Mme. Lucie Copin, known simply as ''Madame,'' was the head of the French Department and an imposing presence in the English school I attended. From the moment of our daily arrival we kept a wary eye on Madame's mood. She sat at a table facing the cloakroom entrance. Our obligatory greeting, ''Bon jour, Madame,'' the tone of our accent, and our appearance had to meet with entire approval to gain the response ''Bon jour, mon enfant''; otherwise, voluble French poured forth, and sometimes a reentry was demanded. Woe betide any latecomers!
She had established herself as the official timekeeper, striding along corridors ringing handbells which regulated the -duration of lessons. On her rounds Madame was apt to notice and correct the bearing of any passer-by.
She presided over midmorning refreshments - in winter steaming mugs of cocoa and biscuits, in summer cold milk and currant buns - while we chatted quietly among ourselves, and she remained watchfully observant but mostly silent. At lunchtime, girls from the higher classes were required to take turns sitting at Madame's table. We could converse only in French, and usually all conversation was directed by her. No grumbles about school meals were tolerated.
Before afternoon lessons long lines assembled in the adjacent cloakrooms, where a piano was provided for music pupils, who were often called on to play stirring marches, while the girls filed silently past Madame to their classrooms. Sometimes she offered generous praise for our keyboard efforts, sometimes roars of disapproval accompanied by the strenuous beating of time to improve the tempo. At the end of each day she was there again to inspect our appearance, check that everything was orderly, and speed us home.
Although excitable in manner and intolerant of any form of slackness, she was not tyrannical. Her sterling qualities and dedication were clearly appreciated by almost all the children, and we were delighted when we heard her infectious laughter. No one doubted that she cared deeply about our individual progress.
During a recent moving-house clearance I found a faded press cutting describing the memorial service when she passed on and her contribution to the education of my generation. Pinned to the newspaper was a pressed forget-me-not flower. Yes, Madame, I'm still grateful for the benefit of this early training; I haven't forgotten.