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Thursday, September 29, 2011

French lessons and the weather

Our French teacher was Miss Parkhill. As you can see by the name, she wasn't French, which was not unusual at high school in those days, as practically nobody in Australia was. Well, not in Gladstone, anyway.

  The Queensland State Department of Education, in its infinite wisdom, had decreed that all students in the Academic class must learn a foreign language. That was really a wise move, because non-indigenous Australia in the 1950s was practically monolingual until European migrants came and worked on the Snowy River Scheme. With monolinguality comes a certain attitude of mind, and not a good one.

  Little did we know that this language requirement was forced upon high schools because the Department of French at the University of Queensland had powerful numbers on the Secondary Schools Curriculum Board, and secured the imposition of what in its effect was quite a good regulation. Their reasons were less educative than mercenary, but it worked out for the best.

  You see, the particular genius of this was that it secured a stream of Arts students into French at the University of Queensland, where, if they were lucky, they unlearned the French they were taught at high school, and some of them learned real French. This regulation guaranteed employment for a number of academics who had no special (dare I say it?) raison d'être in the Australian education system, unless you wanted to go to New Caledonia - and you'd be amazed at the number of Australians who had absolutely no desire to do that in 1961.

  It was an educative cul de sac really, but learning about the pens of our aunts was good for us. To be truthful, I enjoyed French and wasn't all that bad at it.

  Not German language? No, the war has ended only 15 years before, and there wasn't much enthusiasm for it. Other European languages? No. Asian languages? Don't be ridiculous. They were spoken only by Asians, and though they were our closest neighbours, why would we want to converse with them? No.... Just no. Bad enough that the French used words other than English ones, but Asian scripts? No way.

  So French it was, thanks to the Head of French at Queensland University, who once a year threatened his entire staff with horreurs unimaginable if they didn't turn up at Faculty on that one meeting of the year to ensure that the foreign language requirement stayed on the books for all Arts students.

  French was a subject often given to the youngest teachers at high school, because they were lowest in the teacher pecking order, and were generally only one lesson ahead of the kids they were supposed to be teaching. The teacher might have been explaining molecular bonding in Chemistry for one 45-minute period, and wrestling with Gallic mysteries teaching French to unenthusiastic fifteen year olds the next.

  That's why most kids in the 1960s learnt French with an accent both indescribably bad and totally incomprehensible to French people.

  Indeed, French as spoken by the French was incomprehensible to most of the students in the Australian education system. The only form that was generally understood by most of us was the pidgin variety that we spoke to each other, thus reinforcing our spoken incompetence in the language however much vocabulary we knew.

  Miss Parkhill now, she was different to those other French teachers. One day she brought a gramophone and a record of real French people speaking French, and we were quite astonished at how badly they were speaking their own language. We could have taught them a thing or two about French pronunciation.

  But, she'd lived in France and actually knew what she was doing. Saying. She taught us a tolerable French accent. And oh!!! did she look like a French teacher should! Every pimply gangly adolescent boy studying French longed for the opportunity that they would never have in a million years; for some private lessons in the French language by Miss Parkhill.

  She was five foot nothing (i.e., short) and was extremely comfortably off in the mammary department; possibly too generously so from her own point of view, but just right from that of half our class - i.e., 100% of the boys.

  In truth I should point out that for a fifteen-year-old boy, 'just right' on that score was pretty elastic in scope, but no woman teacher was just righter than Miss Parkhill. Usually boys want to sit up the back in lessons of any description, but the front desks were prime locations for French classes; adolescent youths tortured by the sight of those wondrously complementary (or complimentary - both words work in this case!) assets to human biology just inches away.

  Speaking of assets, she was abundantly favoured in that region as well. But this all has little to do with where I started out this morning. Miss Parkhill just got in the way. Not that I mind.

We're right in the middle of this!
  This all started with today's weather. It's been raining all night, and by the look of this, it ain't gonna stop any time soon. Then I thought of Miss Parkhill telling us of the old French soldier viewing wartime footage of men in miserable muddy trenches in France with the rain pouring down, and his remark in disgust, "Mais non! Il pleut toujours!" ("Oh no! Still raining!")

  But obviously when I thought of Miss Parkhill, I couldn't stop at the weather. And you know what - it's only just now, fifty years later, when I wrote "Parkhill" that I just realised the wonderful metaphor in her name. Park hill. **SIGH**

 "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose..." says Mme Très-si Jamais.

  (Google it if necessary. We Francophiles don't translate....)


  1. Honi soit qui mal y pense ...

    Believe it or not, I had a French teacher like that too and, scandal - scandal, sixth-former Herbie Phipps (190cm and built like the proverbial) realised every schoolboy's dream.

  2. Miss Parkhill, though tiny, had a VERY loud voice and a fair contempt for hick admirers in the front row of Junior French (she frightened them in fact). There was no disorder in her classes, though in saying that I am sure some wicked person is going to bring up discipline and French mistresses.... Ciel! Nom de nom d'un chien!! Assez, mes élèves.

    I hate Herbie Phipps. :)


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