This short story was contributed by Laura Woollett, a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author and aspiring screenwriter. Her first novel The Wood of Suicides was published in early 2014. Woollett is an MWF 30 Under 30, and will be appearing in two events, Emerging Writers and The Next Big Thing.
She comes to us fresh out of college in the September of ’68 to teach French and girls’ P.E., and we notice she’s pretty. Pretty in a way teachers aren’t, or not in our town anyway. We speculate that she’s maybe actually French, on account of her dark hair and the way certain words like ‘haughty’ and ‘chic’ and ‘petite’ seem to fit her. But when she talks, it’s with a California accent, and she wants to be called ‘Madame Lynden’.
From the first, we want to figure out Madame Lynden, and vaguely to impress her. In bad French, we tell her we like The Beatles, The Stones, Jefferson Airplane, but she doesn’t react, except to correct our pronunciation. She writes things like John aime jouer au base-ball in neat cursive on the blackboard, and gets us to make simple alterations. Often she stands by the blackboard with her arms crossed and holds the chalk between her fingers like a cigarette.
Madame Lynden isn’t a teacher who will laugh with us, joke with us, encourage laughter in the room, we soon learn. Sometimes she smiles when we’re good and her smile surprises us, makes her seem more normal and young, innocent in the neatly contained way of a family photo album. So far as we can detect, she doesn’t have a sense of humor, though there’s something sarcastic about the way she raises one eyebrow to ask, ‘C’est vrai?’ and twists her lips to say, ‘Mais oui.’
When inconvenienced, Madame Lynden is frail and vexed. ‘C’est pas possible,’ she hisses mournfully, the morning a lawnmower repeatedly drowns out the sound of her teaching. Another time, she sighs over a box of flashcards that’s on a shelf out of her reach, before clicking her fingers at Adam Loganberry, the tallest boy, and telling him, ‘Viens.’
The girls in Madame Lynden’s P.E. class get to see her in shorts and a t-shirt, but even then she’s never casual. She stands with her hands on her hips a lot. Her posture is poor for a gym teacher, her skin pale, her collarbones hollow, her breasts small. She wears a whistle on a string between her breasts and blows on it rather than straining her voice. Yet her voice giving instructions is as clear and sharp as the whistle’s burst, a voice to listen to.
Madame Lynden favours kids who listen, who participate, ‘team players’, regardless of skill. She calls on girls more often than boys, gives them more opportunities to shine, but isn’t otherwise soft on them. When Nancy Wick uses the excuse of menstrual cramps twice in one month, Madame Lynden gazes at her steadily and says, ‘I don’t believe you.’ When Jan Mundy spends most of a volleyball game examining her cuticles, Madame Lynden makes her stay after school to dismantle the net. When a few girls, friendly as puppies, make the mistake of asking about Mr. Lynden – who he is and what he does – she coldly tells them, ‘I don’t see why that should concern you.’
There’s talk that Madame Lynden is ‘sort of a bitch’, but mostly we like her. We like to see what she wears to school, though she dresses more like a teacher than a bohemian: long skirts, blouses, cardigans, sometimes a pair of slacks. She always wears her hair in a bun. Half-consciously, we nurture the hope that she will someday wear it loose. We hope to see her do something subversive, but we don’t really get it when she talks about students protesting in Paris, the French Resistance, underground poets with names like Éluard and Aragon.
Sometimes Madame Lynden seems old-fashioned to us, too prim and proper, like a governess from the nineteenth century. Sometimes we try to imagine a Mr Lynden, but we can’t; she seems unlikely to be married somehow, too strange and deeply alone. Some of us find her sexy, yet in a way that’s cold and forbidding compared with the familiar girls bouncing up and down the hallways, like we might get in trouble just for thinking it.
Some of us have smoked grass and some of us have felt each other up, and some of us haven’t. We’re united by the smallness of our worlds. After school and on weekends we have chores, little brothers and sisters, farm work, homework – including Madame Lynden’s French. We have no use for her delicate conjugations and pearl-like words, and probably won’t see them again after high school, except on menus at fancy restaurants on our wedding anniversaries. None of us has ever been on an airplane and half of us probably never will. We belong to churches and can even quote the Bible when we want to say why certain things are wrong, like killing or homosexuality. But there are many more things we have trouble articulating, like why we hate our parents or how the sunlight falling at certain times of day makes us feel both sad and immortal, or why it would be nice to speak French like Madame Lynden.