Every morning after the school gates were locked we lined up for Inspection. Boy, girl lines, at least that’s how I remember it, I could ask my sister but she won’t remember, she has the most shocking crap memory, it’s amazing what she’s forgotten. More than most people ever know.[1]

This was in Germany, in the Sixties, where my father was stationed with the US Army, somehow my mother finagled to get us into the school for French military dependents. God knows how, she didn’t speak French.

When it was your turn you shuffled forward. Then you turned into a movie zombie, tipped up your chin to le directeur’s glaring face with heavy skin, opened your palms flat to the sky. If he thought your face or hands dirty, hard slap.[2]

You could say that when my sister and I tipped up our faces, our apprehension was fakery, you could say we colluded with this man, because the other kids said he would not punish les américaines. But I was seven and had seen plenty of lies, and we weren’t going to take any chances.

Even though my sister was two years older, we were both put in first grade because they said Madame, our teacher, spoke English. This was a lie, she must have lied, someone lied, she only knew how to say Happy Birthday and since we were both born in September we exhausted her usefulness early on. We were kids so we learned French fast, sink or swim, heads up, your turn, catch, almost, next time, stupid.

We wrote in cursive, our pens had nibs, extra nibs lived in a sweet little steel box, our desks had inkwells and our cahiers had rag paper blotters. All our work, classwork and homework, went into our cahiers. We carried a slate, framed in wood, back and forth to school each day. Graph lines on one side, a chalky pencil, and a sweet little damp sponge in a tin. Worked out our sums on our slates, then wrote the answers in our cahiers. [3]

If an adult came into the room, the whole class stood to attention, and stayed standing until the teacher told you to sit down. If you were in the hall and an adult came towards you, you did look directly at him, you looked down at the floor, kept in your lane. When he was two feet away you curtsied, Bonjour, monsieur [4] and kept going.

My mother loved this curtsy thing, couldn’t get enough of it. She trotted me out at parties, even after we moved back to the States, especially after we moved back to the States. My father was so happy, now he could finally say that his daughters were demure, before only my sister was demure, now she was evaporation-level demure.[5]

First thing every morning in class (after attendance) the French kids sang La Marseillaise. Not me and my sister, we just stood there[6].  One morning soon after school started[7], while the kids sang, she peed herself, it ran down one bare leg and dripped onto the floor. She had to walk to the front of the class to get to the hall bathroom, past everyone. Everyone smelled it. I was ashamed of her and I wouldn’t look at her when she came back to class. Wonder if she even remembers this, with that terrible memory of hers.

After a while, my sister moved up to the oldest class, I don’t remember, but maybe they bullied her because of this peeing thing she did.

One day we were all working quietly on our slates when we heard a strange noise far down the hall. It stopped, then started. Another teacher rushed in, whispered to our teacher then left.

The classroom door banged open and Monsieur le directeur dragged in Marie-Thérèse, a classmate of my sister’s. We jumped to our feet.

Marie-Thérèse was tall and very pale, with blonde hair was so curly it was like a dandelion orb around her face. She was sobbing. Snot was pouring out of her nose.

She could barely stand. The directeur held out his arm, as rigid as a pole, and propped her up.

“Marie-Thérèse has something to say to you all,” he said. He nodded to her.

“I am a liar,” she said. Tears poured down her face. “I am dishonest. I am a bad girl. I didn’t come to school yesterday. And today I said I had been sick.”

She slid towards the floor, he buried his hand into hair and yanked her up like by her armpit.

Madame pulled a cotton handkerchief from the sleeve of her cardigan. She took a step towards the directeur, holding out the handkerchief. He shoved it in his pocket and glared at her.

Madame folded her arms around her trembling body.

“You’re not finished,” he said to Marie-Thérèse, “Continue.”

She whispered. “I was not sick. I —”

“What did you do instead of coming to school, Marie-Thérèse?”

“I was with a boy.”

“And what does that make you?” She made a noise. “Speak up.”

“I am a whore,” she whispered.


I didn’t want to know what this word meant. On the bus home, my sister refused to tell me anything about what happened.

I honestly can’t remember if we even told our parents.





[1] When we were in our forties Liza stopped speaking to me for 12 years, but at least she doesn’t blame that on her memory, although she does say now she can’t remember why she stopped.

[2] Really, you might wonder where they found this monster, but then again it was the military.

[3] Boy are the French crazy about graphs. Notice how many French everyday objects have graphs.

[4] or Bonjour, madame or Bonjour, mademoiselle guess I didn’t have to put this you would have figured it out but it’s been awhile since I’ve done footnotes and it’s kind of fun especially since you don’t have to keep track of the numbering or remember what goes where whee! Also, putting in a footnote means I don’t have to think about those scary dark halls.

[5] My mother said she was always trying to get me to conform and Liza to rebel. Hard to say if there is any connection between this and Liza’s very healthy retirement account and my growing realization that I will probably take up waitressing again.

[6] Sometimes I recited the Pledge of Allegiance under my breath. This drove Liza wild with fear.

[7] I know when it was, because we were sitting at the very back of the class. Seating was reviewed every two weeks. The very best seat was in the front row next to the door, to the teacher’s left. Yvonne, the girl I loved best, always had that seat. Next time you look at a classroom photo from olden times, remember the relationship between scholastic achievement and seating plan.


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