My French School Days
I WAS eleven years old when my education, then a slender enough little plant, I am sure, was transplanted from American to French soil. Such a transplanting may seem to you of no great consequence, but, I assure you, to me it was a matter of great importance.
“ But, mother, shall I have to study everything in French? ”
“ But I do not know any French, — not any at all.”
“ But you will learn it very quickly.”
This seemed to me absurd optimism on a gloomy subject.
I had studied German a little — and disliked it. My sisters had studied French under a French governess; but I, being the youngest, had been let off from studying it, and I knew literally nothing of French, save one song, Frère Jacques. I came of a people who loved languages, and I was expected to inherit the taste. I knew that one of my grandfathers, — he of the soft hair and white stock, — when he was engaged, had written his love-letters to my grandmother in Italian, for the pure pleasure of it; and she, for the same reason, had written her replies in the same dulcet language. That used to seem to me romantic. I was sorry enough now that they had ever done it.
My mother would have comforted me.
“ In my old home,” she said, “ my father and mother always spoke French together. It was that more than anything else which helped me to learn quickly. I was always so eager to know what they were talking about. It will be quite the same with you. You will hear all the little French children talking, and you will wish to know what they are saying.”
She finished with a French sentence containing, no doubt, an encouraging sentiment; but, like a flash of heat-lightning, only leaving things darker than before. But no sooner had we arrived in Paris than the gloomy dread concerning my French school days gave place to interest, almost to delight.
I went at different times to two different schools in Paris, but it was the school of Mademoiselle Mallet which was, I think, the most characteristic, and which I remember best.
It was no school at all in the ordinary sense of the term. There was certainly no air of a school about it. There was not a desk anywhere, nor, if I remember rightly, a blackboard. There was Mademoiselle Mallet herself, a woman whose smile I remember as one of the most delightful things in Paris. Oh, it was well worth winning, that smile, and easy to win. If you pronounced a word correctly you were rewarded with a smile. If you looked up suddenly from your studious book and caught her eye, you were rewarded with a smile. If your eyes were dreaming out of the window and your glance wandered back and found that she had caught you dreaming, you were rewarded with a smile. It was very charming. Yet she was serious, too. There was no petting in the ordinary sense; none. What Mademoiselle gave her pupils, more, I should say, than anything else, was respect. This, I believe, was the keynote in her education of them.
I used to sit in perfect despair sometimes, looking at my book, the tears rolling silently down my cheeks. It used to seem to me I should never, never learn the impossible language. English was not forbidden, it was simply not understood, which was worse. Neither Mademoiselle herself nor the pupils knew a word of it.
But even in these worst moments Mademoiselle never petted me. I was also never once rebuked for my tears, nor told that it was babyish or unbrave of me to cry. I was treated like a little person. I have always liked the term " little people.” The French have a way of treating children like “ little people,” little persons. I do not remember in all my French school days once being patronized or talked down to. I was always treated as a person, as an equal. In my few years of school in America I had often been treated very much as a child, and often as an unequal. The teachers in America seemed always to be descending to my child-world and then returning — upstairs as it were — to their own world, and closing the door after them.
Here there was nothing of the sort. I was always expected, it would seem, to go into the grown-people’s world when I chose. We lived on the same floor, on the same level. If I chose to stay out in the garden of my childhood, playing with little people of my own age, well and good; the grown people wanted me to enjoy that, too; but the doors of their friendship, and the comfortable cool rooms of their companionship and understanding and approval, always stood open. I make a point of this because I should not be surprised if this were the most really important, the most really educational point in my whole French training. I grew under it. So did the other little children with whom I was thrown. They, too, were “ little people,” and little people of no small importance.
There were perhaps ten or twelve little girls altogether, but only two destined to remain clear, portrait-like in my memory: Geneviève Martin and Wanda Galezowski. Geneviève was French, Parisian to the tips of her slender little fingers. Wanda was the daughter of a Polish, now famous, oculist, even then oculist to the Czar, I believe. I loved these little girls very much. I loved their very names. I do not mean that Galezowski or Martin thrilled me at all; but Geneviève, pronounced in the soft French fashion, how lovely it was! And Wanda,
— what a story-book name ! I had known only one Wanda, and she was a princess in a fairy tale.
There was a little boy, too, — Ernest,
— a little lad not more than six years old, I should say, and the pet of the school. Mademoiselle Mallet used to button him into his long black alpaca blouse every morning, always smiling over the task, for Ernest, silent or talkative, quiet or restless, was always amusing, and Mademoiselle had a sense of humor.
Whenever a visitor or any of the parents came to the school, Ernest was always called on to exhibit his learning. “ Voyons, Ernest,” Mademoiselle would say, always with a smile and a glance toward me, as if to say, “ This question is for your benefit, too, my dear: ” “ Qui est-ce qui a découvert I’Amérique? ” — And Ernest would beam and say, delighted with his own erudition, —
“Christophe Colombe ! Quatorze-centquatre-vingt-douze.”
“Christophe Colombe ! ” any one could understand that to be our own Christopher Columbus, and it gave readily enough the key to Mademoiselle’s question; but it took many a repetition of this exhibition of noble learning on the part of Ernest for me finally to discover that the other words which he rattled off at awful speed meant just “ fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two.”
This fact I always remember with pleasure, perhaps because it was by Christopher Columbus’sown method that I finally learned French. I discovered it, and that, I believe, is by all odds the most sound of educational methods — the method of discovery. Nothing was hurried, nothing pressed on me, unduly. It was never explained to me, nor insisted on, that “quatorze-cent-quatre-vingt-douze” meant fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two; that it was in that year that Christopher Columbus made his memorable discovery. I sailed many days without so much as a glimpse of land on that subject, though I always knew that sometime that dark saying would be clear to me. And then, one day, along the low horizon of my childish understanding, there it lay, like new land. Of course! Quatorze cent-quatre-vingt-douze meant fourteenhundred-and-ninety-two! Of course ! And the discovery and the land as well were my own, my very own.
In American schools as I had known them, I had acquired a vast conception of my own ignorance and my teachers’ erudition; here, among these sympathetic, courteous, flexible people I soon gained a great idea of my own ignorance, to be sure, but not from any insistence laid on the matter by the manner of my teachers. On the contrary, I was treated as though I were nearly as well informed as they. It would be difficult to give you an adequate idea of the friendliness, the camaraderie, the respect, the courtesy of it all.
But though courtesy and respect were fundamental, important factors in my French school days, they were by no means the only ones. Next to them in importance, I think I should place the spirit of reverence which I there learned.
I noticed it first in the streets of Paris. One day I saw that the doors of the great church of the Madeleine were draped with heavy black pall-like draperies, bizarre enough, such as are commonly used in France over the doorways of the churches or private houses where there is a death or where a funeral is to take place. I noticed that the “ cabbies ” drew their horses to a slower pace, and raised their hats, remaining uncovered as they went past. Or if it chanced to be laboring men or gentlemen passing by, even on the other side of the street, they too all raised their hats in silent respect as they went past the house of the dead. This impressed me a good deal. There was reverence and fellowship too in the simple tribute. Had I been a boy my own cap would have come off.
But to go back to the school. Reverence was learned there, too, and more particularly, reverence coupled with enthusiasm. As an instance: I had heard of Joan of Arc all my days, of course, but you must not suppose that the Joan I had always heard of was like the Joan I now learned to know. The Joan I had learned of was an enthusiastic girl who had gone, in full armor, at the head of an army, and fought as bravely as a man; but the Joan I learned about now — not from a book — the Joan I was told about by Mademoiselle Mallet herself — well, she might have been a dear and personal friend of Mademoiselle’s, so cherished, so beloved, so reverenced, so talked of from the heart was she. Mademoiselle described her to me as accurately as one would describe one’s best friend : not too tall; pale, with eyes of blue; her hands thin and spiritual; a broad clear brow; eyes that looked always to be seeing visions.
I learned about her home-life; such heart-seeking, little intimate anecdotes about her: of how she loved her father, who did not well understand her; and one story of a lamb, forgotten of the fold one night; and Joan waking in the darkness, St. Michael’s voice having roused her. “ Is it France that needs me now ? ” and Joan rose kneeling in bed, awed and ready. “ No, my good little Joan. Non, ma bonne petite Jeanne ! not yet! Only a little lamb forgotten in a thicket.” And then she and the good St. Michael went out across the snow together and sought and sought. “ Ah, it was very cold, ma chere. Very cold, I do assure you!” Joan sought it and sought it with all her heart, as though it had been the whole of France to save. “The whole of France, ma chère, instead of only a little young lamb.” And she carried it home with its head in her bosom. —Then finally, the call to arms; Joan’s leave-taking; the people of Domrémy gathered to see her go. Then the battles; the wounded; the slain; the weary march; the soldiers devoted, oh, devoted day and night to guard her; though she had no fear, — St. Michael was her champion. But oh, the weary march! Mademoiselle must have been on that march herself, I think, to have known so minutely and heartfuflly the details and happenings of it.
And then Joan at Rheims! Oh, the blare of trumpets! Joan victorious! Joan crowning the young Dauphin! I must have sat, a very attentive little child, you may be sure, fascinated by it all. Here was a story indeed! and the story of a real person! and told, as is not too often the case, by a real person. The climax approached so steadily and gloriously, like the sure tramp of an army; now lost at some turn of the road, now coming on again, surer than ever. And then when it came to Joan — la petite Jeanne — in the cathedral among all the banners, raising the crown above the bent head of the Dauphin kneeling before her, the glorious moment of complete triumph was too great for Mademoiselle in the telling of it. Her voice broke, her eyes filled with tears, she could not go on for emotion. I shall never forget the direct simple impression that had on me. I had, along with most children, learned to look upon tears as something childish and unworthy. But here was Mademoiselle, whom I loved and respected, as a strong, wonderful grown person, her face aglow with enthusiasm, her eyes fairly radiant with love and devotion and reverence for Jeanne d’Arc, — a girl dead and gone these hundreds of years, mind you; yes, and the tears slipping down over Mademoiselle’s cheeks out of the fullness of her heart and sheer warmth of feeling.
It is in such moods of radiance and emotion that the world sometimes sees nature in the spring. It is under such moods that young things and growing plants thrive; and out of such moods that a bow of hope sometimes gets itself spanned gloriously enough across the heavens. Here indeed was my first lesson in that real enthusiasm, coupled with real reverence, which is so large a part of education in France; yet, happily, like many another lesson learned under Mademoiselle’s kind teaching, I did not know it for a lesson at all. This was no task, no instruction. It was, no less than the rest, discovery, pure and simple. It was like new and foreign land which my mere wandering sails had found. But my foot touched it on that day; once more, I knew it and claimed it as my own. Joan from then on was one of my friends, — intimately, reverently, as she was one of Mademoiselle’s friends; and were I to tell a little child about her now, I should feel it a neglect not to tell the very color of her eyes.
If you think I make much of this, well, it meant much to me; I feel sure it would mean much to any child. But where to-day, I ask you, in our ordinary schools, so-called, shall you find children getting lessons like this? You will find many a teacher dutifully enough giving out many a chalky blackboarded kind of instruction, but you shall not so readily find one with her eyes aglow, her whole soul swimming to the surface like that; and the tears on her cheeks, from sheer whole-souled, unselfish, out-of-self reverence and enthusiasm.
“ How little we pay our way in life! Although we have our purses continually in our hand, the better part of service goes still unrewarded.” So it does. I have still those neat bills of Mademoiselle’s sent to my mother for instruction of les demoiselles Portor. They are not small bills at all, and a good many extras, cahiers, pencils, pens, and the like, were charged to swell the account. But neither do they in any way cover the price of the service rendered; and there is no mention in them, as indeed why should there be, of all the priceless things which stood in Mademoiselle’s unpublished curriculum, and were included generously in her daily instruction.
You must not suppose that this discovery of Jeanne d’Arc was exceptional. Before long I grew familiar enough with the tone of devoted enthusiasm. I grew to expect the thrill back of the words. There was many another spoken of with no less devotion, no less enthusiasm. Napoleon! — why, I knew his return from Elba, and the soldiers sobbing at his feet, and kissing the hem of his coat, as that little boy in the first row of seats knows his 2X2. I knew Roland in the pass at Roncesvalles as most children know the easiest words in the speller. I knew St. Louis; I knew Clovis, and Charlemagne, and Charles le Martel. I knew Louis XVI even to the black ribbon on his queue, and the prunecolored clothes that he wore to the scaffold. I knew dear, kind Madame Elizabeth. I knew Marie Antoinette. Oh, I ask you, did I not know Marie Antoinette! do I not know her now, better than any other! I knew her, to the whitened hair, the kerchief she wore opened at the neck, the blue veins on her thin hands as she stood asking a blessing on her prison food; and her jailer, with his seamed face and stockinet cap, peering curiously at her from behind the screen. — And the little Dauphin! Do you suppose I did not know just how he clung to his mother, and how she kissed him, weeping, — and then bade him compose himself and bear himself like the son of a king, — like the Dauphin!—the Dauphin of France !
It would take me far too long to tell you all those I knew. Such a company! and I only a little child. There were glory and panoply in those days, glory and panoply enough; — and a fanfare of trumpets, and a procession of people such as would raise the pride and hopes and ambition, yes, and the goodness, of any child, I think. There were people of all classes: the starving citizens of Calais, saved at last, you remember, how dramatically; there was the worthless young prince of England, who yet died nobly for his sister at the sinking of the “ White Ship; ” and the page, in the same tale, who came before the old King, the Prince’s father, mute, and dressed all in black, because none of the nobles, no, not the boldest of them, dared tell the King so sorrowful a piece of news; dared not, mind you, because of the King’s grief, which would be so great that it was to be feared no less than the anger of any other king.
There were heroes, heroines, kings, queens, traitors, citizens, doctors, men of law, men of science, poets, monks, nuns, musicians, men of letters. I was daily in as varied a company as Chaucer himself on his way to Canterbury; and I only a little child.
It may seem absurd to you, but I knew George Sand, and whatever a child would have liked about her, I liked. I knew Madame de Staël in no stiff fashion. I knew about her this, for instance: that when Napoleon exiled her from Paris, she pined, oh, yes, she pined for France, even among the glories of Switzerland; and when some one, visiting at her château on Lake Leman, urged on her the loveliness of that lake, she sighed and said, “ Ah yes, it is beautiful, beautiful ! ” and then, sadly, “ Mais donnezmoi mon petit ruisseau dans la rue du Bac.” She would give it all gladly, gladly, for that!
This, too, was not explained to me. It took me quite a while to discover that the ruisseau was just the little gutter in the rue du Bac in Paris. Paris, her own and her beloved! Ah, she was very human, this Madame de Staël, and I liked her for it. I even thought it would be very nice to be so loyal to the gutter that ran past my house in my own little home town. Perhaps it is even largely due to Madame de Staël, as Mademoiselle Mallet introduced her to me, that I later grew to this very loyalty; that my own old home, and my own home town, in years of exile from them, are so wonderfully dear to me.
I met, too, the great tragedians— Corneille, Racine, and the rest. I not only knew little intimate things about their lives, but I knew their heroes and heroines. I learned by heart page after page of Le Cid, Polyeucte, Athalie ; by heart, you see, rather than waiting to read them later by head. This may seem to you an absurdity. Well, —it was Mademoiselle’s method. What has a little child to do with Le Cid, Polyeucte, Athalie?— I answer you: It was Mademoiselle’s method.
Nor was this method Mademoiselle’s alone. That we might advance the more quickly in our studies, one of my sisters and I went, two afternoons of each week, to be given instruction by one Madame Bonnard, a very beautiful Frenchwoman, young, high-bred, around whose life was woven a story of a good deal of mystery and romance. Her home was beautiful, and the great salle where we had our lessons was hung with wonderful old tapestries, and full of a solemn light admitted through windows high above the ground.
Here, too, I was instructed in no cut and dried fashion. Madame Bonnard was of an entirely different type from Mademoiselle Mallet, yet the method was the same, and the tears could come to her eyes, too, it would seem.
My first lesson was from the seventh scene of the second act of Athalie. I was to learn by heart all the part of Joas, the child; my oldest sister was to learn the part of Athalie, the Queen; Madame Bonnard herself would take the unimportant part of Josabeth.
Unless you are familiar with that rich scene, full of keen dramatic interest from start to finish, you can hardly have an idea how I enjoyed it; enjoyed learning it by heart; piecing out the sense, discovering for myself the interest, the meaning, the beauties. How I enjoyed those poignant questions put by my sister in the person of Athalie! how I delighted, I, Joas, to answer them so wonderfully, so tellingly!
Athalie. You are without parents ?
Joas. They have abandoned me.
Athalie. How? Since when?
Joas. Since I was born.
Athalie. Does none know, at least, your country?
Joas. This temple is my country; I know no other.
Athalie. Who put you in this temple?
Joas. An unknown woman who told me not her name, and whom no one has since seen.
Athalie. But what hand cared for your first years? (Mais de vos premiers ans quelles mains out pris soin ?)
Ah that was my cue! Then came the speech of all others that I loved best: —
Aux petits oiseaux il donne leur pâture ;
Et sa bonté s’étend sur toute la nature.
Tous les jours je l’invoque ; et d’un soin paternel
Il me nourrit des dons offerts sur son autel.”
How I loved to give them — the confounding replies of the child Joas!
The scene grows in meaning with each line, — opens out like a flower. Athalie at last speaks in pity of the young child whose days are all spent in the service of God in the temple. She offers him instead her patronage, the pleasures of her court. She would treat him as her own son. There, too, was a part that I loved, I, the child Joas.
Joas. Comme votre fils?
Athalie. Oui — vous vous taisez ?
Joas. Quel père Je quitterais! Et pour —
Athalie. Hé bien?
Joas. Pour quelle mère!
That last said, oh, tellingly, I assure you, once I had gotten the full meaning of it.
These you may call mere fragments of learning, and not to be compared with any right-minded spelling-book or arithmetic. Fragments they were, but of noble proportions, and they carried with them something that was like those fragments of the Parthenon which, great in themselves, give one the suggestion of something still greater. Then, too, you must not forget that there were spelling-books and arithmetics besides.
I have already told you that I went to school to Paris as well as to Mademoiselle Mallet; and, my books closed for the day, I did but go into a larger and more delightful class-room.
We had a little Swiss maid who had a hand in my education, too, but who believed her duty to be solely to button our shoes, to brush our hair, to tie our ribbons, to keep us tidy, to wait upon us, and to see to it especially that I, the youngest, was kept content and happy. It was in company with her that I went about Paris: to the Louvre gardens and galleries, to the Punch and Judy shows, — a penny a chair! to the Luxembourg, to Cluny, to dozens of other places, not sight-seeing, but pleasure-enjoying.
I had learned the French method now, I knew the zest, the interest, the meaning they put into everything. What did Champs Elysées mean? The French would not have given it that name without some meaning. I knew them well enough for that! Sophie could not enlighten me. But I soon learned what the Elysian Fields stood for in ancient religion, and in story and romance. Ah, did I not tell you that these people would not have given a meaningless name!
I did not think of it then, for I was in no critical humor, but I think of it now. Do you suppose that these people, full of associations, and devotions, and cultured enthusiasms, would have elected to call a great stretch of the most beautiful park land in the world “ Central Park,” as we have done? No. A small strip, not too wonderful, as we all know, is to them the “ Elysian Fields; ” and topped and bottomed, if you please, by an “ Arch of Triumph ” and the “ Place of Concord ” — the “ Place of Peace.”
Then there was the street of the Little Fields. What were they, these little fields ?
The rue Louis le Grand; ah, him I knew! The rue de la Paix. What peace ? — for it was sure to commemorate an especial peace. The rue de Rivoli, the rue Richelieu, the Chaussée d’Antin, the rue Quatre Septembre; the colonne de Juillet; Boulevard des Capucines; des Italiens; Boulevard St. Michel; St. Germain des Près; Champs de Mars; how well named! Place Molière, and I knew well now who Molière was ! Chapelle Expiatoire; ah, that! That had meaning!
And these were only a few! Streets, boulevards, and monuments full of meaning, and each with an especial interest. Why, Paris had as many stories to tell as Mademoiselle! Dear Mademoiselle! Dear, delightful Paris!
One day a great event was astir, a great event for me. There was to be a Children’s Ball; a Children’s Fancy Dress Ball at the Grand Opera House in Paris, and I was to be allowed to go; not merely as an onlooker, but I was to go in a fancy dress, myself, and I was to dance and make merry like the other little children. This was wonderful, of course.
And what was I to wear. I was to go as “ little America ” — that was soon decided on. My dress was to be of soft American flags. My cap was to be a little liberty cap.
The shopping was a matter of great interest. The flags were bought, a lovely soft sort of veiling flags they were. The cap was made of a smaller silk flag. As for the stockings, they must be striped red and white lengthwise, of course. And the slippers must be blue, of a blue like the field of the flag. The shopping might have been difficult anywhere but in Paris. But did dear sympathetic Paris have stored away in her little boutiques a pair of red and white striped stockings of an exact size and of a perfect match for the flags ? Yes, of course. And a pair of blue satin slippers, high-heeled, just the right size, just the right shade, exactly? To be sure! And a little unmounted photograph of Washington and one of Lafayette, to be sewed upon little fringed flags, one French, one American, for me to wear as epaulets ? — Yes, yes; certainly.
So the great day came at last, and I was dressed for the ball. Ah that was a ball, indeed! The very stairway of the Opera was a wholly fairy-like thing. And once inside the great doors, oh, the great vast place it was! vast it seemed to me with its gold and its glittering lights; its tiers on tiers of boxes; its flutter of children; so many, so many, all dancing, laughing, talking, fanning themselves!
I had scarcely got on the floor when a little French Columbine came toward me, clapping her hands with delight. “ Oh regardez! regardez la petite Amérique! ” A little Lohengrin with a huge cotton swan under one arm ran up to me, and beamed in unaffected delight: “ Mais oui! Bon jour, Mademoiselle l’Amérique! ” and he bowed to me, and made the swan do so too.
So it was amid a little hum of appreciation and surprise that I danced in my high-heeled blue slippers, and looked over my shoulder in a maze of pleasure. Oh, I never danced so well, I assure you. They would appreciate, if any audience would, the pride of my step; and each step I took was for America; America which I had come to love now with such zest and enthusiasm; yes, even as the French love France. A little French boy in peasant costume and his lass followed dancing near-by, near enough to read the name on the epaulet on my right shoulder: “Washington” pronounced the little boy proudly. Then they polka’d around to see the other. “ Eh, Lafayette! Tiens! Vive l’Amérique et la France! ”
How they entered into it all! What a good thing it was to be a little American girl, and a little American girl in Paris, and a little American girl in Paris at a Children’s Ball at the Grand Opera!
Not a soul of them did I know, save my partner, an American boy. But I was among friends, and when the children did not actually speak to me, they would smile and nod in the most friendly manner; and I doubt if ever the stars and stripes got a prettier welcome.
I do not know when I first learned of it, but gradually, all over the sea of dancing children there was the stir and murmur of some happening. I was slow to trace it, but I found out at last! There on the left of the Opera House, two boxes from the stage, in the lowest tier, so low that you could touch the crimson velvet rim of it with your hand, — there was the great man of all Paris, — Victor Hugo. Close beside him was his little granddaughter Jeanne. I can hardly tell you the impression, the influence his presence had on the ball; he who loved children so! Had I not learned by heart some of his verses about childhood! He who loved Paris so! he who had been exiled, he too! He who was the idol of the people, their great man, their man of letters, head and shoulders above the rest.
I was prepared to like him in true French fashion. We danced up close to the wonderful opera box. I looked with a child’s eyes. I saw a man undeniably ugly; yes, I thought him very ugly. His white hair stood up stiff and rather short and straight; and his white beard only added to the unkempt look. His eyes were small, and they seemed, to me at least, slightly crossed. His figure was stocky, and his head was sunk forward quite a little. I was disappointed. He was in no sense my idea of a hero. Jeanne kept close to him, and, if I remember, with her hand in his all the while. The thing that did not disappoint me was his evident interest in the ball, in the children. They would dance past the box looking at him, couple after couple; and his name was repeated over and over, each child telling the other, “C’est Victor Hugo.” “ Oui, et sa petite-fille Jeanne! ” I do not know why, nor just how the impression was conveyed, but this seemed his world, this world of happy, light-hearted children. He seemed full of keen interest all the while. He watched the dancers. Sometimes he smiled and nodded to them. I do not know whether he noticed me especially, but I hoped that he did, and I felt the prouder that his look had brushed over me.
I do not know how long the ball lasted. It seemed as though it might go on forever. In the midst of it I was told that it was time for me to go home.
I had had a glorious afternoon. In the open place outside the Opera House were the same crowds that had waited to see the costumed children arrive. There had been a little murmur from the crowd when I got out of the carriage and went into the Opera House, I along with other little children. I was anticipating the same murmur now, when my mother touched my hand and bent and said a few words to me, then directed her eyes to some one standing almost beside me. I looked. It was he. He and Jeanne were leaving the Opera House, too. He had a slouch hat pulled down over the stiff unkempt-looking hair, and a coat with a cape about him. Jeanne’s hand was in his.
They stood a moment, freed from any immediate crowd, at the head of the steps. At once the people recognized him. The recognition and feeling seemed unanimous. Instead of the narrow walkway left by the crowd, men and women fell back a little with one accord, until a broad way was left free to him, down the open approach to the Opera; a broad way, even, orderly, as though gendarmes had made it. The great man and the little girl stepped down the steps, he with head bent even a little further forward.
I waited, breathless and fascinated, to see the two of them go. He seemed to me a very great man now, with Paris silent, respectful before him. I have never seen anything like it. As he went, slowly, and even a little uncertainly, — for he was an old man, and even then within only a few short strides of his grave, — every man in that crowd raised his hat silently, and without demonstration, and stood uncovered while Victor Hugo and his little grandchild passed down the line to their carriage. I saw Jeanne get in. The great man paused, bent his head still more and followed after her. The door was closed by the guard, and the carriage drove away. It was then that the men replaced their hats.
And I, I had learned one more lesson, made one more discovery in reverence and enthusiasm; this time at the hands of Paris herself.
Ah, what schoolmistresses they were, she and Mademoiselle Mallet!
Many delights continued to fill the days. They came and bloomed and went like flowers; and like flowers there were always others to take their place. The studies were often difficult, but there was a glow in life, a constant kindling of enthusiasm.
From older years I can look and see that much that has been most beautiful in my life has had root in these French traits, — enthusiasm and reverence. My mother’s reverence, her loving enthusiasm for beauty, for greatness, for goodness, was this not perhaps taught her in large part by the education, more French than American, which my grandfather saw given to his children ? Is it not owing largely to this and to my French school days that there is so much beauty and goodness and enthusiasm in life for me now ?
When I returned to America it was with many misgivings. I did not know the capitals of the States, or the dates of American battles, or my tables of American weights and measures, all of which my companions would have learned in my absence. What good would the departments of France and kilogrammes and millimetres do me!
But if I did not know the things in knowledge of which my little comrades were so glib, I was yet far advanced in hero-worship. I might stand at the foot of my American classes, but before school, at recess-time, or after school, there was hardly a child in that class who would not listen gladly, eagerly too, all but the slightly envious, to the tales I could tell, of Roland at Roncesvallm, of Louis le Grand, of Jeanne, of Athalie, and of all the rest.
But here in American schools are we not beginning to make a great point of the telling of stories of great men and women ? Yes, but it does not seem to me the same; and we tell them with so much less intimacy, and, if I may say it, with so much less graciousness; more as a duty than a delight. I know, I know that we have what is perhaps “the greatest school system in the world,” and wonderful theories of education. But teaching — as I take it — is neither a theory nor a system, not more than is painting. It is a great art, a great creative art, no less. And, like all the other arts, it requires the devotion of the individual.
I loved my American teachers. Yet, as I recall them (and in twelve years of American schooling as against two of French, I had many American teachers), all of them seem, beside Mademoiselle Mallet, Madame Bonnard, and the other Frenchwomen who taught me, strangely lacking in taste, in culture, and in interest. No one of them had at her command such a host as was at the disposal of all these Frenchwomen.
Yet here is a matter of importance enough in education, for the sympathetic teacher knows the child must forever be her guest, and her schoolroom rather a house, a home where more than elsewhere the child shall memorably meet, intimately, warmly, the great and good of all ages.
Nor do I see how this more intimate, more French method of teaching is avoided, as it is skillfully, by so many. For all teaching of all subjects is finally, as I take it, and in one form or another, the teaching of history. Make education as dry as you like, it is still bound to be, at bottom, the story, the life-story, of something or of somebody. Even the most abstruse subjects are woven in with human history, and bound up with strands of human meaning, with human joy and misery, human baseness or nobility.
“ The address of all history,” says Froude, “ is less to the understanding, than to the higher emotions. We learn in it to sympathize with what is great and good, and we learn to hate what is base.”
Il a beau dire—ce bon Froude! The history examination papers approved by our boards of education still contain few enough questions asked or answered concerning human nobility or baseness, human joy or sorrow; but there is in them a great insistence and nicety as to dates and eras, as to the exact age of dynasties, republics, and successions.
No American teacher told me, as a child, the whole ragged, wonderful, solemn, heart-breaking story of Lee’s surrender as it well might have been told. Lee’s surrender! Lee’s farewell to his soldiers! “ Ah, mais je vous démande! ” What an occasion would not Mademoiselle Mallet have made of that!
I was only expected to know the date of Appomattox.
I still remember the picture of Lincoln, tacked to the blackboard in the chill February days, and the dates of his birth and death written in colored chalk, — and that I failed utterly on the dates of the battles of the Civil War.
Since then it has become the fashion to teach of Lincoln the man. There are few of our heroes so humanized. Yet even this has become, in large measure, a part of the “ system,” And it is still the individual teacher who must separate from the “ theory of how to give children the hero-thought,” who must separate from the “ prescribed order of Lincoln exercises for the day,” and from the learning “in concert” the Gettysburg speech, Lincoln the man. It is still she who will gather about her a group of eager children, and who will tell them, perhaps with a break in her voice (I hardly see how it could be otherwise) of the life and death of Lincoln, her friend Lincoln.
The things which set my French school days apart as more colored, more valuable than the rest, were, first of all, the entire French method: that delightful method of discovery, for instance, of which I have told you; the method of unfailing respect and courtesy shown me, which lent charm and dignity to the days; the constant association with forms of great art. These things seem to me I cannot say how valuable toward the sound and successful education of any child. And back of all the delightful and sound “ method ” was the reinforcing individuality, the personality, the personal charm of the Frenchwomen who taught me.
Though “ systems,” and the fashion of books and slates and rulers and examination papers may dwell long among us, yet it is still forever the personality of Socrates that makes famous the garden of Academos. In a later age it is not the theories of Ascham that are so keenly remembered, good though they may be, but Ascham himself, the friend and teacher, who stands out portrait-like, lovable, influential.
One memorable day I learned that Mademoiselle Mallet had had a lover who was killed in the Siege of Paris. Mademoiselle did not tell us this. I do not now know rightly who told it. But so fine a piece of color in France would not be hid, you may be sure. It explained many things besides Mademoiselle’s feeling description of the Siege. It accounted for how much of her reverence, her warmth, her enthusiasm, her lovely personality!
One would not wish to draw too fine a point, nor would one seem to insist that a teacher to be eminent in matters of education must needs have a lover killed in some war (we cannot all be Mesdemoiselles Mallet). Yet if any had, why then, as a matter of eligibility, I for one should say, “ Eh bien ! so much the better. Tant mieux ! ”
I have never returned to France. I have never refreshed at their fountainhead these memories of my French school days. I have never since looked into Mademoiselle’s kind, direct eyes. My French, once her great pride, — “ Quel accent parfait a-t-elle, cette petite! ” —is grown rusty in places. Between her and me “wide seas have rolled,” since the “old long-since ” of those days. Yet I know well that it is due chiefly to her that, no matter how long hence, in turning back the pages of a more complete life, few chapters will seem of such lasting importance, few will be so richly colored, and have such an influence on the story, as that chapter with its simple heading, —
School Days in France.