a long day.

            “Yeah, that’s what I’ll have to show for my time in school here—bears!” she answered in disgust. 

            P. E. was conducted once a week and consisted of running around the dismal playground, doing jumping jacks, deep breathing, stretching and banging on our chests and sometimes even pretending to be animals, such as bears (there seemed to be an obsession with bears), which meant having to roar and stomp our feet, a disaster since the students inevitably ended up by trying to maul one another and had to be pulled apart. It was absurd watching Madame Petriquin demonstrate each activity with jerky, arthritic movements and then having to imitate them while she watched and critiqued.

            For me and my siblings, this was the most dreaded part of the week. Especially for Davy. He didn’t engage in frivolous activities. Running, jumping, getting hot and sweaty, trying to overpower another person physically, these were things he looked down on with disdain. Back home, he was the smartest kid in school. He was captain of the chess team. He did not behave like a Neanderthal.

            So, usually, on P. E. days Davy didn’t join in and Madame Petrquin allowed him this privilege. But one day, Jon’s teacher came out to lead the class instead and she would have none of Davy’s excuses. While we all stood dejectedly, blowing smoke through our noses and stomping cold feet, she barked the order to pretend we were “avions.” While she spoke, she stared at Davy pointedly, making it clear she wanted his participation.

            We looked at one another in disbelief. “Airplanes?”

            Janna, Jon and I shrugged and began to run with the other students, extending our arms like wings, dipping up and down, making noises like an engine. Davy stood aside, refusing to join in. With a triumphant grunt, almost as if she had hoped he would refuse, Jon’s teacher marched up to him and yelled two inches from his face, waving her own arms as if she were about to bomb him. Shocked by her aggressive attitude, Davy had no choice but to try to escape her. In a kind of sick desperation, his face white with humiliation, he raised his arms and began running around the playground, the teacher running after him, pushing him, goading him to flap harder, make louder engine noises. The greater his discomfort, the more triumphant was the teacher’s pleasure. It was truly horrific seeing my cultured, sensitive big brother, who I had always looked up to and respected as so much more elevated than the rest of us mere humans, being reduced to such a ridiculous display. 

            In that moment, I felt deep hatred for that woman. Jon had been right. His teacher was much worse than ours. Madame Petriquin might be a witch, but this woman was a monster, the kind of person who took delight in destroying other people’s spirits.

            I couldn’t think of a worse career choice for someone like her—teaching children! Well, maybe nursing would be worse. If she were a nurse, she’d probably torture sick people or inject them with lethal doses of drugs. 

            Davy didn’t recover from the airplane incident. That very day he demanded that my parents take him out of the school. If they refused, it wouldn’t matter, since he was never going back. He would rather die than go back to that insane asylum. Our parents relented and told Davy he could attend the French Lyce in Lausanne. When Janna heard that, she insisted on being allowed to attend it with Davy. They told her she could.

            Jon and I were too young to attend the Lyce and so we were left to endure the village school on our own. We pleaded and pleaded to be let out. To no avail. We couldn’t use the beatings as an excuse, since in all fairness to our teachers, Jon and I had never been beaten by them. We were exceptionally well behaved, quiet as little mice, which really defeated the purpose of trying to learn French. We were too scared to speak.

            Anyway, our parents believed in corporal punishment. When we disobeyed, we got the belt on our own bottoms.

            “It’s good for you. It builds character,” Dad said.

            The television in the sitting room caused some excitement in our family, especially when we found out that our two favorite TV shows, Lost In Space (Perdue Dans La Space) and Zorro, were on once a week. Our excitement quickly turned to bleak disappointment when we found that both were badly dubbed in French.

            We had been so hopeful, so excited to learn of the American shows. We had sat down the first time, all of us in a ring around the television, turned it on with such excitement, only to watch the mouths of the actors make strange noises, the words not in sync with their lips, looking ridiculous.

            “No,” we cried in unison.

            We tried watching French movies, but they were incredibly odd to us, without any action. We took to calling them “walking movies,” since all the characters ever seemed to do was to walk along bleak roads in soulful silence, looking sad and forlorn and occasionally having sad, forlorn conversations with other soulful people that they encountered along the way.

            The village kids were obsessed with Zorro. This caused us terrible problems. When they discovered that we came from Los Angeles, the “land of Zorro,” they couldn’t believe it. We immediately grew in their esteem.

            Gathering around us eagerly, they said, “Hollywood?”

            We looked at one another and shrugged. “Oui,” we said tentatively.

            We would have liked to explain that we didn’t actually come from Hollywood, but that we lived nearby. This was something they didn’t want to hear. 

            “Hollywood!” they all exclaimed, talking rapidly amongst themselves.

            “Zorro!” they said pointing at us, making signs as if they were fighting with a sword.

            We nodded. “Oui.”

            That agreement on our parts was a grave mistake. From that moment onwards, the kids were convinced that we came from the “land of Zorro,” and that we must therefore know Zorro personally. It hadn’t occurred to us that they would think Zorro actually existed. But they did. And nothing we said could convince them otherwise. It logically followed in their minds that we must be master sword fighters. Sword fighting was a great pastime and we were drawn into it against our will. We did not know how to sword fight. It didn’t matter, we had to do it. When a kid comes at you screaming a war cry, pointing a sharpened stick at your heart, you have no choice but to defend yourself.

            Tom and Huck were the leaders of the village gang and they tormented us. Every day after school the little gang lay in wait for us outside the school grounds. We were no match for them at fighting but we were pretty good at running. Once Davy and Janna left, the confrontation turned into a daily game with me and Jon being chased home by crazed Zorro fanatics.

            Sometimes Tom’s gang played hooky from school and instead of waiting for us outside the school grounds, they lay in wait on strategic rooftops where they would suddenly jump down, crying “Zorro, Zorro!” in thick French accents.

            More than ever, I missed my friends back home, especially Kelly. And I’d have given anything to exchange Bill, the school bully, for Tom. Bill was meaner and dumber than Tom but a lot easier and more fun to outsmart since I’d been able to talk to him. With Tom there was nothing I could say since we couldn’t understand each other. To these kids, I must have seemed like some kind of real idiot. They didn’t know I could talk about lots of different subjects and even crack a joke once in a while.

            One afternoon, I was sitting outside on a bench, my back up against the building so I could see all around in front of me and no one could sneak up from behind. At this school constant vigilance was necessary. I shivered. It was freezing cold every single day. How I longed for the hot LA sun and a dip in the pool rather than this miserable loneliness.

            The school bell was about to ring and Jon and I prepared for the run home.

            “You ready?” I said.

            He grimaced. “Yep.”

            One, two, three, the bell rang, the gates opened and we ran. We were so good at it now, that it was virtually impossible to catch us. On this occasion, we were well ahead of Tom and his friends, thinking that the gate to the castle was open. It wasn’t. Tom let out a yelp of triumph. Jon and I ran to where the castle wall sloped down low enough to climb over. We jumped and I felt someone grab hold of my leg. Jon was on top of the wall and kicked the culprit in the head. They let go and I tumbled over. Once on the other side we jumped up and down and made faces at our pursuers.

            “Big fat idiots,” yelled Jon.

            Their eyes grew wide in disbelief, then narrowed with rage. They banged against the castle wall, letting out a barrage of words, the only one that I could understand was morte—death.

            I made a face at them and yelled, “How old are you guys, huh? Bet you’ll never graduate, bunch of Bozos!”

            We knew we were safe inside the castle grounds. Although they could have easily climbed over the wall, they never did. They were scared of Madame Franco. She was the village aristocrat and nobody messed with her.

            Eventually everyone got bored with yelling back and forth and the gang left. We headed towards the castle. 

            “Your mouth is going to kill us,” I said angrily. “Why’d you have to say the one English word they can understand?”

            “What?” said Jon.

            “Idiot…idiot,” I repeated, saying it with a French accent.

            “I don’t care, they are idiots,” said Jon.

            “This is so stupid,” I cried, shaking the icy dirt from my shoes. “Every day the same stupid game.”

            Walking up the tower stairs, I wondered for the hundredth time if it was really true that once I had lived in a beautiful big house on a hill in Los Angeles and had a best friend named Kelly and we’d gone swimming in our pools every day and lain in the hot sun and spent Saturday nights at each other’s houses watching Zorro and Lost in Space in English, yes, English, and eating popcorn and laughing and having so much fun?

            Nobody had ever beaten me up or pushed me down stairs or laughed in my face when I spoke. Every time I opened my mouth and tried to speak French the other kids burst out laughing. It was embarrassing and I started keeping my mouth shut instead of trying to speak. It defeated the purpose of going to the school—instead of learning French I got a psychological block to speaking languages.

            The next day Jean Pierre, a skinny runt of a kid whose hair grew in strange wispy tufts of mousy brown, jumped on my back during recess and started pulling my hair with all his might. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this to me. He was obsessed with tormenting me. Perhaps he wanted to make my hair look like his. If I could have killed him I would have, but I didn’t know how to kill anyone, I didn’t even know how to beat a person up. Such actions didn’t come naturally to me. But I was learning.

            Every day at recess I tried to keep Jean Pierre off my back by keeping my back to a wall, always watching to see where he was. He would look at me fixedly from across the playground, his pixie eyes filled with challenge. He was always dirty, in old sweaters with holes in the elbows, holes in his shoes. I’d try to keep my eyes on him, but eventually, without realizing it, I’d be distracted and look away, just for a mere few seconds, and when I’d look back again, he’d be gone. That’s when it would happen. I’d whirl around in a panic, but I wouldn’t see him. Suddenly, he’d be on my back, yelling with triumph, and once there, it was impossible to remove him.

            I didn’t understand the mentality. Where was the logic, the reason? What did he gain from it? What bizarre thought process had gone through his mind in order for him to think up this torture? And why me?

            The hair pulling hurt so badly that I screamed. It was humiliating. Nobody except Jon came to my rescue. Everyone else just watched with interest to see what would happen. While Jon yanked on the kid and punched him, I reached around and tried to pull him off, pinching him and shaking back and forth, banging him into the side of the school, which only succeeded in hurting me. He was oblivious to pain. My head felt like it was on fire, as if all my hair was being pulled out in clumps.

            At last when I thought I would never get rid of him, he jumped off, laughing, and darted away so fast, I didn’t even try to chase him.

            I was red-faced and sweaty, panting hard. In my frenzy to get rid of him, I hadn’t looked where I was stepping and I was splashed with mud up my legs.

            I looked around at the kids on the playground. They looked back, smiling and laughing. That was it. I felt all my frustration, humiliation and anger welling up inside of me, rushing from my stomach into my throat and out my mouth. I screamed at them, my body rigid, my hands clenched in fists at my sides, “I hate you! Do you hear me? H-a-t-e you!” I said the word hate in a long drawn out ear-splitting growl, as if I were possessed by a demon. 

            No one said anything back. They just stared, open-mouthed, showing the first signs of real concern, as if before that moment, they hadn’t realized that maybe I had feelings, maybe I was a human being, just like they were.

            In anguish, I ran up the stairs and into the schoolhouse, slipping all the way, the bottoms of my shoes caked an inch thick with mud. I kept running, into the girls’ bathroom, only stopping when I reached the far wall of the bathroom and could run no more. I stayed there, pressed against the wall, crying and crying, wishing I could get out of that prison. 

            I heard the door open and turned to see faces peeking in at me.

            “Go away,” I screamed.

            The door slammed shut.

            I cried some more, but I was exhausted and running out of steam. No one can keep up that kind of hysteria for very long.

            Again, the door opened a crack and the faces reappeared. I didn’t scream at them this time. Emboldened, the door opened completely to reveal all of the girls

            One of them, a girl named Nadine, with short brown hair and blue eyes, bravely approached me, speaking softly.

            “I can’t understand you,” I said bitterly. “But that doesn’t make me stupid!”

            There was a commotion and the sea of faces parted to reveal Madame Petriquin, kind worry in her eyes.

            She made a comforting “Tsk, tsk,” sound and shooed everyone away, except for Nadine. With Madame’s approval, Nadine put her arm around me and helped me out of the bathroom. I was allowed to sit down.

            After that, the girls never laughed at me again. They began to protect me from the boys, refusing to let anyone bother me. Nadine even invited me to her birthday party and I had fun. She became my best friend and with her encouragement I started trying to speak French. Although I never completely lost my self-conscious insecurity with languages.

            I decided to try a new approach with Jean Pierre. I didn’t think it would work, but I was desperate. I had seen him watching me with interest when I drew pictures. The next time he did this, I offered him a piece of paper and a pencil. At first, he couldn’t comprehend my meaning. At last he realized and his small, pointy face lit up eagerly. He took the pencil, saying thank you very nicely, and began to draw. For the rest of the break period, we sat in amiable silence, drawing together. When it came time to go back to class, Jean Pierre gave me the picture he’d drawn. It was of Superman flying through the sky and it was pretty good! I was impressed. On a sudden whim, I took my colored pencils and held them out to him. His eyes grew wide with disbelief. Timidly, he reached towards the pencils with his small hand, then drew back again, his pale blue eyes looking at me questioningly. I nodded my head and thrust the pencils forward. He took them, thanking me over and over, his face shining like an angel’s. An amazing transformation.

            After that, I never had another problem with Jean Pierre. We became the best of friends. My life in school changed and I began to enjoy myself a bit more. The kids weren’t monsters, they weren’t heathen barbarians. Well, not entirely. In a way, it felt good to shed a bit of my stiff attitude and try a little heathen behavior myself. Toughen up.

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