I was out with my 3-year-old great-niece, and we bumped into my fifth grade teacher, one of my favorites. I loved this teacher because fifth was the year students began French at my school, and she made the language come alive.
My great niece is a bit precocious, and she is incredibly fascinated by “when Auntie was a girl stories.” When we bumped into my teacher, I immediately seized the moment and told her, “When Auntie was a girl, this lady was one of my teachers, and I said ‘good morning’ to her every day, just like you do at school.” Her face lit right up at the idea.
Actually we said, “Bonjour Madame Lacasse,” but I didn’t want to complicate things.
As we all chatted, I casually mentioned to Madame Lacasse that she was the reason I went on to study French all those years. She seemed so surprised, genuinely surprised, and it got me to thinking about something a friend said recently — about how we go through life never really knowing the ways we impact others until someone says something.
Maybe we should tell each other that stuff more.
I’ve written about how much I love Maine and Mainers, and, thanks to Madame Lacasse, I am especially fond of the Franco heritage in Maine. Because of her, I never minded when I got a six top of older French women when I was a teenager waitressing at a pancake house. The waitresses who trained me had warned me about how they’re really nice, but they tie up the table twice as long as other parties; they want separate checks; and they will only leave a quarter under their coffee cup.
But to me their chatter — slipping out of English, and into French, and back again depending on the juiciness of the gossip or the topic or the necessity of getting me to understand or not understand — it was like music. The melody of their words sang of their families, their struggles, their prides, their pains, and this undercurrent of humor that seemed to carry them through it all.
Thanks to Madame Lacasse, all French, whether localized slang, Canadian or Parisian, sounds like music to me.
Even if it meant only $1.50 after two hours and at least two pots of coffee.
Madame Lacasse made the French alphabet sound like music as she taught us to shape our mouths and tongues and even our faces around the sounds. Aah, beh, ceh … She taught us that learning a language meant teaching our muscles the language, too. That helped me when I was older and working with people for whom English was a second language — somehow it’s easier to understand broken English through a thick, foreign accent with that little piece of knowledge.
She taught us that people not only speak a language, but they think in that language. I was too young to fully understand the idea of language and grammar shaping the structure of our thoughts, but Madame Lacasse planted a seed. That seed grew stronger with further education.
And when I found myself teaching adults, some of whom had grown up in French households, I was able to help them see why they had always felt like they got everything in English wrong when they were kids in school.
They weren’t stupid; they were thinking in French structure and grammar, which can complicate things in English class.
Madame Lacasse is the reason my boys laugh hysterically whenever they try to teach me words in German. After years of listening to me teach them French phrases, singing them French songs, and torturing them occasionally by cranking and dancing to Zydeco and Acadian music, they decided to study German.
They say I say the German words with a French accent, which is “so wrong, Mom.”
And while I’m not materialistic, thanks to Madame Lacasse one of my most prized possessions is an original copy of Antoine de St. Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince.” Thanks to Madame Lacasse and my mom, I should add. Madame Lacasse taught me to love French, but my mom was the one who called all over the U.S. to find me one as a gift pre-Internet, so I would give back the copy I stole from my high school.
So to all my teachers, and all the teachers out there shaping minds, planting seeds, and instilling lifelong passions, thank you so much. Madame Lacasse et tous mes professeurs de Francais — merci beaucoup!