Merci and an Apology
J'étais Mademoiselle Tanisse.
I was Miss Tanis.
The classroom was small, but not too small for a large dark, rectangular, wooden table that seated about a dozen chairs. Six or eight students sat in those chairs, along with the professor who sat at the head of the table.
I was one of those students. Jean-François Thibault was the professeur. The setting was the George Washington University when it still looked like a sleepy, little ivy, brick, and flagstone campus from the 1940s. The class was called “Analyse de Texte.”
A sizeable proportion of the technical literary skills that I now possess and use daily was learned and honed in that classroom. “Merci,” even “Merci beaucoup,” to Professeur Thibault -- Ce n'est pas assez. It is not enough.
The gifted professors are the immortal ones. They give of their time, their love of the subject, and the “je ne sais quoi” of teaching to their students. The lessons of those professors surpass book knowledge: those lessons are intended for life, the world outside of the classroom. Those gifts are humbly offered from the gifted professors to every student willing to accept those gifts.
Some students are more gifted than others. They arrive in the classroom, hungry for knowledge, and it is the gifted professor who feeds that hunger with a repast that could very well last forever. This gracious granting of information from teacher to student is what imbues the professor with immortality, whether he knows it or not. Most often, he does not know it.
I was one of the gifted ones, and I was very hungry for knowledge in the classroom of Professor Thibault. My eyes read and followed every word, sentence, paragraph, and wince that this highly creative man offered to me. The wince was given whenever I read the texte aloud and confused the sound of “en” for “in” and vice versa. The error was consistent, which meant that I was still learning. I have since corrected (corrigé) that “faute.”
My first French professeur at the university was a beautiful, tall, black-haired Parisienne who suspected that I was from Paris. She even asked me if I came from Paris. I simply smiled at her and at the question which she, and I, knew was impertinent. But the next year, when Professeur Thibault asked me which arrondissement I was from in Paris, I could not sidestep an answer.
With an ironic smile and a twinkle in my eye, I said, “Je viens de Nouveau Jersey.” I come from New Jersey.
His laugh was small in sound, but immense in effect. Professeur Thibault was not known to laugh often and I had pulled a real coup.
Luck of the draw! I had found a tutor during my high school years who was a French-Algerian woman from Paris!
For fall and winter classes, I usually wore jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, not that I was trying to be chic, but that top was one of the few warm sweaters that I owned. I’d received from a kind and loving friend a box of her college campus sweaters, circa 1960. On Fridays (which I’ve always deemed special) I wore one of the cashmere lovelies with pair of black pants which served double-duty for waitressing. Most sweaters were short-sleeved. A jade green one with a white feathery-type collar was a favorite.
In the spring, I donned a dark green tee-shirt with stenciled lettering that was hand-painted with white automotive paint: AH! BAUDELAIRE! A relative created the personalized tee-shirt just for me.
I wore no makeup back then. It was not a matter of not having the time to apply makeup, although I did not have time for such matters. The truth is that I owned exactly three cosmetic products.
There was a gilded tube of dark green mascara that had a wonderful metal wand with inscribed grooves. I hauled that item out to use for an occasional date with a booming tenor from a music class. He used that booming singing voice when he spoke too. And I meant no offense to the little pale yellow sports car of which he was deeply enamoured when I called it, “Alfa Ro-meo” (as in the Shakespearean play with Juliet). (Antigone I’ve always pronounced correctly so I was able to, decades later, delicately correct a very dear teaching colleague when he said, “Anti-gone.”)
There were exactly two eye shadows from either Elizabeth Arden or Helena Rubenstein. (I always got the two females confused.) One shade was deep burgundy (or aubergine), the other very dark navy blue. My blush was au naturel because I blushed frequently. My berry-pigmented lips were enhanced with Vaseline.
Voila! My youthful beauty arsenal!
Thus, the sleepy-eyed Mademoiselle Tanisse showed up for her 9 a.m. French classes with a fresh, open face and a notebook, freshly opened for notes!
I learned from a classmate -- in a hushed whisper of conspiracy and some clandestine embarrassment -- that Professeur Thibault originated from Aix, or Aix-en-Provence. I did not have a clue as to where Aix was or why it was rather scandalous that a French literature professor came from Aix. I only knew that every class that I took from this professeur (and there were several) was a complete and thorough romp through reading novels and poetry that displayed the way that I wanted to one day be able to write.
Other students attended his classes for mandatory credits and units. I was there for my life’s work. And I think that Professeur Thibault sensed it, although I never said a word about my desire to become a writer. Perhaps saying nothing to him was the surest way of informing him of my burning desire. It’s been said that I talk with my eyes.
My eyes must have spoken volumes to this quiet, aloof, somewhat shy, but very precise and orderly man with blond hair. He wore a suit, tie, and dress shoes to every class. Flicking dust or the dreaded piece of lint from a sleeve was a gesture I still treasure. He spoke, not volumes, but measured sentences with his slender, graceful hands.
He invited me once to a soirée that was to take place one Sunday afternoon at his townhouse near the U.S. Capitol. I politely declined. I said that I had no chaperone. Now why a 20-year-old female in the 1970s would need a chaperone, and for a daytime event, I cannot say. But my reticence was a way of avoiding a social event because in those days I was social-phobic.
Professeur Thibault softly smiled and assured me that he would intervene at the precise moment when an unwanted advance was coming my way. And he was true to his word. I was holding a canapé of some sort and admiring le jardin (garden) when a professor of classic French plays swooped in on me and said,
“Vos yeux sont si bleus!” Your eyes are so blue!
Professeur Thibault, wearing a dress shirt sans cravate, suddenly appeared at my side. With a hand on my elbow, he endearingly asked if I would like to look at the roses.
He once inquired of the students in “Analyse de Texte” if there was anything wrong with closing the door to one’s house late on a Friday afternoon, disconnecting le téléphone, and not emerging until Monday morning. The students looked at this professeur as if he were bizarre as well as anti-social.
I smiled. I was very much “d’accord.” It was routine for me to do the same thing, except I did not even have “le téléphone” to “débrancher.” And my abode was not a house but a small rented room in a crumbling brick townhouse.
It was early summer when I last saw Professeur Thibault. He’d offered to arrange for me to stay with a family in Aix-en-Provence for a few months, studying and living in France. I knew that he very much wanted for me to fulfill this part of my dream, but I was not ready to touch that “niveau,” or level.
I pulled my vanishing act. I suppose the black cat in me was apparent even then, but it was a most impolite thing to do. During all of these intervening years I have wanted to apologize to Professeur Thibault for what must have seemed to him as inexplicable (and rude). I’d been the most reliable, courteous, and constant student he might have ever known. But life was leading me into a different direction, away from being an étudiant, a student, and toward becoming the writer that I so fiercely yearned and burned to become.
I truly could not say goodbye to this professor. And so the vanishing act was my way of closing the door to my room late on a Friday afternoon, disconnecting le téléphone, and not emerging until Monday morning. The weekend has been longer than I’d planned, but some weekends can be quite long.
I have made my private amends. But publicly I say to Professeur Thibault:
“Merci et je fais des excuses.”
But there really are no excuses. Perhaps THE DAWN is a better explanation.