The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

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