Story Value

random musings and episodes from the life of a 40 something comidienne/corporate refugee/mom - since whatever doesn't kill you provides excellent story value.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Requiem for a Nemesis

My mother is of the avid newspaper clipping generation. She smokes and reads daily. Each time she visits, she brings along a smoke-scented yellowed pile of townie news tidbits, amusing comics, recipes, and -- with increasing frequency -- the winners listed in the "Irish racing form," a.k.a the obituaries.

At first, the obituary clippings were few and far between and usually for people I assumed had already died years before; like my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Graves, who wore her hair in a severe silver bun while sporting chained bi-focals and orthopedic shoes. She seemed to be 103 in 1977. The surprise in her passing was only that she must have been so much younger than we thought.

In the clippings pile, sprinkled in with the passing of a distant generation, there are periodically a few tragic deaths of classmates who drank too much & drove too fast or maybe succumbed to a rare and and unexpected illness.

Sadly, these days my mother's clippings contain a steadily increasing number of obituaries for people who, while not exactly contemporaries, I would never consider to be within daisy-pushing range.

The latest obituary was for a high-school teacher who is etched indelibly in my mind as my arch-nemesis. We had a persistent multi-year low-grade war of passive-aggression that could provide excellent fodder for a 1980's Brat Pack movie. My part would be played by the indomitable Molly Ringwald and, if I were to cast my teacher -- I think a bearded Lewis Black would be an excellent choice.

Monsieur Richard "Dick" Dubois was my 9th and 10th grade French teacher. Dubois was one of those teachers who was unable to conceal his humanness behind the bland veneer of a standard teacher's persona. It leaked out. He was a tempermental French-Canadian who wore jeans to class, rode a flashy chrome motorcycle, and told stories that verged well on the side of ribald and inappropriate. While he tried hard to play the part of an affable and calm educator; he always had an edge. In his flush cheeks and the pulsing veins in his forehead, you could see the strain it took to maintain his composure in front of an unruly class. On more than one occasion, he cracked -- once even hurling a desk across the room at a smart-Alec student.

This made Monsieur Dubois interesting and I could not resist stoking this volcanic temper -- its my way. I was an average student of French, but I possess a black-belt of passive aggression and love to play with fire.

When Monsieur Dubois began waxing poetic about his days as an easy-riding flower child of the 60's, my friend Alison and I decided to festoon his cherished motorcycle with flowered garlands and streamers. He was pas amuse. Alison and I landed in detention.

While we sulked our way through the afternoon, we watched an uber preppy girl named Violet as she flitted in and out, perfectly conjugating French sentences and playing coy with Mr. Dubois. "What are you in for?" We asked her.

"Oh," she huffed. "I'm not in detention. I'm just here practicing my French for the spring trip to Paris." Then she blinked twice at us and turned on the heel of her penny loafer.

Alison and I rolled our eyes in unison, snickering about her whale belt, argyle socks and the multiple layers of oxford shirt that made it challenging to raise her arms to the chalkboard.

After detention Alison and I immediately began plotting to exact our revenge.

One Saturday afternoon, Alison and I were working the concession stand at the High School football game and tossing about potential options for secretly driving Monsieur Dubois bananas. Suddenly someone chimed in behind us. "If you really want to get his goat, you could steal his prized possession -- the framed photo of the Beatles over his classroom door."

Alison and I whipped around to find Violet smirking with a cocked eyebrow. "Like you wouldn't rat us out to 'your boyfriend'," I sneered.
"Don't be silly, I'd help you." She replied.
"Why on earth would you do that?" We asked.
"Why not? I like an adventure." She said. "We'll return it at the end of the year. No harm done"

Alison and I were captivated by Violet's cunning even though we didn't understand her motives. We began plotting our heist.
That afternoon, we snuck down to Monsieur Dubois' classroom and removed the 8 x 10 photo of the Beatles from its perch above the doorway. The photo was given to him by a former student and featured prominently in his weekly stories about his days stalking the band.

The next bit is where Violet's criminal mind revealed its full glory.
"Monsieur Dubois will immediately suspect you two." She whispered. "That is why I will craft a series of ransom notes in flawless French. This will remove all suspicion from you both."
We mildly protested, since she was basically calling us French-tarded. But she was right. We agreed the plan was brilliant and began collectively composing a series of letters we hoped would direct Monsieur's behavior to our liking.
"Cancel French quizzes!" We suggested.
"Too obvious!" Violet shot back.
We agreed that Monsieur Dubois should tell more stories, not lose his cool with students and demonstrate how much he wanted his photo returned by pleading to the class.

Monsieur Dubois would not be so easily directed. On Monday, he paced before the class furiously unleashing a string of French expletives. He "damned the monstrous cretins" who had stolen his property and demanded its immediate return. His show of fury was scary, but we held our ground and sent another note.

Later that week Monsieur Dubois threatened to tell the Assistant Principal and disciplinarian and punish each of his classes in full with extra homework and additional quizzes until the photo was returned.

Alison and I had second thoughts. Violet, however, was a cool hand. "Hold firm," she said. "Let him stew a while." We agreed, comforted by our vow of secrecy and that, due to the ransom note quality -- Monsieur Dubois' gaze never lingered on Alison or I for more than a moment.

Over time, the furor died down and I forgot I had the photo stashed in the back of my locker. Ultimately, we returned it to its perch late one evening before the end of the year.

Monsieur Dubois snidely remarked only that he was "pleased that the cretins had returned to their senses."

Following this little caper, Violet became my BFF and heroine. The next year, she inexplicably went through a metamorphosis and traded in her argyle socks for leopard skin dresses. We spent the rest of our high-school career tooling around around in her 1975 Cadillac Coup De Ville listening to Duran Duran cranked up to 11. We took our secret with us at graduation.

I never achieved fluency in French, but I did develop a rabid curiosity about the eccentricities that lurk below the surface in most individuals. Monsieur Dubois was perhaps not temperamentally suited to being an instructor of teenagers. He was, however, interesting and thought-provoking and he provided some of my more memorable high-school moments.

Monsieur Dubois' volatility also created the connection which yielded one of my most enduring friendships. He was larger than life and it seems impossible that he is now gone.

Adieu Monsieur Dubois.
Vive Monsieur Dubois. Laissez Le Belle Temps Roulet!


Blogger Sam said...

I thought maybe you were going to add something about "Le Fromage Americaine" at the end there.

Uh-oh, I think that may be a private joke with myself.

Seriously, this was scarily moving. I'm feeling sad about Monseiur Dubois myself.

I had some twisted fantasies about my French teacher. I really can't write them in the comments of your blog. And he was old, man. It was pretty weird.

What is it about French teachers?

I'm also glad to hear the story of Violet. I have admired her comments in this space before. :)

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Violet said...

RIP, M. Dubois. He was a great influence on my life in many ways, and I'm so glad that his class provided a forum for you and me to join forces.



1:34 PM  

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