Speaking French to a moth

Think back for a moment to those first French classes. Your teacher is trying to get you to say tum properly. Pucker up. Your chin will come up and forward, as if you might find the sound down on the floor over the front edge of your deskchair. Round the mouth. Place the tongue, gently gently, against the roof of your mouth. That's right: just at the top of the front teeth. Gently now, just whisperm . Tum . The teacher conducts your efforts with a hand that has thumbtip and tip of the forefinger pressed together, the other three fingers splayed out delicately. Tum . Tum . Tum . Bon!m

There was a good deal of giggling, do you remember? One or two boys simply would not try.Too corny, the whole thing. If called on, they would just mutter "two," snort an ambiguous deprecation, shrug, lean back and crosss one leg over the other. Most of the class did make an effort, but the giggling saved them from accusations of taking it all too seriously. Perhaps your class had a student in it who was so smart, so eager, so determined and so immune to the slings and arrows of ridicule that he or she said tum perfectly, without giggling.

It was comic theater, do you remember? A complicated little drama. Knowing that in the early stages everybody simply had to smile through it, the teacher would strike a middle pose between clown and pedagogue. For the moment, the recalcitrant boys and the perfect pronouncer would play only bit parts. The central action would be here with the group who tried, could not quite get it, giggled. comedy inched toward accent.

Later, you reenacted the scene with the "r" sound. Do you remember rencontre? Rrrrrhh, with saliva a-bubbling, then trying to get a fresh supply for the trrrruh at the end? Can you feel again the vibrations on the rrroof of the mouth? Rencontrem was gargle followed by nasal congestion followed by sharp clicking followed by more nasal congestion followed by a quick dry-out for the very precise "tee" (edges of the mouth back quickly) followed by more gargle climaxed by a soft, soulful Maurice Chevalier-ish "uh." Quite a performance, that was.

My ninth grade teacher was a great performer and director, a wonderful woman most of whose hair was in a bun except for the several long strands that escaped and flew about during the excitement. Madame Liotard. Softly spoken with the "I." Say "tard" the way you'd say the last syllable of "catarrh."

My tenth grade teacher was Mr. Fish, Muh-syuh Pwah-sson (g), a large man who arched up in his chair like a dolphin in the show, stretching up for the tidbit, while we raised our chins and voices in search of the right sound. Because many of his students had, like me, switched schools, he took us through an accelerated review of basic pronunciation, another round of carefully whispered tu'm s and throaty rencontre'm s.

Both of these teachers were as theatrical as could be. Delighted and amused by our efforts for the most part, sometimes gasping and fainting in mock despair at our stubborn Americanizations, they tried to lure us slowly out of self-consciousness, from comedy to accent. Tu. Rencontre. Bon!m

On Rencontre encore la duree, je croix.m This morning, decades later, the lake outside my window is gray. The trees on the far shore are black. I cannot see what flowers are at my feet. There is no breeze. The clouds open a small seam, for a moment, and in the center of the lake appears a belljar of rose-colored water. A thrush breaks the silence. A moth alights on the top of the blank page, its antennae the only motion in this crepuscular world.

Crepuscular world. Le crepuscule:m twilight of dawn or dusk, middle world of joined past and future. Crepuscule.m Pronounce you "r" correctly. Do not be self-conscious, and when you meet the "u," do not be afraid. Quand tu rencontre la lettre "u," n' aie pas peur.m

Very well, I say it out loud, with elan! Crepescule!m Alone, fearless, I ham it up: click and gargle, pucker and oo-la-la. And it's beautiful!

The moth's antennae twitch. Is it the wind of my breath? Or does this insect dare to snicker at my accent?

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