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Where are the Snows of Yesteryear?

by Margaret Mackenzie (Sullivan)

Où sont les neiges d'antan? - Villon

My first contact with the French section of U of A (it plus German then formed the modern languages department) was in the summer of 1947. I think that it was Maimie Simpson who suggested that as a prospective honours student I should see Dr. Healy. She had been one of my teachers in high school, but by that time was dean of women, if my chronology is correct. Dr. Healy gave me a pile of French records and said to listen to them until I could no longer stand them. To this day I can mimic the Linguaphone phrase for ordering a "bock de bière, brune ou blonde". During my first year he did not teach any of the courses I took, but when I went to the office for some reason (possibly the next summer) he took out his broadnibbed pen, indicated the names of some beginning Spanish texts to order (French-Spanish, no less) and recommended reading Cervantès in the original. I was flabbergasted!

During my second and third years (honours French and German, not Spanish) I had several literature and intensive French courses from him — more than from any other professor. He was known to terrify his students and countered by asking to be thought of as "Uncle Dennis". This made me laugh, but I was still petrified. He tried to unfreeze the honours group several times by taking us to the cafeteria for coffee. We could never predict what he would ask in class. I remember vividly not knowing what color pear blossoms might be, for example. One of my "bévues" was in suggesting "Alcoholics Anonymous" for the translation of "société anonyme", which is, in fact, a limited liability company. The intensive classes were a particular nightmare, covering French geography, translation of Dickensian difficulty, and odds and ends. Dr. Healy compared us unfavorably to French schoolchildren aged 12. Yet he seemed to consider us intelligent enough to learn the whole phonetic system in one night and be able to transcribe passages of French into phonetics for an exam. He did give us excellent instructions how to make the difficult French sounds which don't exist in English, and to differentiate between the English "l" and the French, and how to do the guttural "r". I spent hours "gargling" at home to try to master the French "r" (and eventually succeeded, I think).

According to French people whom I met at local groups, Dr. Healy's French was "impeccable". In poetry he was in his element, but even his French prose seemed musical to my ears. I vowed that I would do my utmost to learn to speak the language like a native of France.

My attitude towards him was a mixture of admiration for his command of French, and outrage at his expectations concerning students. Supreme efforts could bring results, however. I liked the literature part of his courses, but not the "third dimension", or background material. Warned by senior students of his penchant for asking details on Christmas exams, I decided to get the better of him and memorized all the given names (four or five) of each author, his exact birth and death place, the dates, the names of all his relatives, the history of the period, etc. My mark was 96 percent, or something equally fantastic. The final exam, of course, was in essay form. That was a 19th century course.

It was a different matter for the Renaissance period. We and the fourth year group (about eight in all) took the course together. We were asked to prepare the background material from a book by Bedier and Hazard (one library copy only). Our exam was to be an hour, but turned out to be three, in the evening. The whole group was slaughtered, utterly. After reading our papers, Dr. Healy apologized to the class for being too hard on us. The "star" of the fourth year stayed at home for several days to recuperate. The rest of us who carried on took longer. We dreaded that course to the very end.

In the larger classes it was less terrifying because there were more students to share the burden of questions. All the classes were conducted in French, which added to our difficulties in replying. When lecturing, Dr. Healy would walk up and down and smoke. Classroom smoking was not usually permitted in those days. He was exceptional in many ways. Quite often he would take out a cigarette and search through all his pockets without finding a match. I couldn't bear watching the process, and soon carried a handful of kitchen matches in my coat pocket. I was so painfully timid that it took me ages to offer them. Dr. Healy frequently sat on one of the empty front desks (the kind with a writing arm) as we all huddled near the back, so it was a short reach. Several times he balanced a bit precariously, but never fell off. He tried to be patient, but obviously we irritated him at times. Once or twice after getting very little response from us he said with icy calm before walking out "I might as well go fishing" (this in the dead of winter, naturally). Another unforgettable time, after having heard no reply to "When did Henri IV die?", he broke the chalk writing 1610. I haven't found that information very useful since.

In one of the courses Professor Faucher gave a few of the lectures on Balzac. By comparison he wasn't so frightening. He had the experience also, unfortunately, of being unable to make us answer questions. Or it may have been in his own excellent 17th century course. He said sadly, "Est-ce que je parle chinois?"

One evening in front of an august assembly Professor Faucher gave a very scholarly talk on a fictitious author, Justin Escartafigues, who died of a fishbone stuck in his throat. There were other amazing details, but my French wasn't good enough then to catch all the fine points.

The triumvirate, Healy, Faucher and Greene, had well developed senses of humor, which we appreciated. Dr. Greene did an imitation once of Churchill, cigar and all, saying that any nation which produced over 100 varieties of cheeses could never perish. I thought that Dr. Greene suited the 18th century course admirably, although I came to realize that he was an expert on T. S. Eliot and the 20th century too. He always struck me as unflappable, a nice contrast to the other two professors.

We found it daunting to confront even one of our profs, and yet sometimes when we had to go to their joint office, all three would be at their desks. There were times when two or four of us students turned up for some compelling reason, and the others invariably pushed me to the front. I would have rehearsed my phrases and then would knock and blurt out my bit in French. The three faces looked astonished. They may have laughed afterwards, but they were always charming to us in the office. Many times we students came away with loads of books, and after turning the corridor would collapse, not with the weight alone, but with giggles. We were all girls in the group, although there were one or two young men in the year ahead of us.

In our last year Professor Faucher took it upon himself to fill in some of the holes in our artistic education, at the same time as polishing our French. It must have been torture for him to listen to us trying to explain painting, sculpture and architecture to our small group in spotty French. It wasn't easy either for us to prepare for the classes, although we were taking an art history course from Professor Glyde as an option to help out. We wrote three pages of French per week, on any subject, as well. (I wince on rereading mine.)

When we four graduates later went to Europe,'mirabile dictu', we were no longer "d'une ignorance crasse" but reasonably cultured young ladies.

Published Summer 1983.

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