Valentin Rasputin: French Classes


So began these distressful and awkward days. From the early morning, I started dreading the moment when I was left alone with Lidia Mikhailovna, and, twisting my tongue, had to repeat those unpronounceable words, that seemed specially devised for punishment. I mean, why else, if not for punishment, would somebody stick three vowels together to form a drawling sound, like “o” in “beaucoup,” so long you might as well choke on it? Why should sounds go through one’s nose with a dorky moaning, when, from the Creation, the nose was given to people to serve a completely different purpose? Why? It makes no sense. I perspired, blushed, and suffocated, while Lidia Mikhailovna was torturing my tongue, having no mercy on me. Why did she choose me? There were tons of guys at school whose French was just as ugly as mine, but they were set on the loose, enjoying themselves, while I was bound to make up for all of them, like a martyr.
As it turned out, the real disaster was still in store, waiting for me. Lidia Mikhailovha suddenly decided that the study time we had left before the second school shift came in was not enough, and suggested that I come to her place. She resided at one of the apartment complexes for teachers, near the school grounds. On the other side of Lidia Mikhailovna’s apartment building, lived our school principal in person. Coming there for me was pretty much like heading towards the execution dock. Sheepish and tightly wrapped by nature, baffled by every little mishap, I turned to stone and couldn’t breath in this tidy and cosy apartment. I had to be told to take off my coat, to walk into the room and sit down – I had to be moved around, like an object and forced to talk. All of this was not helping my linguistic skills. Strangely enough, here in the house we spent a lot less time on French than at school, where the second shift allegedly stopped us from studying. What’s more, Lidia Mikhailovna, doing something around the house, asked me questions or told me stuff about herself. I suspect it was specially for me that she made up this story how she had gone to study French at the university just because she had never been good at it at school and was determined to prove that she could do as well as the others…
…Lidia Mikhailovna must have been 25 years old or so, I remember her fine-featured but unexpressive face with lids, narrowed to cover the slight squinting; her tight smile rarely coming out in full bloom; the short black hair. With all that, her face didn’t have that rigidity that, as I have noticed over the years, every teacher eventually acquired, no matter how kind and poised they were. Her expression was a cautious, but cunning bewilderment, as though she looked at herself and asked: how did I end up here and what am I doing? Now my guess is that by then, she had had a chance to be married: her voice, her pace, gracious but confident, her act, – everything witnessed her courage and worldliness.

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