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In Praise of Pierrette

Wendy Mackenzie-Ingle, Dartford Grammar Girls School

Winner of the teacher category, Celebration Day writing competition 2022

Apparently, in the 70s, it was possible for an MFL teacher to swap, not only their job for a year with another teacher in Europe, but also their way of life. A small rented family house in Poitiers could be exchanged for a scruffy bachelor pad in Gravesend, and vice versa, to ensure verisimilitude. 

Exit Mr Burman. Enter Pierrette Naidoo. (Names have not been changed to protect them.)

Swapping a middle-aged, male English French teacher who smoked a pipe and pretended to be French five days a week for a younger, female French French teacher, who didn’t have to pretend and brought her two children and husband with her, changed the meaning of O-level French irrevocably, and for the better, for the girls in 5B. Suddenly, French stopped being the written language of textbooks and became a language people used every day for real purposes.

Pierrette –  the fact that she had a first name that she was happy to share delighted the class – had a wide grin, bright, beady eyes and always wore a patterned headscarf that prompted much speculation among her pupils. Being tiny, she could have used heels to her advantage but preferred the whizzing-about potential of her sensible shoes. This lively little French whirlwind was a breath of fresh air! She sang, recited poetry and played games in the classroom long before such pedagogy had reached the British Isles, inspiring a whole cohort of linguists. 

Loud chanting of  “-e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent”, as well as allowing steam to be let off, transformed 5B’s grasp of French verb conjugations, and spurred them on to master trickier tenses. Regular tests that might once have seemed drudgery grew more competitive as the terms went by and the motivation to succeed seemed to be simply the reward of Mme Naidoo’s genuine expression of pleasure. And her satisfaction prompted the redoubling of efforts among the students, creating the perfect symbiotic teaching-learning relationship.

Then, one memorable day, she announced that she wanted to teach 5B some French culinary skills too. Imagine the excitement of French moving to the domestic science room! Grammar and vocabulary were replaced with knives and ingredients for sauce vinaigrette; a taste sensation that a generation of children brought up on salad cream had yet to experience. Tomatoes were sliced and oil, vinegar and mustard were mixed enthusiastically before the simple feast was sampled.

But Pierrette’s year in England drew to a close. Some mourned her imminent departure more deeply than others and one wept to think that her favourite teacher would never return to those classrooms and corridors. With effusive cards and gifts galore from the girls of 5B, the treasured teacher received her thanks and reminded them all that the Verlaine poem she had shared with them would be her legacy to them. She wasn’t wrong: the sanglots longs des violons of Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne echo as clearly in my grandmother’s ears today as they did the first time she heard their ethereal, rhythmic beauty. 

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