Going Back to School or Going Back Home?

It all started again with the picture of the Canal du Midi my friend Carol published on Facebook. Memories emerged from way back in my life and they kept on pouring from my mind or wherever they were hiding.

Pictures are sometimes fearsome. The role they play in my life is boundless.

In 2011, Popeye offered me a wonderful birthday gift. He flew with me back to Southern France - Carcassonne and Arfons and Lastours and quite a few other places in Languedoc. The trip triggered a lot of memories and I harvested so many pictures that I think I could write a novel. Well, probably not.

The summer before last, Swee’Pea and I went back to Southern France again. We needed to find someone to mend our wall in Arfons. We had also decided to stop in Saissac on our way back from Arfons to Carcassonne and visit my mother since we had not seen her for a long time. (The visit ended in a fiasco and no pictures were taken which can be attributed to that.)

We travelled by train from Paris to Béziers where we rented a car and then proceeded to Arfons. On our way, we went through Capestang where I had spent my first school year. Leaving the village, Swee’Pea noticed a road sign.  Montels, 4 kms. He said: “This must be the village where you lived while you were going to school in Capestang. Let’s go. I’ve never been there.”

Honestly, I did not really wish to go back there but what can you do to put a damper on a young man’s enthusiasm? Or was it my idea after all, on the spur of the moment? I am not really sure now.

Anyway, we drove to Montels on the same road I had walked on every school day on my way back from school. From junior high school in Capestang to the Montels elementary school, the one where we were living in since my mother was the teacher there.

My life has revolved around schools for a long time.

I still remember living in Normandy in a very small cabin, a gift from the American government to the village which had been heavily bombed and had lost its elementary school for girls. We lived there in two rooms (two adults and three children plus my Bonne-Maman whenever she came to help us). There was a bigger room where my mother taught school, which we used as a living room and where the children would sleep as soon as school was over. This was a few years after the war. My sister and my brother were born there.

Then we moved into a much bigger and brand new house by the new school when my brother turned one and I was seven. There wasn’t much privacy. The house was really close to the school, less than ten meters away in some sort of a compound. At that time I was mainly homeschooled, most of the time on my own… Funny for a headmistress’ daughter. Life was very complicated, I guess.

Then my parents’s relationships went from bad to worse and my mother decided to move back to Southern France. She was transferred to a very small school, in a tiny hamlet, Montels. One school and a few houses. 20 kms from the city (Béziers) and 4 kms from the nearest village, Capestang.

She had been the headmistress of a three classes school in a big village in Normandy.

In Montels, they had reopened the school because that year, there would be 6 children from 4 to 11 years old (including my sister and my brother) in the hamlet. Two children spoke only Spanish. I remember my mother really felt demoted instead of relishing in the challenge. Besides the fact that we were free from our father’s violence.

For me, this all turned out to be a happy year. I was going to school for the first time. I loved the new experience. I developped an extremely good relationship with all the teachers. For the first and last time in my life, I did not have any trouble fitting into the system. I did not make a lot of friends there since I was not living in Capestang. But the kids in my class, boys and girls alike, were nice with me even though I was from 2 to 3 years younger than most of them.

The school in Montels was a derelict old house. Nobody had lived there ever since 1940, I think. There was no bathroom. No running water either. One sink. And no heating system besides a huge fireplace in the living room. We did have electricity though! And I had my own bedroom.

Getting water from the public pump was quite a harrowing experience. The wheel was huge and water would only get to the faucet after the wheel had revolved at least five times. I remember the village women would queue to get water at about the same time. They were mostly Spanish refugees. You only needed to energize the wheel once… So there always was one very unlucky woman to start the process! And afterwards, we’d talk a lot, mixing gleefully French and Spanish.

Once again, I was the youngest one. There were only a couple of boys my age in the hamlet and there was not even one teenager there.

The house was in a sorry state, gloomy and very moist inside. I remember that my mother kept the footboards of our beds dipped into deep bowls of water to prevent small and rather dark scorpions from getting into our bedding. Every morning, we’d shake off our slippers and shoes and clothes… and one or several scorpions would run away… We had a big bucket outside filled with water where we’d throw the scorpions as soon as we caught them! It was fun… and not fun…

Mice and spiders have never bothered me very much as I grew up!

The road was still the same. But the hamlet has grown into a small village with brand new houses, all of them with swimming pools. The school and its surroundings still look quite neglected though.

I expected a surge of emotions but I felt ok. Almost as if I had never belonged there… However memories came back quite easily.

There have been a few changes ever since we had left Montels, never to come back, in 1959.

The two gates are still there. One wonders. Why two gates for such a small school? When we arrived there in 1958, the school had been closed for more than fifteen years. Before and even after WWII, boys and girls were not supposed to mix at school. In Normandy, there were two separate public schools. One for the boys and one for the girls.

In Montels, there never were enough pupils to have two schools. The playground was divided in two by low railings. Boys and girls would enter the school through two different gates, left and right and then they would get into the schoolroom through two different corridors. Then they would sit on their designated side of the room, one for the boys and the other one for the girls. No mixing of the sexes, you see. Even though the curriculum was exactly the same.

The school boasted a sign that said “coeducational school” since they could not have two different buildings after all.

When my mother arrived in Montels (before we did), she had a meeting with the mayor, I think or whoever had authority over the school and she asked for the railings to be removed. The discussion was extremely stormy, she said. The man had gone to school there and he just couldn’t see the point of allowing boys and girls to mix anyway. But she finally won.

At the start of the new school year, the railings had been removed. And on the first schoolday, she opened one gate. Only one. The children went in together. All this fuss was pretty incredible when you realize that there were only one girl and three boys coming from the hamlet since my sister and brother were living in the school building.

They also went in the classroom through the same door, the left one. My mother had barred the door on the right since it also opened onto our private stairway. Which gave us some privacy, after all.

At first, parents looked worried but since they were really too busy to come and look for them after school, the boys and the girl would walk back together to their homes. My mother’s decision never had disastrous consequences for us since all year long and almost every morning, we found fruits, vegetables and even sometimes small game (plucked and flayed) on our doorstep. Anonymous but nice.

The school still looks more or less the way it was 55 years ago. Two gates. Two doors. There are a few changes though. On the left, a small building has been built above what used to be a wall and a door has been opened up, probably to accomodate a teacher. And on the right, a very tiny public library has replaced one of the small covered playgrounds.

Our old living quarters above the classroom looked totally forsaken. I wondered if someone else has ever lived there since our departure. People moved away from Montels after we did. There were no children there once more. They closed the school.

Since there are now 229 people living in Montels, there are most certainly several young children who go to school there again. The classroom windows and doors look new and they have decorated the covered playground with a most awful fresco! So weird!

Nobody was there. We decided to have a look around. I was afraid the door to the garden would be locked. It was not and obviously someone had kind of tried to break in a while ago into the building. 

I was very surprised by the size of the garden. It looked so small. I remembered a huge fig tree and several pomegranate trees because we gorged with their very exotic fruits. In 1958, it was just like being in the Jungle Book, minus the wild animals. Well, we were ten, six and four years old!
In 2014, it looked like a sad and small litter tray.

I stood looking at the backdoor for the longest time. Behind this door, there used to be a huge bookcase, from floor to ceiling. I had never seen anything like it before. And it was totally filled with books, dozens and dozens of old bound volumes. Dusty, smelly and mouldy books. Lovely books.

I became a bookworm in Montels. No friends around and so many books at my entire disposal. They were all there. So many great authors from the past, from Homer and Victor Hugo to Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Pierre Loti and Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and so many others who broadened my mind and probably triggered this unquenchable thirst of learning and reading I have felt all my life.

I would like to know who has built up this incredible reservoir of knowledge nobody ever used for ages until a ten years old girl discovered it. And why?

I wonder if the books have been kept safe after we left. Could I have found them in that tiny village library in the schoolyard? I’ll never know but I hope they are still there.

My mother was promoted, the following year. Besides the fact that they had to close the school once more. We moved to Béziers. A big city with a public high school for girls and a public high school for boys. No kidding!

My parents were back together, alas. And my troubled school years were only beginning but I could care less. I had discovered a new endless treasure trove: the  town library!

Good bye, Montels and the school I never went to but which I called home for one whole year.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

1 comment:

Nancy said...

This was such an interesting read!