Ça va

He was, perhaps, the least likely teacher to allow us to call him by his first name. It’s possible older students passed along the practice the way they handed down textbooks, with signs of use and traces of erasure. Or maybe he invited the familiarity. I never asked or wondered about it.

Unlike the other teachers, Harry dressed impeccably, and with a certain tweedy flair. I want to remember him wearing an ascot, but that seems a tick too far. Did a splash of handkerchief color peek from his pocket? Did he sport a gold bracelet? In an upstate New York town known for apples and a college that produced jocks, Harry Weston stood out.

I started taking French in ninth grade, around the same time my stacks of Agatha Christie paperbacks had reached wobbly heights. I thought of Harry as somehow like Hercule Poirot. Perhaps it was the moustache, though Harry’s was neatly trimmed. Perhaps it was a certain finicky composure. Perhaps it was because we harbored unasked questions about his private life. In the late 1970s a refined, unmarried middle-aged man was suspect.

It’s improbable to me now that a teacher, so precise in his diction, so meticulous in his bearing, ran a classroom so loud and boisterous, and let loose in me an obstreperous persona I rarely showed in public. In my memory I sit on, rather than behind, a desk, conjugating faire in the pluperfect and trying to pronounce heureuse. I don’t remember other teachers from high school; don’t remember learning anything worth retaining.  Mostly I kept my head down, breezed through the work, and then went home to read. Bored and tortured, I wrote poems and itched to leave a place I viewed as provincial and which, though I’d spent nearly all of my life there, never felt like home. Harry’s air of sophistication trailed him like cologne, at odds with our town’s agricultural vibe. And he had a gentleness I was unaccustomed to in a man.

My father, an English professor, taught by intimidation. He belittled his students in class and at complained about them at home. He made dinner reservations and announced himself to bank tellers using the honorific “Dr.” He dressed like a janitor, in matching blue work pants and shirt with a jangle of keys on his belt that announced his arrival long before he walked into a room. He blasted classical music out of a Bang and Olufson stereo my mother had said we couldn’t afford, asked the dog to sit en français, and swore ay caramba! And merde alors! when he fixed electronics.

If I had spoken to my father the way I did to my French teacher, had challenged, defied, teased him the way I did Harry, my father would have raised his hand in threat and I would have abased myself and slunk away. His temper was explosive and unpredictable. For my father, nothing ever was good enough. I was never good enough. I did well in school, behaved outside of it, and turned his disappointment in on myself. I learned to use self-hatred to fuel achievement.

Harry never got angry, even when I contradicted him in class, even when I tried to provoke him. I’d heard a native French speaker claim that Americans are never able to get French pronunciation right. I shared this with Harry and he responded with a sad smile, “I don’t believe that to be true.”

Did Harry know that I needed a place to be a little bit wild? I’m sure I never discussed my home life with him, never told him how my father’s love felt contingent, dependent on my performance. All these years later I want to believe that Harry saw me not just for who I was at the time—an angry, hurt, frustrated teen who waxed rude and disrespectful—but for who I could become. In the words of that 70s anthem, I felt free to be me, even if that wasn’t always a good thing.

Like my father’s, Harry’s language was peppered with allusions to the many books he’d imbibed. When a red-cheeked boy too often teased for being smart decided to transfer out of French, Harry signed his name giving approval and wrote on the form, Sic transit gloria mundi. Did the women in the office have any idea what that meant? Did the boy? I didn’t, but Harry translated it, let me in on the joke. He made me feel smart, an unseasoned sensation.

Even after my guidance counselor told me I had no hope of getting into my first-choice college, after she’d said no one from our high school had ever been admitted, I asked Harry for a letter of recommendation. I worried I may have gone too far with him, that I had been too abrasive in class, too familiar. I don’t know what he said about me in that letter. Don’t know if, when I got in, he was proud.

My father never said he was proud of me, but he made me get a decal for the back windshield of our car. In what felt like a small act of rebellion I picked the least dignified sticker I could find: four plump bulldogs smoking pipes spelling out the name of the school on the letters of their sweaters. My father loved that sticker.

What I need to believe is that my father did the best he could. He showed his love they way William Carlos Williams described poetry: no ideas but in things. He rewarded my stellar report cards with cash, not praise. He taught me that no draft of an essay was ever good enough. He ferreted out my mistakes and missteps and his corrections, offered in harsh and dismissive tones, were meant to instill in me a never resting striving for accomplishment. Maybe it was because he was the son of a violent and angry man. Maybe his rage was ignited by biology and kindled by his own disappointment. I need to believe that my father couldn’t help himself, didn’t mean to dent and ding me. If he could have been different, kinder, more compassionate, he would have been.

My father craved respect more than he wanted love and netted neither. My French teacher demanded nothing. It is his lessons that linger.