My French teacher died in September. Dottie, my favorite teacher. A scared young girl, barely out of middle school, I met her “freshman week” in high school. The earliest to arrive in French I, I opened the door, walked in, and took my seat somewhere in the middle of the room.
There Dottie stood with her round face, huge smile, twinkling eyes, wearing Crayola-red lipstick and low black heels. Before she spoke, I sensed her presence, and began to learn my first lesson from her: presence itself matters.
On the side of her classroom, a yellowing map of France hung from a wooden pole. Dottie stood bouncing in front of that symbol of her love for her subject, often directing a pointer here to Paris, there to the Mediterranean, as if to say, “See? Here. Get in close.” As if she didn’t want us to miss one exciting detail. I caught her exuberance.
She spoke only in French. Until I got used to the immersion method, I did not understand a word she said, but I ran to my seat each class waiting for her Eiffel Tower pin, today’s special headband or new tidbit on a French movie star. She waved her arms and hands, gesticulating around every beautiful Parisian sound. After school I did her homework first: flashcards; happily memorizing lists of masculine and feminine nouns; conjugating verb tenses and creating French essays about my adolescent life. She ignited an “I can do it” fire in me.
We learned so much more than a new language. She made us laugh. On St. Patrick’s Day, she spoke French with an Irish accent. Some days, she’d sing Broadway tunes in French. Her antics taught me that learning could be fun, that I could grow into my own silliness, step into my own voice.
Our fourth year class cooked Coq Au Vin one Friday evening at her house in the mid- 1960s when most other teachers didn’t make friends with teenagers. She opened the door of her home that night and, whether she intended it or not, she taught me then about opening the heart.
We learned culture. She drove us to Boston one weekend to hear the best-known French singer Charles Aznavour in concert. She giggled and I thought she had a crush on him. I, too, sat wide-eyed as he caressed every lyric. She brought enchantment into our lives.
With Dottie, I expanded beyond what I knew: small-town American suburbia. Every year she took the French Club to Quebec, the old city of sidewalk artists and caleche rides. We stayed at the other-worldly Château Frontenac. She walked us over the cobblestone alleyways to the sweet-smelling patisseries where we tasted profiteroles, éclairs and oozing napoleons.
When my English teacher said I would never write well if I didn’t improve on his tests of Words with Greek Roots; when my chemistry teacher scribbled on my calculations with red pen; when my Algebra teacher told me not to bother to take Physics, Dottie taught me to play with French syntax, to relax, and to enjoy new horizons.
Some spiritual teachers say we all need at least one angel in our lives in order for us to feel whole, healed, healthy, even holy (those words all stem from the Greek root holos). Dottie was that angel for me. Her spark lit mine.
We read le Petit Prince by Antoine de St-Exupery. In this fable, the Little Prince travels, dropping in on several planets, gathering wisdom at each. Thanks to Dottie, the Little Prince’s teachings are with me today, easing my grief at her passing. My favorite line is: “Good-bye,” said the fox. “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The Dottie who helped me grow up is invisible now. Perhaps, as the Little Prince would say, she merely moved to a star: “In one of the stars (she) will be living…singing and laughing. …. And when your sorrow is comforted, you will be content that you have known (her). …. You will want to sing and laugh with (her).”
May we each remember our own personal Dotties, those angels who shaped us, had faith in us, shined brightly on us and for us as they ushered us into who we are. And, as we sing and laugh with them, may we remember to see with our hearts.