The fire at Notre Dame cathedral has me thinking back on my visit in 1989, and the teacher who made it possible, so I’m bringing back this post from 2012, both to say “thank you” again, and to remind us all to appreciate the teachers who encouraged us when we needed it, and helped broaden our view of the world when it would otherwise have remained so small, whatever form that may have taken at the time.
Yesterday, I learned that one of my favorite and most influential middle school/high school teachers passed away in November. She taught middle school French, and also taught the highest level for the seniors at the high school. For some of us, French and Miss Pritchett were inseparable; the promise that we would have her class again in our final year of high school was reason enough to stick with it in between, and would have been even if she hadn’t promised us that if we got to French V, she would take us to France. I went back to visit her several times after I graduated, both at the high school and at her home, but it’s been probably 10 or 15 years since I last saw her. I hope that I teach with the same spirit that Miss Pritchett had.
I didn’t know about her memorial service at the time, so yesterday in my journal, I wrote her a letter. I want to share that letter here both in appreciation and admiration of Miss Pritchett, and to encourage those who read it to contact the teachers who made a difference to them. As a teacher, I know the value and the joy of hearing from former students. Telling a teacher how much he or she meant to you is never silly or unwelcome; in fact, it is often the thing that makes it all worthwhile.
Here’s my letter.
Dear Miss Pritchett:
I am so sorry that I am writing you a letter in my journal because I missed my opportunity to come see you one last time. I am so sad to hear that you are no longer here in this world.
It’s nearly 30 years since I first met you at YSMS. Your class was the most fun I had in middle school. I was so excited to start learning a foreign language, and there was never any doubt in my mind that it would be French. I can’t remember if I’d met you before I made that decision or not–wouldn’t have mattered, though. I was in, either way.
You took this girl who was not quite 12 and literally opened up the world for her. I’d imagined France and French but really had no clue. Reality tossed me around a little, but I was still in love with French and the class, so it didn’t matter. I am not sure how you managed to get a bunch of self-conscious 7th graders, especially this one, to speak up in highly fractured “baby” French, but you did, and that’s miracle enough right there. “Je m’appelle Nadine. Ça va?” It must take an amazing amount of patience to coax American kids into strange French vowels, to listen to them butcher the language you love. But you had it, and then some.
I’d never heard of a crêpe before your class. I certainly had never eaten one. You brought your crêpe maker in and made them for us. You handed out ice cream “bonbons” and other treats without much convincing on our part. (The teachers we had after your class must’ve loved that!) I remember the day someone asked how to say “shower” in French and you tried really hard not to tell us because you knew where we’d all go with “douche.” You caved eventually, but at least you tried! And there was the day one of the boys wanted to know where “Pig Alley” was and you insisted he at least say “Pigalle” and be proper about it. We had such great conversations about cultural differences. It must’ve been a challenge to try to get a bunch of 7th graders to accept that it’s not the end of the world if people in other places have different ideas, beliefs, or cultural practices than you.
You told us back in 8th grade that if we stuck with French through senior year, you’d take us to France, and we held you to it. So you opened my eyes in the classroom and you also took me on my first trip out of the country. I still have that first passport, the one with the horrible photo they took at AAA on Market Street. I just found the photos of us at BWI airport before we left–back in the days when anyone could go to the gate–and looking beat as we got off the plane when we got back. You must have really wondered what you got yourself into. We had no fears and no worries, but you must’ve been terrified, especially since it had only been a few months since the bombing of Pan Am 103.
I remember so many things about that trip. The arguments about alcohol and legal drinking ages before we left. The day in, I think, Montmartre when a guy came up and started shouting about my Bucknell jacket, and you shouted back, very forcefully, “Allez-vous en, monsieur! Allez-vous en!” I was so relieved, because I had no idea what was going on and would have had no idea what to do on my own. I remember being the only one brave enough to actually speak French on the trip, which amazed me–why had we spent so much time studying it if we weren’t going to use it once we were there? I was nervous, but I did it anyway. Do you remember going to the Olympics Museum in Lausanne, where I asked if they had “les drapeaux” and was promptly corrected, very gently, to “des drapeaux” by the man behind the counter? I won’t forget it, for sure. I was embarrassed but I think you were proud of me for trying, especially while you were standing right there to hear me screw up.
And then, of course, there was the second level of the Tour Eiffel, where I asked you if you were coming up to the third. “No,” you said, “I’m afraid of heights.” I looked at you and said, “Yeah, me too. Let’s go!” I was glad you came along because the view was amazing and so worth it. I know you said something to my mom about that, and we’re both pretty sure that you were glad I dragged you up there.
I remember that you had us all over to your house for dinner either before or after our trip, probably with our parents, and you were a great cook. I visited you there twice, I think, after high school. You gave me several old French textbooks, and I found used copies of our middle school and 9th grade books online. Looking at them is like going back in time. I remember you telling me that I should’ve worked for corporations that were culturally clueless to keep them from making EuroDisney-type mistakes around the world, which sounded interesting to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Instead, I ended up teaching the world in my own classroom, and loving it.
I have wondered if it disappointed you that I didn’t stick with French past my 1st semester in college; Lord knows it disappointed me. I’m not sure anymore why I didn’t–I loved it dearly, and I still love the way it sits in my mouth when I say a few words here and there. It’s beautiful, and I was so good at it, and now so much of it is gone. You always said it wouldn’t take much to get it back, which may be true, but I’ve never really managed to put the work in; I probably need a remedial class. I still understand a fair bit, though, when I watch a French movie. And I can read the note that you wrote in the book of Impressionist painters that came with the French award at the end of senior year. I still want to go back to France.
I’m so sorry I didn’t stop by over the past few summers, but the fact remains that you were and are such a huge influence in my life, in ways I’m not sure I ever realized until now, and I can never repay you–can’t even catalogue it all. You were a wonderful teacher, and I know that you were and are well-loved. Thank you so much, and adieu.