In my tucked-in corner of New Jersey, Mr. Massuda the French teacher was an exotic. He was Egyptian, and while to some students’ surprise, he didn’t walk sidewise or write on papyrus, he came trailing a romantic past. Born into “une famille riche” which we escalated to villas, hanging gardens and lavish barges on the Nile, the family suffered a calamitous reversal and he was reduced to selling postcards of the pyramids (he said or we thought).
Mr. Massuda’s troubles continued. He got to America but now had to teach high school. Also, Fate gave him “quatre filles,” four daughters, he said sadly, who wanted “everything,” his salary consumed by insatiable Egyptian princesses. In fact, we counted three shirts to his name, each worn for a week. By Friday they were pungent, with dark underarm stains. “The filles take all the soap,” we whispered behind his back.
Mr. Massuda adored French. With messianic zeal, he presented its purity, grace and perfection as a conscious construction of an enlightened few, like Notre Dame or the Chartes Cathedral. Grammar explanations were invariably preceded by “The French wanted . . . the French decided.”
His zeal and my cultural ignorance led to an after school trauma. It was spring and warm in the halls. On my way home, I was ruminating on a grammar point and saw Mr. Massuda standing sadly at his classroom doorway, perhaps oppressed by a new demand of the terrible filles.
When I stopped to ask my question he snapped to attention, stepping closer to explain. (Merci, you soap-stealing princesses) I stepped back. He stepped forward. “Comprenez vous?” he asked. “Oui, oui,” I understood, I said quickly. Mr. Massuda went on to elucidate. In gathering panic, I stepped back again, dodging the hurrying students. He followed, wanting proof that I grasped the exquisite logic behind this apparent irregularity.
By now I was against the lockers, metal doors cool on my heated palms. I dredged an example but he wanted another. As I floundered, he must have noticed my sweating. Was I “malade”? he asked anxiously. No, no not sick, just on the wrong side of a cultural gulf.
Years later, teaching composition, my text had an article on proxemics, the study of spatial separation that cultures naturally maintain. Some want more, some less. Arab cultures are on the “less” side. Light bulb! Mr. Massuda had misread me. Why is this poor girl backing away? Is the beauty of French eluding her? I must put her at ease and make her understand. I step closer.