Monday, September 7, 2009

not just a handsome set of whiskers

although, indeed, they are spectacular. This is Emmett sprawled - no, handsomely poised - over my notebook, helping me finish off a piece that by now I should have written what feels like years ago. But I'm more interested in the little landscape hanging behind his head: a blue and ochre view of a French valley by my old French teacher at school, Monique Boudier, who died last year. It's not easy knowing what to hang by one's desk so that one sees it every time one looks up (the other side there's a northern New Mexican tree of life rug by Gloria Montoya, which is easier to explain), but this picture is there for a number of reasons: the quiet European-ness of the landscape; the fact that Mlle. Boudier managed to instill a reasonable French accent in me over the six years that she taught me; my still-lingering guilt at crossing swords with her in my final year about how French literature should be taught (I still think I was right, but I needn't have been so self-righteous about it, and I ended up being temporarily banished from school with the polite fiction was that I was suffering pre-exam stress).

More than that: Monique Boudier was a flamboyantly femme lesbian - never without her heels and lipstick - the partner of Julie Darby, my geography teacher, who was her tweed-suited and knitted-knee-socked opposite. I am baffled to this day about the messages sent out by the couples among our teaching staff (mine was an all-girls school) - certainly, their existence as couples was openly acknowledged, at least by us - but they seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the various sexual orientations of their girls. Ours was a rigorously hetero-normative environment: we were being groomed for a future as professional woman, yes, but always with the assumption that there would, somehow, be Men in the picture. Such things as crushes, as swapping bras with other girls (four of us crammed in one toilet cubicle? - not the most erotic of scenarios, in retrospect), as more serious relationships, were simply not Mentioned (beyond the fact that we weren't allowed to put arms round each other: "not natural"). Nor, I think, did it cross most of our minds that whatever these older couples got up to had anything whatsoever to do with sexual desire, as we understood it, nor were they ever objects of fantasy (I might have thought differently if the - apparently non-coupled - Miss Macdonald hadn't gone on leave with mono, shortly after getting me hooked on E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class).

One girl from the year above me - who's now a psychotherapist - published a fervent denunciation of the school's silencing of lesbianism in our old girls' magazine a few years back. But I think I see it with more sympathy: I don't know what the experiences of the staff couples had been, and what prejudices they'd faced; I don't know how far they thought they were trying to protect us, or, for that matter, their own jobs. But I do know that Monique Boudier taught me much more than French, although I didn't register it at the time: she offered up a wonderful feisty, non-sterotyped example of just getting on with being who one is - including following one's artistic drives as well as everything else - and that's as good a reason as any to keep this picture in my line of view.

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