French class with Mr Lewis (or how I became an expert 500 player)

For most of our last year at high school, my best friend Eva and I spent every French class in the common room playing 500 with whoever was around. None of the other seventh formers commented.; perhaps they didn’t notice; or perhaps they thought we had a lot of study periods in our timetable. Our French teacher, Mr Lewis, didn’t say anything either, not to us or to anyone else, and we managed to avoid him for the rest of the year, until we left town and were off to the city for university. 

Avoiding Mr Lewis was easier for Eva who often disappeared for a long lunch with her boyfriend at his house where no one was home during the day. That, all of our classmates did notice, and comment on, a note of envy in the boys’ voices. Eva’s rolled-up-at-the-waist thigh-high pleated skirt sat well above the regulation uniform length exposing shapely legs. That, along with her trim figure and long fringe had snagged the tallest, blondest, brightest, and fastest middle-distance runner in the school. 

Mr Lewis was the only language teacher at our high school, so we’d had him for French since third form. His first name, Franz, with its foreign and classical music connotations, was a source of gleeful derision amongst our classmates when they learnt what it was. He addressed us with a lopsided smile that sought approval, pushing an untidy lock of hair to the side. Despite, or perhaps because of, his mild manner, he engaged our sympathy and managed—just—to maintain control of the class. He stood sheepishly, chalk-smudged, at the front of room E21 in his rumpled grey suit, writing verb formations on the blackboard, and roving around the rows of desks dictating translations and posing comprehension questions. Each lesson, he set vocabulary homework from the series of slim hard-back text volumes that we worked through, one for each academic year.  

In our fourth form year, Mr Lewis found a friend amongst the school staff with the arrival of Mr Mertens, a Belgian with hedgehog hair brylcreemed straight back off his forehead, a bristly moustache, and a ruddy complexion. His social studies lessons were long stretches of excruciating boredom. His teaching consisted of having us copy out sections of the text book into our exercise books in silence for the full 40 minutes of each and every social studies period. The mutinous outrage that united the class was suppressed only by dire threats of being reported to the headmaster. I imagine Mr Lewis and Mr Mertens in the staffroom at lunchtimes, boosting their flagging self esteem by exchanging remarks in French or German that none of their colleagues could understand. 

Mr Lewis, it was said, spent most weekends sitting in his car in the garage listening to the radio, driven out of the house by the shrill unravellings of his wife, who was reputed to be truly ugly. Mrs Lewis had studied music—they were two misfits who drifted together when they were doing arts degrees at university— and that’s how I came to visit their house. My parents hatched a plan for me to have lessons with Mrs Lewis to extend my knowledge of music theory beyond grade five. There was nothing for it but to cycle reluctantly to the other side of town one sunny Saturday afternoon. 

The door was opened by a fairly tall well-built woman. Her rectangularity was emphasised by her straight, knee-length houndstooth skirt and faded jersey. The rumours of her unfortunate looks were true enough. She gave a toothy welcome smile. Her chin slid away in an otherwise heavy face, and her nondescript hair was pulled back unevenly and held by a slide at the nape of her neck. 

She led me into a dining room. Thick net curtains dulled the room with its dreary furnishings. A dusty dark cloth covered the table where we sat with a book of manuscript paper open in front of us. Mrs Lewis pencilled in chords of multiple notes that spread across all the lines of the stave. She gave them baffling names that were somehow meant to explain them: what on earth was a diminished seventh or a dominant ninth? What did it mean that a Neapolitan sixth was the first inversion of the major triad built on the flattened second degree of the scale? And where was Mr Lewis? In the garage? All my senses rebelled at being there. I was so ill at ease that I shrunk inwardly, scarcely able to take in anything Mrs Lewis said. Back at home, I told my parents that the level of theory we’d plunged straight into was far too advanced. I never returned.

As each school year went by, the size of our classes dwindled until it was just Eva and me left taking French for bursary and scholarship exams. We both did pretty well in French and everything else. It helped that we competed with each other in all our subjects. By the seventh form, we were among the handful of students who were singled out as having the potential to bring glory on the school by being the first of its scholars to win national scholarships. 

But early on in that final year, on a hot February day, in French class Mr Lewis stroked Eva’s dark hair and brushed her bare knee as he passed by her desk. 

“Ugh,” said Eva afterwards, “He’s a creep. I’m not going back.”

“Well, I’m not going on my own,” I said.  

And so we became adept at 500 instead. 

But 500 wasn’t a scholarship subject. At school prize-giving, the two of us took our turns at being called up to the stage and crowned dux and proxime accessit of our small-town school. But when the exam results arrived in the mail we hadn’t qualified for the prized scholarships. The tell-tale slip of paper with my marks showed a humiliating 20% in scholarship French. A phone call was all it took to learn that Eva hadn’t done any better. 

No one—not our parents, nor our friends—asked us why. And, I wonder, when school went back after the summer break, what our teachers made of the disappointing results. How did Mr Lewis face the others in the staffroom? and what did he say to explain the aberration?

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

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