Learning from My MotherPrint
By Paula Marantz Cohen
In the late 1960s, I attended a large high school in suburban New Jersey, where my mother was a French teacher. She was not the school’s only French teacher, but she was the most experienced and taught the AP French Literature course for seniors.
I signed up for French in the eighth grade. I could have taken Latin, German, or Spanish, but French was a kind of religion in my household, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me not to take it. Thus, in my senior year, I ended up in my mother’s class. When I tell people that my mother was my high school French teacher they react with astonishment: How stressful it must have been for you! How unfair to the other students! How unprofessional! How could the school have allowed it?
But it wasn’t stressful. We must have been living in a simpler time because it never bothered anyone. The class was small, and I had known most of the students in it since the first or second grade. I knew their parents as they knew mine—and one thing they knew was that my mother was the high school French teacher. In the classroom, she was my teacher, though also still my mother, something she and the other students handled with aplomb. I worked hard, but no harder I think than in any other class, and I sometimes acted up as I did in other classes, for which she would shoot me one of her disapproving glances (the same look that she gave to other students when they acted up). I do not recall addressing her in any formal fashion in the classroom, though I would slip occasionally and call her “Mommy” before or after class. No one seemed to mind when I was awarded the French prize during our graduation ceremony. Everyone knew that being my mother’s daughter meant I was good in French—we visited France in the summers, and there were books, magazines, and tapes all over the house devoted to the language and the culture. Everyone accepted that I had this advantage, the way others had other advantages: the girl who surpassed us all in art, whose father was a noted graphic designer; the boy who excelled at music, who was the product of a dramatically musical family of Hungarian refugees; not to mention all those kids who could run, hit, and catch better than the rest of us, whose fathers had been on minor league ball teams or whose mothers knew how to play tennis.
No doubt today there would be complaints of favoritism, and administrators would have prevented me from enrolling in the class to begin with. I would be the last to deny that abuses and ingrained prejudices existed in the educational system back then. But the sense of ease I felt in my mother’s class suggests something good about that system that may now be lost. People understood that personal elements occasionally enter into professional settings, that this does not necessarily damage the pedagogical edifice, and may even, in some instances, enhance it.
I learned an enormous amount that year from my mother—I can still recall her teaching Sartre’s Huis Clos and Camus’s L’Etranger, introducing us to the exciting philosophy of Existentialism (I have yet to find a high school student who does not find Existentialism exciting). French Literature was the only AP curriculum available then. I’m told it has mostly withered away, replaced by the French Language AP course. This seems a shame. You can learn the language while talking about literature, my mother used to say, and the language you will learn will be better and the level of conversation higher.
My mother has now been dead for 15 years, but she still exists vividly in my mind’s eye, standing in front of the classroom, teaching Existentialism, that now possibly clichéd but nonetheless deeply empowering philosophy. She managed to be both teacher and mother, for which I will always be grateful.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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