French Lessons

by Susan Harrison

A vaguely familiar voice pushed itself across the margins of sleep. “Remember folks, you heard it from Buddy Baxter first; this next song is going to be one of the big hits of 1962.”

My brand-new clock radio blasted out the irresistible rhythms of my favorite singer/songwriter, Carole King, singing The Loco-Motion. It wasn’t the gentlest way to wake up, but it was still a welcome change from last year when it would have been my mother’s insistent voice telling me, “Naomi, get up this instant or you’ll be late for school.” At least I had the option of shutting off my radio, whereas my mother always returned to my room until she saw I was in a vertical position. If I were honest, I would admit her persistence had been necessary but her parental supervision made me prickle with annoyance. I hated that she knew me so well. But this year the daughter she knew would slip away. I would be different. After all, I was a high school freshman now. Even the class designation spoke of new beginnings.

Over the summer I took daring steps to reshape myself so I could fit into the same social space as sought-after students. I hemmed my skirts up until they bordered on a dress code violation, grew out the bangs I’d worn since second grade and bought blue eyeshadow and cherry lip gloss.

On my first day of high school, any time a head turned in my direction I considered it proof my altered appearance made me a person who was hard to overlook. It convinced me I could overcome three significant obstacles: my difficulty initiating conversations, the previous year’s embarrassing membership in the Foreign Affairs club which turned out to be a haven for the socially unaware, and my abandonment by a girl who had been my best friend in eighth grade. It helped that the sole high school in town gathered up all the students I’d known in grammar school and junior high and randomly scattered them among numerous classes. Only two people from my past, both male, shared a class with me. The boys didn’t concern me because in all the years I’d known them, they’d pretty much ignored me and weren’t in the habit of spreading malicious gossip the way some girls did. It made me free to be whomever I pleased.

Reviewing these changes gave me a pleasant sense of satisfaction until I remembered my dumb mistake. Because things had been going so well during my first four weeks of school, I’d lowered my guard and let the wrong girl attach herself to me –  Joanne, the girl who could easily ruin my high school career. My stomach clenched. No, I wouldn’t let my mind wander down a path that felt like something out of a horror film—-in which someone waited with a chain saw around the next dark corner. Instead, to coax myself into starting my day, I closed my eyes, scooched under the comforting weight of my blanket and, for a few brief moments, escaped reality by indulging in my favorite daydream. I was on my own in a café in Paris, ordering un pain au chocolat in my now-perfect French.

Everything was easier in this vision of my future where my older, sophisticated, more adventurous self spoke French fluently and was finally confident of her place in the world. French was my language of choice ever since the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, wowed everyone with her command of the language when she went to Paris with the President. Her intelligence and poise were traits I yearned for. But to acquire her gifts, I had lessons to learn. Determined not to let doubt derail my plans, I repeated to myself, “You can get there. You can be that person if you take one careful step at a time.” When I opened my eyes I felt able to lift my body out of bed and face the day. I wouldn’t let Joanne become an obstacle to a successful four years of high school. I could handle her.

The walk of a little over a mile to school always seemed shorter in the morning when I had the whole day in front of me. It felt like I’d barely left home when the sprawling, red-brick structure came into view. I pushed open the heavy steel and glass door into the main hallway and was hit with the smell of floor wax, body odor and hair products. A crowd of students milled about their lockers and rushed by me on their way to homeroom. The noisy jabber of their voices pummeled my ears. With no adults present, what I heard was uncensored.

“Hey, Ryan, get your head out of your ass or we’ll be late for homeroom,” one guy shouted.

“Bug off,” another male voice replied.

“I must have called you three times last night and the phone was always busy?” a girl complained.

“Can you believe it?  My parents took it off the hook. Claimed I was on the phone too much.”

I wished I were part of a similar uninhibited exchange. As I headed to my locker, I wondered if all the people around me were as comfortable as they seemed to be. For me, each day was an exercise in reinvention, trying to change who I was into someone who could claim a place within this crowd. As the people in the hall passed by me, I locked my gaze on one person after another as if each were a specimen under a microscope. I saw faces of boys I could fall in love with and girls who looked as if they might share confidences. This early on, it was still easy to picture the next four years filling up with friends from classes and choir who would beg to sign my yearbook during graduation week.

Not so long ago I wouldn’t have been so optimistic, but my new friends, Doreen and Marge, made me believe in the future I pictured. We were an odd-looking trio. Doreen was taller than average and tended to stoop over in an unsuccessful effort to minimize her height. With hazel eyes and a well-proportioned nose, she would have been pretty if it weren’t for her wide, thin-lipped mouth. She wore her light-brown hair in a smooth bouffant style, flipped up on the ends. Like Jackie Kennedy, Doreen had commented more than once as she stood in front of the mirror in the girls’ room and applied another coat of hair spray – a statement that always made me cringe. Why did so many people focus on Jackie’s hairdo, Chanel suits and pill box hats when there was so much more to admire about her? The third member of our group, Marge, was a cute, blue-eyed blonde with a stocky, muscled physique that served her well as a member of the JV field hockey team. At five-foot-two, I had to take extra steps to keep up with my friends, and my thick, brunette tresses, brown eyes and more prominent facial features provided a counterpoint to the other two. Whenever we walked by the glass trophy case outside the gym, I tried to catch our reflection to see if the three of us looked as if we were meant to be inseparable.

We were strangers to each other when we met the first week of school in algebra class, the arrangement of the teacher’s seating chart bringing us together. Marge was seated on my left and Doreen in front of me. It didn’t take long to discover we shared a distaste of math bordering on phobia. Math class was right before lunch period, and weeks ago on that first day it seemed natural to eat together. In the beginning, I hung back until one or the other asked me to join them, unsure how permanent our association might be. But one lunch led to another and another until I could assume I was an accepted member of the group, and eating together became a dependable part of my day.

During one early lunch-time conversation, Doreen asserted the three of us had at least one thing in common, “We’re all middlers.”

“Middlers?” Marge asked.

“Yeah, you know, we’ll never be in the elite group at school but we also won’t be at the bottom with the losers,” Doreen said as she reapplied her frosted pink lipstick. “And if we work at it, we can move up.”

“How can we do that?” Marge asked.

I waited to hear Doreen’s answer. How people navigated the social scene at school had always baffled me.

“There are lots of ways. We can figure out how to get friendly with girls who are more popular – take advantage of common interests or make ourselves useful. And we can exploit any special talents we may have to get known around school – like getting big parts in a drama club play.”

“Oh, I get it. I guess I’ve already done that. Coach says I’m one of the best defenders she’s ever had on her field hockey team,” Marge said. “I’m a shoe-in for the varsity squad next year.”

Doreen laughed. “Sports only work for boys. If a girl is an athlete, it counts against her. Boys see it as unfeminine and competitive, and most girls couldn’t care less.”

A blush spread across Marge’s cheeks and she pressed her lips together. I waited for her to protest and was disappointed when she capitulated so easily. But I sympathized with her. Doreen’s confident opinions usually left no room for discussion unless one wanted an argument. And in this case, maybe she was right. There were never pep rallies before the girls’ teams faced their opponents. And had I ever heard anyone talk about going to watch their games?

“Either of you play the guitar? Everybody is looking for someone to lead folk music sing-alongs, especially for parties. It guarantees the night will be a hit.”  Doreen looked at each of us in turn.

Both Marge and I shook our heads.

“Too bad,” Doreen said as she tossed her compact and lipstick back into her purse. “We’ll have to work more on improving our personalities.”

How like Doreen to imply there was something lacking in me and Marge, but then make the comment forgivable by including herself. However, I couldn’t imagine what she had in mind. I was quite sure personality was predetermined at birth or unconsciously absorbed from your family at an age so young you forgot the origin of the lessons. And although I believed in the possibility of effecting small changes, anything more seemed to be like applying a thin coat of paint over dark wallpaper, the color and pattern you were attempting to hide inevitably bleeding through. As early as age twelve, I had concluded that it was wishful thinking to suppose a set of instructions existed that, if followed religiously, would allow you to acquire superior social skills. Reading articles in Seventeen or observing people who comfortably navigated the social scene had never helped me. I marveled at those who intuitively knew what to say and how to say it and I longed to be interesting, or even better, humorous enough to make others laugh. But it seemed hopeless. When Doreen and Marge recognized my shortcomings, would they abandon me for someone who had the skills to increase their chances for upward mobility? I tried to think of something to reassure myself. Weren’t girls like me needed? Not everyone could be a star; someone had to be there to applaud. But there was still the problem of Joanne.

Nobody had to tell me Joanne was going to be a girl no boy would choose at school dances, someone who would be whispered about and become the subject of jokes. She stood out, but not in an intentional way like the arty kids with their unusual combinations of colorful clothing, or the boys who were James Dean wannabes with their hair greased into pompadours and their pegged pants. Most of it was her appearance, an otherwise average face spoiled by buck teeth and thin stringy hair. And it didn’t help that she wore clothes that looked like they’d come from Goodwill. To be associated with her would be social suicide. Yet somehow, I had stumbled into a position which necessitated regular contact with her.

Starting freshman year a month late, Joanne asked me if she could borrow my European history notes and answer some of her questions on the material the teacher had already covered. Why did she choose me out of the entire class? Was it because I always had my head bent over my notebook, frantically scribbling, or did she identify some other characteristic that made me appear more benign than the others? Whatever her reason, I couldn’t think of a way to say no. I hoped my exposure to possible social ridicule would be limited as it should only be two or three weeks before Joanne caught up. And while I helped her, I was careful to ensure Doreen and Marge never found out about it.

Today, Marge and I with our bag lunches saved a seat for Doreen who was buying a hot lunch. The cafeteria was always crowded. At least one person in the group had to find and save seats as soon as we walked inside. I was grateful for my friends; without them I would be an outlier, one of the few girls and boys who sat by themselves at the end of a table, or worse, were forced to take a middle seat between groups. They seemed to survive the experience by eating with an unwarranted amount of concentration or propping up a book in front of their face like a shield. I imagined these students counting the minutes until they could leave for class.

Laughter erupted from a group of five kids sitting at the table in front of us. I recognized two football players and at least one cheerleader. Beautiful, popular, even their laughs seemed more assured and lighthearted than anyone else’s. The raised voices around me broke up their conversation into a confetti of words – “going to party at …, did you know…, how did you do on the” – and, like their lives, I was unable to put the pieces together into an understandable whole. Though they studied the same subjects, took exams and answered to teachers as I did, the particulars of their days were a mystery to me. I wondered why I was wishing for something I knew nothing about. Maybe I envied how their beauty drew stares and the ease with which they seemed to inhabit their lives.

Doreen pushed aside the lunch bag I had placed on the table in front of the empty seat and plopped down her tray. The smell of grease emanated from her grilled cheese sandwich and an ooze of bright orange, government-surplus cheese dripped onto her finger when she bit into it. With a flick of her tongue, she licked the cheese off her skin and then poked me with her elbow.

“Look at that kid at the end of the table,” she said, her hand cupped close to her mouth. “What a loser.”

I felt blood flooding my face. I was certain that even if the boy couldn’t hear Doreen over the clamor of the cafeteria, he would suspect we were talking about him. Trying not to be too obvious, I looked at him. He appeared ordinary with a crew cut and black-framed eyeglasses. The only noticeable defect was the blue ink stains on two fingers of his right hand. “Why do you say that?”

“He’s in my biology class. He’s always waving his hand to answer the teacher and asking extra questions. And wait until he stands up! His pants are so short you can see his white socks.”

“Doreen has like this dork radar,” Marge said with a smile. “It’s amazing how she spots them.”

I hesitated, not wanting to contradict Doreen but also wanting to know more about how she determined a person was unacceptable. “Have you talked to him?”

“Are you serious? Why would I do that?”

Apparently, what was clear to me was not so obvious to Doreen. “I mean, how do you know what someone is like unless you have a conversation?”

“You have a lot to learn, Naomi. You ever hear of body language? Merely by being around him I can tell he’s the kind of kid who eats his snot.”

“God, Doreen, you can be so gross,” Marge said, making a face, and they both laughed.

I felt as if their laughter were directed at me. Did Doreen examine me with the same sharp eyes? I took a furtive look at my own fingers, the nails bitten to the quick and cuticles picked at and torn until the skin margins looked red and raw. I curled them into my palms and placed my fisted hands in my lap, ashamed of the nervous habit I’d tried and failed to break.

It was an uncomfortable conversation for me. I was relieved when Marge started talking about the latest episode of Dr. Kildare. We were all big fans of the TV show’s star, Richard Chamberlain, who was absolutely dreamy. I glanced at the boy again. He held a French fry between his thumb and finger and seemed to be studying it. I doubted I could get through a thirty-minute lunch period by myself. And I wouldn’t have to because here I was with my two friends. So why did I feel like I was eating alone?

That afternoon, I lay on my bed wrapped up in the afghan my grandmother had crocheted for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about my lunch with Doreen and Marge. My lack of experience left me feeling unsure of my place in our group. In the past my friendships had been infrequent and brief. As I looked back, they now seemed more like something I’d made up. And my association with Joanne was making me nervous. Any connection between us could spoil the delicate balance I had established with Doreen and Marge.

A few days later, the three of us were walking down the hall, and we passed Joanne outside the art classroom talking to the teacher. It was Marge who caught sight of her first and nudged Doreen. In low voices, they started to snicker and mock Joanne before she was out of sight, as if it didn’t matter if she heard them.

“Is she a Bugs Bunny impersonator?” Doreen asked.

“She’s got the teeth down. All she needs is a carrot,” Marge said.

Marge had this big contagious laugh. Later, I wanted to believe it was her infectious amusement that made me join in. There was something about shared laughter or shared anything. Maybe that’s what made friendships so important. But by the time I returned home, there was no rationalization that could relieve my sense of guilt over the way I had joined in when my friends mocked Joanne.

Still, the next day I pushed aside my guilty feelings and continued with my deception. I was constantly alert in case I had to duck down a hallway or into a classroom to avoid encountering both Joanne and Marge or Doreen at the same time. It made me tense when I was at school, and at night bad dreams woke me up. Instead of the usual innocuous visions, I was chased by thugs, falling off cliffs, or walking into school naked. Was this what it was like to be a double agent? How did spies survive for years without getting caught, living as one person in public while being someone else in private? Or were their lives truly divided? If you played two roles long enough, did both become part of who you really were? I was so close to belonging to a group in a way I’d only imagined in the past. But I hadn’t known it could be so messy and full of reluctant compromises.

A few mornings later I was standing in front of my locker searching for my French book. After nights of disturbed sleep, my brain function was slow and labored, as if it were a long neglected machine whose metal parts needed oiling. I didn’t even react the first time I heard someone say my name. I turned and saw Joanne. A sickening flutter started up in my chest and I clasped my book to me in an effort to still it.

“Hi Joanne, what’s up?”

“Hey, Naomi, I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my house on Saturday.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” The words came out before I had time to think. “Why don’t you call me tonight?” My eyes darted around as I quickly wrote my phone number on a sheet of paper and handed it to Joanne, trying to keep the conversation short.

“Great, talk to you later,” she said.

Now when it didn’t matter, I could think of an easy response. The words came to me in French, the language of my perfect future self. “Je suis desolé mais je suis occupée le samedi.” In French, ‘I’m sorry but I’m busy on Saturday’ sounded much more apologetic and kinder with its implication I was disconsolate. I sighed as I watched her walk away, already kicking myself for accepting the invitation. I had probably led her to believe I might become more than a classmate sharing notes.

Thing is, on Saturday, I found I liked talking to Joanne and eating her Mom’s chocolate chip cookies – not that I felt at home immediately. I mean, it took a while. At first it was awkward since I knew I was only there because I wasn’t quick-witted enough to come up with an excuse. And part of my attention was taken up with wondering how long the rules of politeness required me to stay. But Joanne knew how to ask questions and how to listen. This made conversation easier for me, and I became more talkative than usual.

“Do you have sisters or brothers?” Joanne asked.

“No. But I have two cousins who are near my age and we’re pretty close. What about you?”

“I’m an only child, too. Both my parents come from large families, but my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are back in Pennsylvania where we used to live.”

“How come you moved here?”

“I was born with a heart defect and needed surgery. Connecticut Children’s Medical Center was the closest place that could do it. That’s why I started school a little late. My recovery took longer than the doctor expected.” Then she unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse and revealed a raised, red-knotted cord of scar tissue running down the middle of her chest.

The sight of her wound made me wince, and whatever voice I had was shocked into silence. I remembered all the mean rumors that had been spread about Joanne. Some kids said she had moved to the area from a hippie commune in California and had been kept at home until the truancy officer showed up at her house. A boy in my homeroom joked that overcrowding at Southbury Training School made it necessary to transfer some “retards” to public schools and she was one of them. The stories made me angry. I knew from experience Joanne was as smart as any of us. Now I knew the truth. I saw the thin line where she’d been cut open and the dotted scars marking the path of the stitches that closed her chest. She seemed to have lived and almost died in a way I could barely imagine. As Joanne slipped the buttons back into their holes, I knew I had to say something. My mind fumbled for words.

“I’ve never had surgery. It must have been awfully painful for you.”

“It was only a different kind of pain from what I’d been suffering. Before they fixed my heart, I had the same problems as my eighty-three-year-old grandmother. I was tired all the time, had trouble breathing and my legs would often swell up. When I woke up in the hospital, it was like a miracle. My breathing was normal, and I wasn’t so tired. I could manage the pain from the surgery because I knew it would be temporary.”

All of this Joanne said in a matter-of-fact way, as if what she had endured was nothing extraordinary. Although she was my age, she suddenly seemed years older. How much braver and finer she was than the rest of us, and so different from Doreen and Marge. Not only had she singled me out as someone she could trust with her secret, but she also seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. With Doreen and Marge, I often felt like a hanger-on. If only Joanne was someone other people liked. And when that thought came to me, I realized I wasn’t so different from anyone else. In the past when I was forced to be on my own, I convinced myself I didn’t care what other people thought of me. It was disappointing to find out that deep inside, I did care, a lot.

On the way home I tried to work out what to do. But switching my allegiance from my friends to Joanne had potentially unpleasant consequences. Their disdain for her could attach to me, and we could both be harassed. And how would I feel if I abandoned Joanne? Was it so wrong to want a normal high school experience, to be part of a close group going to football games and Saturday night dances and talking about boys? My thoughts twisted and turned as I tried to find an answer, becoming so tangled I couldn’t follow one thread from beginning to end. I reached home still pulled in two directions and craving a quart of butter pecan ice cream and a quiet hiding place.

My mother was in the kitchen when I returned. She was rolling out a pie crust and her hands were dusted with flour.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked.


“What did you do?”

I usually gave her a detailed report. But Joanne and I had done nothing but talk, and our conversation had been strangely intimate, only for the two of us, not something to be shared.

“We didn’t do much of anything,” I said as I opened up the refrigerator and rummaged around to see if anything looked appealing.

“I’ll have some scraps of dough left if you want to make cinnamon-sugar pie crust rolls.”

“I have some homework I should get started on before dinner,” I said as I grabbed an apple out of a bin to take with me. I knew if I stayed my mother would want to talk and I needed to be alone to sort through my feelings. “Maybe later,” I said as I headed to my room.

On Tuesday, Doreen asked Marge and me to come with her to the drama club tryouts for Our Town.

“I’ll feel so much more confident if I can look out and see you guys,” she said. “There will also be a sign-up sheet for people to work back stage, stuff like props and painting backdrops. You two should put your names down.”

I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Joanne in history class and I felt unmoored, the passing days having lessened the emotional impact of Saturday’s time together. And Doreen’s apparent need for me and her desire for us to share an activity made it easy to warm up to her. Maybe that’s why I agreed to meet at Doreen’s locker after classes so the three of us could walk to the tryouts together.

Doreen spotted Joanne first. She stuck out from the crowd with her below-the-knee, limp-brown skirt and high-collared, ruffled green blouse buttoned all the way up to her chin. I knew her clothes were hand-me-downs from a cousin. A pile of hospital bills had forced her parents to find ways to economize, and the old-lady blouse also served to hide Joanne’s scar. Doreen started to snicker and point and in a voice that carried down the hall she said, “Look, wasn’t that outfit on the cover of this month’s Mademoiselle?”

Marge started to laugh and the words “STOP IT” formed in my brain. Instead of speaking and before Joanne could turn toward us, I said, “I forgot something in my locker. I’ll catch up with you later,” and fled down the hall in the opposite direction, almost knocking a girl over in my rush.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” she yelled after me.

Once at the end of the hall, I turned the corner and leaned against the wall. Tears pushed against the corners of my eyes and I took a strangled breath. The same unresolved question made my head pound. All I wanted to do was leave by the side door, go home, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head. If only by some magic I could go back in time to the first day of freshman year and start over again. Of course, that was impossible. I wished I could place the blame on Doreen and Marge, but the predicament I faced was, in part, my doing and being contrite did not excuse me. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, repeating words I’d heard often enough.

“Being sorry doesn’t excuse your behavior unless you do something about it,” they said after I apologized for violating the same parental rule twice in one week.

And it was as if the girl I’d bumped into had been shouting out advice; I should be careful where I was headed. It was time I decided what I was going to do. Whose side would I take? My thoughts raced around and around, so fast I began to feel dizzy. Being in high school had felt like turning a corner, a chance to leave uncertainty behind. I had imagined a switch flipping on in my brain that would make me more adult than child, the answers to questions and solutions to problems coming to me with the assurance of a declarative sentence. But instead, I felt more confused than ever. My sense of my identity and what outcome I wanted appeared tantalizingly close but still beyond my grasp. I wondered if I would ever become that chic woman in a Paris café.

Suddenly, Jackie Kennedy came to mind. I admired how even with all the constraints of her situation, she found a way to be her own person. And then it came to me: I wasn’t choosing between my friends and Joanne or picking the least painful outcome; I was deciding between my worst and best selves. And in that moment I had my answer.

Yet I still felt anchored to the floor. As I imagined walking away from Doreen and Marge, my courage began to falter. First, I’d go to the tryouts as I’d promised Doreen I would. Wasn’t keeping a promise as important? I could always sort everything else out tomorrow.

When I arrived at the auditorium, the stage was already occupied by two hopeful actors reading their lines. Doreen was sitting at the end of the second row and I squeezed past her knees into the empty seat between her and Marge.

“You barely made it in time,” Marge whispered. “Doreen’s up next.”

A minute later, Mr. Monahan, an English teacher who also directed the drama club, called out, “Doreen Madison and Charlie Howland, on stage, please.”

Doreen jumped up as if someone had given her an electric shock. Going up to the stage she almost stumbled on the second step. I heard Marge catch her breath. Positioned behind the footlights Doreen looked less imposing. At first, the empty room sucked up her words before they reached me. The director asked her to speak up. Louder now, her lines echoed around me, some tight and stiff, others making me see her as her character. Her partner, Charlie, was a better actor. Maybe he’d done it before. I made sure to smile at her and nod my head in encouragement, even though she appeared too preoccupied to notice anything beyond the page in front of her. After she finished and took her seat, both Marge and I told her how well we thought she’d done.

“I was so terrible,” she said in a voice that was too light for the weight of her words. “I’ll never get a part. I’ll have to settle for working backstage.”

“You’ll get the part.” Marge said, reaching across me to pat her on the arm.

“You really sounded great,” I added in an effort to match Marge’s positivity.

We had to sit for another half hour before everyone had their turn to read. In the end, Doreen got a small part with only a couple of lines.

“I’m going to start rehearsing my lines tonight,” she said, as she stood up and smoothed her skirt down with her hands.

I thought she was kidding and a laugh started to bubble up, but when I saw the serious expression on her face I smothered it.

“Good idea,” Marge said.

“Did you two remember to sign up to help backstage?” Doreen asked.

Marge answered yes.

“I forgot,” I said. “I’ll do it at the next club meeting.”

Lying in bed that night, the faces of Doreen, Marge and Joanne demanded my attention. I thought I had made my decision. But now that I had to act on it, I wasn’t so sure. Events of the past few weeks started to tumble through my head. I thought about the cliché that said when you are about to die your life flashes before you. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but I discovered when one had to make a choice on whom to be, the past definitely came up for review. All my mistakes and regrets, including my small betrayals of Joanne, scolded me. How could there already be so many? I interrogated the me I pictured in my daydreams. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez –what do you want? But even this perfected version of myself didn’t offer me an answer.

Two weeks went by. I signed up to help paint props for the drama club, I ate lunch with Doreen and Marge and I slept badly. As I entered my morning history class, Joanne told me she was all caught up with class work and thanked me for my help. For an instant I felt relieved. Before I could say anything, Mrs. Peters walked in and told us to take our seats.

“In our next section, we’re going to cover various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. I want you each to pick a partner you will work with on a presentation for the class. You have five minutes to partner up.”

For an instant my mind took me out of the classroom and found myself facing a formally dressed waiter with a white linen napkin over his arm. He put down a cup of café in front of me and said quite clearly, “Sois fidele a toi-même.” “Be true to yourself.”

“Merci,” I thought.

Afterward, it seemed important to remember whether I’d hesitated, even for a second, between this dream-like episode and rising to go over to Joanne and ask her to be my partner. I wanted to believe my reaction had been instantaneous, a sign that making up my own mind was becoming as instinctual as recalling common French phrases.